No silver bullets. A political hot potato. A whack-a-mole approach. These are some of the ways the city’s affordable housing policies have been described at recent public hearings.
These hearings are part of a newly energized conversation about affordable housing in Kansas City, inspired by a comprehensive, five-year proposal presented to the council last fall.
Spotlight on the potential
Ruby Jean's Juicery at 29th and Troost represents a renaissance in an area of town perhaps most identified with Kansas City’s history of inequality, according to John Wood, the director of Neighborhood and Housing Services for Kansas City, Missouri.
As a bank of blenders are preparing protein smoothies at a counter laden with fruits and vegetables, Wood says the place represents a commitment to a healthy food outlet where there hasn’t been much development for years.
“When I moved to Kansas City in 1977, this area had been vacated,” he says. “There (had been) a J. C. Penney down the street; there was a Western Auto. They had gone. For the last 50 years, Troost was sort of a pariah."
Through the floor-to-ceiling windows, we see a Troost Max bus pass by. Across the street, families are dropping off kids at the newly-expanded child care center Operation Breakthrough. There are new apartments at 27th street, at 30th in the old Wonder Bread bakery and 50 new units south at 55th.
Most of these projects got economic incentives. But with rents starting at $800 a month, they’re out of reach of most of the people in who live here. John Wood knows this is a problem.
“Gentrification is a real thing,” he says. “It could happen in the Troost area if we’re not careful. And we made it clear in the housing policy that we’re promoting mixed income housing, strengthening neighborhoods as they are, (not moving) people out.”
The 70 page set of proposals includes a $75 million housing trust fund, although it doesn’t suggest how to bankroll it.
A couple of the mayoral candidates propose a rise in property taxes.
Another part of the plan caps the amount a resident pays for affordable housing; yet another, the promise of 5,000 affordable units by 2023.
One ordinance says developers who receive tax incentives should have a 15 percent affordability set-aside.
Wide reaching concerns
Officials held community meetings throughout the city to seek feedback on the plan. They got an earful of conerns.
Joseph Jackson said in his historic Santa Fe neighborhood, investors have come in to rehab some of the magnificent old homes. Seniors on fixed incomes, he said, are adversely affected by the resulting rise in property values.
“There are people in my neighborhood who spend more than 50% of their monthly income just to rent a home,” he said." But also credit is the one major challenge people face in our community. If you don’t begin with that you can’t turn someone who’s a renter into a homeowner.”
Kansas City’s record with renters isn’t very good.
The federal government defines “affordable” as housing that doesn’t cost more than 30% of a resident’s income.
City data show that 91 percent of renters who make less than less than $20,000 a year pay more than that.
Waldo resident Jenny Sego and her husband have a couple of rental properties in their area. She says homes in Waldo rent for upwards of a thousand dollars a month. They’d like to create more affordable units by dividing homes into smaller multi-family units. But Sego worries the city’s effort to incentivize private investment will favor larger companies.
“It seems like a lot of their stuff has to do more with big developers," she says. “It seems like more red tape for the little guy, less red tape for the big guy.”
A checkered history
The city has had a rocky past with housing policy over the last few decades.
In the 1980s, a federal judge placed the agency in receivership for mismanaging public funds and political wrangling. It was supposed to be short-term but lasted for years. Federal dollars began a decline that endures today. Private investment fled downtown and the urban core. Then the housing crisis hit, creating swaths of vacant and abandoned homes across the city’s east and south sides.
Back at Ruby Jeans, John Wood says it’s a legacy this new initiative hopes to overcome.
“We need banks to participate, private developers, we need to be sensitive to tenants and eviction,” he says. “And that’s sort of the challenge (with) this housing policy. How do you make one housing policy that’s comprehensive enough that it touches everybody in some way.”
It's a challenge that won’t fall directly on the shoulder of the next mayor, but he or she will have to provide the leadership to shepherd it through.