More than 2 million people live in the Kansas City metro, on either side of the state line. They live in urban, suburban and rural communities, and in everything from subsidized apartments to century-old farm homes.
As scientists better understand the impact of climate change, elected officials, city planners and housing advocates are working to design housing that will endure extreme weather.
Housing and community advocates warn that climate change knows no boundaries and if we don’t adapt the way we’re renovating, rehabbing and expanding housing options, we’re creating unsustainable housing stock and putting our most vulnerable residents at risk.
One group, Metro KC Climate Action Coalition, has recruited 75 municipal leaders, nonprofits and utilities to collaborate on a 10-county comprehensive climate action plan. Mike Kelly, the mayor of Roeland Park, Kansas, and the cofounder of the group, says the coalition hopes to provide options.
“We know one size doesn’t necessarily fit all, but climate-resilient housing is empowerment,” he says.
Here's how climate change is expected to challenge urban, suburban and rural housing in our area.
The urban areas
A Weather Channel analysis ranks Kansas City as No. 5 among 25 metro areas that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The data indicates its urban landscape sees more days with higher temperatures than its suburban and rural neighbors, plus more heavy rain and flooding.
Gloria Ortiz Fisher is the director of the Westside Housing Organization, an agency that provides affordable housing in an urban neighborhood just west of downtown Kansas City, Missouri. She says several days of heavy rains have damaged roofs and windows at their properties, some of them 100 years old.
“A window that has a minor crack becomes a flood in your home to the point where you have water on the floor,” she says. “In the roof, a small leak becomes a major repair. Water is one of the biggest (causes) of damage in a building.”
She went on to say water also creates humidity, which can create ... mold.
“It’s like a tumbling weed, right?” Fisher says. “(The costs) just keep getting bigger and bigger.”
Longer-lasting heat waves also exacerbate what climatologists call the “urban heat island” effect. Concentrations of steel and pavement absorb and radiate heat, causing temperatures in cities to be 5-10 degrees hotter than in outlying areas.
Looking down the narrow alley between two of her agency’s apartment buildings, Fisher says the aging air conditioning units can’t take the extra stress.
“I can promise you if we have three days of 95 ... we’re going to get calls all day long," she says.
Extended use of an air conditioner also leads to spikes in utility bills. Already, utility bills in Missouri are up by more than 10% since 2001 — an increase that puts Kansas City in the top 10 metro areas nationwide in the proportion of household income spent on energy according to the Community Action Agency of Greater Kansas City.
Officials like Gary Shecter, Kansas City’s sustainability coordinator for the Office of Environmental Quality, says the poor and elderly are most at risk.
“(You) find a lot of people who don’t have air conditioning or have it and don’t run it because they can’t afford to,” Shecter says. “And (they live in) the oldest, most dilapidated housing where people are least able to address the issue by making repairs, energy efficiency improvements let alone renewable energy.”
Another factor discouraging sustainability in Kansas City's housing market, accroding to Shecter, is the large rental market in Kansas City, particularly in the urban core. Landlords, who pay for capital improvements to their property, frequently don't see the economic return of improving energy efficiency in affordable housing units.
Studies indicate the impact of climate change on suburbs varies widely according to a few things: the region itself, the natural environment and the pressures of development.
As the city of Belton, Missouri, expands, so has its market for manufactured homes.
Home to Richards Gebaur Air Force Base for half a century until its closure in the late 1990s, Belton already had several manufactured home and trailer parks providing military housing. Today, developers are adding new ones for low- to moderate-income residents who want to be about 20 miles south of Kansas City.
Experts say mobile homes and trailers are among the most at risk during severe weather. While the industry has taken measures to stabilize the structures, studies show that residents are still at risk.
Steve Thibadeaux, a Belton home builder, says older units have thin windows, vinyl siding with weak tin or aluminum skirting whatever the home is standing on – and sometimes that’s not much.
“The skirting around the base can be blown off pretty easily which allows wind to get underneath it and lift it,” he says.
Significant flooding or severe storms can threaten these unsturdy foundations, which is why Thibadeaux says owners need to anchor the homes to a stable foundation with something that reaches over the roof to the other side.
But if the longer, heavier rains and more severe storms persist, he says even these mitigations will be no match for the falling trees and high winds.
“Pay attention to your cities emergency sirens,” he says. “Don’t think you’re going to sit in your tub and ride it out because that tub is going in the air.”
The rural areas
About 40 miles northwest of Belton, the tiny town of Linwood, Kansas, took a direct hit by a mile-wide, EF-4 tornado in May.
Scientists can’t really say whether there’ll be an increase in tornadoes due to climate change, because tracking of tornadoes is relatively recent and is complicated by changing technology and demographic shifts.
But anecdotally, there were an unusually high number of tornadoes earlier this year, including the one in Linwood.
And it didn’t just tear up the bathtub of the Duffin family’s home. Dena Duffin said they came up out of the basement into daylight, their home carried right up off its foundation.
“The house sat right here, and my son’s room on that end. Our bedroom was in the back, and then went back to the side of the back porch and across that way,” she described to KCUR earlier this year.
In the center of town, many older homes didn’t have a basement. Some 20 folks showed up at the mayor’s house — one of the few in Linwood that had one.
Throughout the month of November, KCUR is taking a hard look at how climate change is affecting (or will affect) the Kansas City metro region.