What’s at stake in Kansas City elections? How the city prioritizes housing and development
A primary contest in April kicks off a 2023 election cycle that will add several new members to the Kansas City Council, the results of which could affect the direction of the city and Mayor Quinton Lucas’ agenda.
Voters will get their first chance on the April 4 primary election to have their say on who represents them on the Kansas City Council for the next four years.
Mayor Quinton Lucas is up for re-election. His campaign is well-funded and his only opponent is Clay Chastain, a Virginia resident who frequently runs for office in Kansas City and always loses. Without a serious challenger, Lucas is primed for a second term. But his ability to successfully pursue his agenda in the next four years hinges on the results of the city council races.
A large pool of 33 candidates are vying for a seat on the 12-member city council. Half of the seats will welcome a new face, as term limits will stop six current council members from seeking re-election. Six other council members are running for re-election — and some of them face tough primary challengers. The only council member who is running unopposed is Ryana Parks-Shaw of the 5th District.
April’s primary election features seven council races with more than two candidates. That means the two candidates who receive the most votes in each race on April 4 will move on to the general election on June 20.
This is the first city council election since the 2020 redistricting process, which drastically changed the boundaries of some council districts. In some races, incumbent candidates will have to appeal to a new set of voters, which could impact the number of votes they get on Election Day. It also means voters may find themselves in a new council district than the last local elections in 2019.
The results of those elections could change City Hall’s policies and priorities for the next four years.
During the current city council term, a majority of members aligned with Lucas to pass key pieces of legislation related to affordable housing and police funding.
In an example from 2021, the city council voted 9-4 to reallocate about $42 million from the Kansas City Police Department’s $257 million budget for a fund dedicated to community prevention. That left the $42 million available for KCPD, but meant the state-controlled police department would have to negotiate with the city manager over how to use the funding.
All four Northland council members opposed the measure, which a Jackson County judge struck down later that year.
But with half of the city council termed out, those dynamics could shift and impact what kind of policies are passed over the next four years. Some candidates could oppose the mayor and consistently vote against his policies. Other candidates could become critical swing votes — aligning with the mayor when they’re in agreement and pushing back against his policies when they disagree.
Former Mayor Sly James faced a similar dynamic during his two terms as mayor. The city council during his first term often voted with him. During his second term, competing factions on council made it difficult to pass his policies.
Inklings of how a new council may behave — and how community members expect to interact with them — were on display during a February candidate forum hosted by KC Tenants Power, the political lobbying arm to KC Tenants, the citywide tenant union.
Many candidates emphasized the model of co-governance, where elected officials work with community members and grassroots groups to craft and pass policies.
That dynamic has played out when KC Tenants has wielded its collective power and showed up to craft and support policies like a right to counsel program or to oppose tax incentive deals for developers. In some cases, council members aligned with the group’s position, like when council shut down tax incentives for an apartment project proposed by Chicago developer Mac Properties at Armour Boulevard and Main Street last year after intense pushback from KC Tenants.
If more candidates who believe in the co-governance model win their races, that could mean a stronger branch between elected officials and people who have historically been left out of or ignored by those in City Hall.
Brandon Henderson, a field manager with KC Tenants Power, said he saw a shift from the last City Council elections in 2019 — no longer are candidates solely talking about snow removal or fixing potholes. Instead, they’re talking about bigger issues, from housing to tax incentive reform.
“This city is in a different place, where people are actually looking to city leaders to take on and address some really big problems,” Henderson said.
But whether the new City Council opens its doors in the spirit of co-governance or continues with business as usual will hinge on a few key races.
Incumbent 4th District Councilman Eric Bunch faces a tight race to keep his seat. His opponents are Henry Rizzo, a former Missouri state representative and Jackson County legislator, and Crissy Dastrup, who served as Bunch’s legislative aide for two years. In 2019, Bunch won by a slim margin of 361 votes.
The 4th District also looks different now — the northern boundary is now north of the Missouri River, meaning candidates will have to appeal to a new crop of voters whose priorities might be different than other district residents.
The 4th District at-large will welcome a new face to replace Councilwoman Katheryn Shields. No clear frontrunner has emerged from the five candidates in that race.
A pair of candidates, Jenay Manley running for the 2nd District at-large and Johnathan Duncan running in the 6th District, have organized with KC Tenants. They’ve recently been endorsed by KC Tenants Power. If Manley and Duncan win their races, they could form a new coalition in City Council that pushes policies supported by KC Tenants and renters, like a ban on source of income discrimination or policies that support municipal social housing.
But Duncan, in particular, faces a crowded race for the 6th District seat. Among the five people in the race include Dan Tarwater, a former Jackson County legislator whose priorities differ greatly from a candidate like Duncan.
In the race for the 5th District at-large is political newcomer Michael Kelley, the current policy director of BikeWalkKC, a bicycle and pedestrian advocacy group co-founded by Bunch. Kelley is running against Darrell Curls and Theresa Cass Galvin, two recognizable figures in Kansas City politics.
Galvin most recently served on the Jackson County Legislature representing the 6th District. She was the Republican opponent to Frank White Jr. for Jackson County Executive, but lost in November.
Curls previously served on the Hickman Mills School Board for nine years. At the KC Tenants Power Forum, Kelley called out Curls as part of the establishment. He criticized Curls for voting in favor of the $1.6 billion incentive plan for the Cerner campus in south Kansas City when he was on the school board.
