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Quinton Lucas promised to be Kansas City's 'housing mayor.' How did his term actually measure up?

Mayor Quinton Lucas addresses the crowd at Kansas City's March For Our Lives rally Saturday.
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Mayor Quinton Lucas addresses the crowd at Kansas City's March For Our Lives rally in 2022.

Lucas promised to prioritize the needs of everyday Kansas Citians. Looking at an all-but-guaranteed second term, he says he's lived up to those promises.

When Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas ran for office in 2019, he promised a departure from Kansas City politics as usual. He pledged to prioritize the needs of everyday Kansas Citians — affordable housing, feeling safe in every neighborhood and driving on pothole-free roads — instead of focusing on flashy, big ticket items.

“This is what’s important for the future of Kansas City,” Lucas said in a 2019 campaign video. “Not just momentum, but momentum for all neighborhoods in Kansas City.”

Lucas beat opponent Jolie Justus with 59% of the vote. In some areas, Lucas remained committed to his 2019 campaign promises, and had a City Council who — more often than not — aligned with his policy priorities when it came to funding housing, scrutinizing tax incentive requests and strengthening basic city services. But in others, Lucas fell short.

Affordable housing

Lucas positioned himself to be the city’s “housing mayor” when he ran in 2019. He believes he’s fulfilled that promise.

“We have made more strides, in my first term as mayor, in housing than I think we have done in the entire history of Kansas City,” Lucas said.

Lucas championed the creation of a Housing Trust Fund in 2018 to fund affordable housing construction and preservation across the city. So far, the Housing Trust Fund has allocated about $19 million to support affordable housing projects and create nearly 1,000 affordable units. He supported a November 2022 ballot question asking voters to fund its future — which passed with overwhelming support.

“I am incredibly proud of what we've done,” Lucas said. “When I was on city council, the most money we spent in one initiative on housing was $10 million to demolish a bunch of houses. What we are seeing now is millions and millions of dollars going into housing production and creation.”

Lucas’s promises on housing drew the attention of citywide tenant union KC Tenants, which was a young organization four years ago.

“We believed him,” said Diane Charity, one of the founding members of KC Tenants. “In Kansas City’s past, to get elected, you say certain things and no one ever holds you accountable or holds your feet to the fire to do it.”

KC Tenants did hold Lucas’s feet to the fire, pushing him to support policies that aligned with the group’s priorities. In 2019, Lucas and the City Council established a tenants bill of rights, which codified protections for tenants and led to the creation of the Office of the Tenant Advocate. Two years later, the city established a right to counsel program, which provides free legal representation to tenants in eviction court.

The program is less than a year old, and so far has helped hundreds of tenants avoid an eviction on their record.

Tax incentives

Lucas also wanted to rein in the city’s use of tax incentives. He said they should only be used for development projects east of Troost or economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Some projects that don’t fit that criteria have gotten tax exemptions through close votes, like a 10-year tax abatement to turn the old Katz Drug Store building in Midtown into amenities for luxury apartments and a 15-year property tax abatement for the $140 million Waddell and Reed headquarters downtown.

He told the Kansas City Star in 2019 that he’d measure tax incentives’ effectiveness based on whether the average Kansas City Public Schools student on the East Side had a better quality of life than in 1990. KCPS says tax incentives have continued to cut away at funding for essential services, costing the district $1,700 per pupil last year.

The City Council has, however, turned down some high-profile incentive applications in recent years.

Citywide tax incentive reform has eluded Lucas. As part of a housing development package last year, Lucas proposed streamlining the city’s tax incentive process and giving the city manager’s office more authority to approve incentives. Opponents to the policy said it would have continued incentivizing development in already well-developed areas like Midtown and downtown.

The policy hit a dead end at City Hall. A separate policy that Lucas championed and passed council mandated that developers seeking tax incentives must set aside 20% of their units to be affordable for households making 60% or below of the area median family income.

The cost of rent under this definition — in which households spend no more than a third of their income on rent — is nearly $1,200 for a one-bedroom apartment and $1,300 for a two-bedroom. Critics said $1,200 for a one-bedroom is still out of reach for the city’s renters.

Lucas said he stands by the decision.

Although KC Tenants clashed with the mayor over that and other policies, Charity still believes Lucas when he says he wants to make Kansas City better for all people.

He'll duke it out with us, and he'll tell us what he honestly feels,” Charity said. “We’re comfortable enough to tell him what we honestly feel. That takes trust.

Crime prevention and criminal justice reform

One of Lucas’s main goals in his first term was for Kansas City to see fewer than 100 homicides per year. In the four years he’s been in office, that hasn’t happened once. Lucas’s office has pushed for programs that tackle the root causes of violence and interrupt the cycle of violence before crime occurs.

“We are doing more violence interruption, reaching out to people who are at risk for retaliation,” Lucas said. “We are doing more in connection with working with our school district. That is another one where we're doing more than ever before.”

But Lucas says state oversight of the Kansas City Police Department is an obstacle.

“I think our colonial and racist Board of Police Commissioner system actually is something that creates some real challenge for us in trying to actually have solutions,” he said.

Lucas has clashed frequently with the Board of Police Commissioners during his first term, particularly over police funding. In 2021, Lucas successfully pushed through an ordinance that would have redirected a portion of KCPD funding for community policing and violence prevention. That move was later struck down in court.

Months later, Missouri Republicans in the state legislature championed a bill to increase the minimum amount that Kansas City must allocate to the KCPD each year, resulting in the passage of Amendment 4 in November.

Now, Lucas and the city are embroiled in a lawsuit over how the city calculates its 25% funding allocation to the police department. Lucas says he doesn’t regret the actions he took in 2021.

“What I think we've been able to show Kansas Citians is, one, why the system is unjust, since many still don't actually know that there even is a Board of Police Commissioners,” Lucas said. “Second, we've been able to push the police department to work with us in more situations, recognizing the budget power of the city.”

Lucas said he would pardon everyone with a municipal marijuana offense — and he did pardon some people with low-level marijuana convictions. In 2020, Lucas effectively decriminalizedmarijuana possession. A year later, the Council voted to eliminate jaywalking from the city’s code.

City services

Lucas also promised to improve basic city services like road resurfacing, pothole repair and snow removal. Over the past four years, the City Council has allocated more money to resurface more roads throughout the city and improve the city’s snow removal efforts through updated technology.

Lucas placed a question on the April ballot asking residents to approve a 3% sales tax on recreational marijuana sales. He intends to use the money to address violent crime, improve trash pickup and prevent homelessness. Voters approved that question.

Now Lucas is all but guaranteed a second term. His only opponent is Clay Chastain, a Virginia resident who does not live in Kansas City and frequently runs unsuccessful bids for office. Lucas believes he’s fulfilled the promises he made four years ago.

“I think I was elected in 2019 because people were saying, we're kind of tired of a whole bunch of stuff staying the same,” Lucas said. “Good things come, good things go. Some things open, some things close. That's been too much of Kansas City. It's been too cyclical.”

“My goal is at the end of the next four years, literally every Kansas Citian, every Kansas Citian, will say this is a better place to live.”

Corrected: April 13, 2023 at 3:29 PM CDT
A previous version of this story misstated the share of votes Quinton Lucas received in his first mayoral election. It was 59%.
As KCUR’s Missouri politics and government reporter, it’s my job to show how government touches every aspect of our lives. I break down political jargon so people can easily understand policies and how it affects them. My work is people-forward and centered on civic engagement and democracy. I hold political leaders and public officials accountable for the decisions they make and their impact on our communities. Follow me on Twitter @celisa_mia or email me at celisa@kcur.org.
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