“When we talk about specifically trying to create opportunity, he has voted to take that money out of your communities,” Kelley said.
Curls said in response that he voted in favor of the incentive deal because at the time, community members were in favor of the Cerner project.
“That was with the consensus of the neighborhoods and the community,” Curls said at the forum. “That was not done just by me alone.”
The results of those handful of races could shift how the city pursues policies like housing and big-ticket items, like a downtown stadium.
“I think there might be some people elected to the city council who would be a lot more skeptical and critical of the Royals proposal for this downtown baseball stadium and for the potential public dollars that would be sunk into it,” Henderson said.
Ed Ford, a former city council member who represented the Northland from 1995 to 2003 and 2007 to 2015, said people in the Northland hope the new council will stand up to the mayor and vote independently from him. He said many in the Northland remain upset about how the Northland council district boundaries changed following the 2020 Census.
Prior to the 2020 redistricting, a north-south boundary that ran roughly along the boundary between Clay and Platte counties separated the 1st and 2nd districts. The city council voted 9-4 to approve the redistricting committee’s recommendation to separate the Northland into two districts, one north and one south of Barry Road, a thoroughfare that runs east-west.
Proponents of the boundary change argued that it more accurately reflected the demographics of the Northland, with more lower-income, working class residents living in the 2nd District, and wealthier residents concentrated in the 1st District.
“What the mayor and the council tried to do was to lump all the so-called rich people in the Northland one district,” Ford said. “That district is the fastest growing area of the city, it has the most development needs in terms of roads and bridges and infrastructure.”
Many conversations in City Hall over the past four years have centered on housing — how to build more of it and how to keep it affordable.
Kansas City particularly has a shortage in housing for low-income renters, about 91% of whom are cost burdened. A five-year housing plan developed by City Hall found that there is not enough housing for low-income households making less than $15,000 a year. In contrast, the city has built more housing than is necessary for people making between $15,000 and $50,000 a year — a case of supply outpacing demand.
To address affordability, Lucas and city council established the Housing Trust Fund, which provides funding to support affordable housing, particularly for those at the lowest income levels. Kansas City voters recently approved a $50 million bond for the trust fund, which city officials hope will continue to support affordable housing construction.
Other pieces of legislation have centered on tenants' rights. In 2019, City Council passed the Tenants Bill of Rights, which codified protections for tenants, like the right to safe and accessible housing and the right of tenants to organize without retaliation from the landlord. In 2021, City Council established the right to counsel program, which provides free legal representation to tenants in eviction court. So far, that program has helped hundreds of tenants avoid eviction.
Housing advocates criticized some of the housing decisions made by City Hall. Last year, KC Tenants and other housing advocates criticized Lucas for changing the city’s definition of affordability for developers seeking tax incentives for the second time during his term.
Under this new metric, a one bedroom apartment could cost nearly $1,200. Housing advocates opposed the decision, arguing that amount is still out of reach for the city’s low-income and working class renters.
At a recent candidate forum hosted by KC Tenants Power, Lucas defended that policy change, and said he was proud of the strides the current council made on housing.
“When I got on city council in 2015, we were voting on huge tax incentives on the Plaza,” he said. “We were talking about big projects. And for better or worse, maybe you don't like how we came down on them, our debates the last four years have been about housing.”
Henderson, the campaign manager with KC Tenants Power, said housing remains a key issue this year, whether it’s dealing with problematic slumlords or the proliferation of short-term rentals, like Airbnbs.
“It boils back to people not having a safe, accessible, accessible or affordable place to live in Kansas City, and our municipal government not doing enough to create those opportunities for people,” he said.
Ford, the former Northland council member, said he believed the current council has made the crisis worse by making it more difficult for developers and landlords to provide more housing.
“We're not building as many homes because it's so much more expensive to build in Kansas City than it is in our neighboring communities,” Ford said.
The next city council will have to oversee several large development projects and events in the upcoming years, one of which could include a downtown baseball stadium for the Kansas City Royals.
The Royals’ owners have not been clear on how much public money will be used on a new stadium.
In 2026, Kansas City will host some World Cup games at Arrowhead Stadium. The city council may have to oversee how those games are managed and how much money to spend on those events, whether it will pay for infrastructure improvements to Arrowhead Stadium or funding more public transportation to the stadium.
The upcoming city council will also see the building of the KC Current women’s soccer stadium at the Berkley Riverfront. The extension of the KC Streetcar down to the University of Missouri-Kansas City should wrap up in 2025. The city is also pursuing a $200 million park and deck over the Interstate 670 south loop in downtown.
With Kansas City considering a whirlwind of big-ticket projects, Henderson said Kansas City is at a crossroads. While people may celebrate these new developments, he said, there are many residents who don’t benefit from them.
“I think that we can elect people with that perspective in mind, who know that there are a lot of people left out of these really cool things that we're doing and our city needs to find a way to take care of them,” he said. “Or we can elect people who are content to take these really cool, niche developments and celebrate those without thinking about who's not celebrating with us.”
The last day to register to vote is March 8. Residents can check their voter registration on Missouri’s Secretary of State website or the Kansas City Election Board website if they live in the Kansas City portion of Jackson County.