Kansas City isn’t San Francisco or Seattle. By national standards, we’re still an affordable place to live.
But it turns out for those at the low end of the earning scale, affordability is elusive with the vast majority spending significantly more for housing than the 30% of income recommended by federal standards in the definition of affordable.
However, between 2010 and 2018, rents increased 28%, according to the Zillow Rent Index. Over the same time, wages increased by only 10%.
Tara Raghuveer, housing activist, author and founder of the advocacy group KC Tenants, says a look at eviction rates illustrates how low-income residents are disproportionately affected by increases.
“While the number of evictions filed per year has stayed relatively constant over the last two decades in Kansas City," she says, "the number of evictions filed on the basis of nonpayment of rent has dramatically increased in the last decade.”
Daniel Serda, an urban planner at LISC, says a city like Kansas City that’s part of a metropolitan area has particular challenges in defining “affordable.”
“When you look at the true median income, which is on the metropolitan level, it’s actually a fairly high compared to the actual rent costs you find in the city,” he says. “But in many households where wages are lower, people would have difficulty paying those rents.”
While the city has deliberated for years about how to create an affordable housing market, the complex questions are once again in front of officials with a new five-year housing policy proposal. The challenges are exacerbated by the recent loss of funds from both the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the state of Missouri.
But both candidates vying for Kansas City Mayor have put affordable housing at the heart of their campaigns.
Bringing the issue to light
Members of KC Tenants recently rallied near the Midland Office Building at 13th and Baltimore. The Baltimore-based Cordish Companies plans to put 117 apartments they deem affordable in the building, including one-bedroom, studio and “micro-units.”
The protestors linked hands diagonally across a small rectangle between two buildings outlined by thin yellow tape. The said it was roughly 315 square feet, the size of one of the micro-units.
Raghuveer says it was drawn to illustrate how challenging one of the micro-units would be for an individual, let alone a family, to live in. Cordish plans to rent the units for between $700 and $750.
In exchange for creating the affordable units, the company got millions in tax abatements for its third luxury apartment building in its Power & Light District.
"City council and a couple of generations of mayors are responsible for projects like this becoming the new normal of what we consider affordability," says Raghuveer.
The candidates' positions
As head of the city’s Housing committee, Quinton Lucas is overseeing the five-year plan.
Among the main goals:
• to create 5,000 affordable units by 2023
• to create a $75 million housing trust fund to create and preserve affordable housing
• 15 percent affordability requirements for projects receiving incentives
• “safe harbors” for redevelopers from codes violations who are rehabbing blighted properties
Lucas was out front in trying to define affordability with a 2018 ordinance. It put the number at just over $1,100, or 30% of the median income in Kansas City. Developers that charge more than that wouldn’t be eligible for incentives. But he says the ordinance was just a start.
“It was never our view that it is actually what affordable is,” he says. “We have an ordinance we’re now working on (that) moves that number closer to $800 a month. (But) I hear from a lot of people who say, '(Even) that’s not affordable for me.'”
His opponent, Jolie Justus, says Lucas has been ineffective as chair of the housing committee.
“After two years of not really seeing anything come out of the housing committee, it was Councilman Wagner who stepped up and said, ‘You know what, I’m going to go ahead and introduce a resolution to jump-start the process,’” she says.
Justus says Lucas was absent for the council vote that granted Cordish their most recent tax incentives for luxury apartments. She voted against them.
She criticizes him for his lack of ideas on how to fund his central proposal, the $75 million Housing Trust Fund.
She sees the key to affordable housing growth as a function of creating more opportunities.
“Rather than starting from scratch, I really do believe we need to build on the momentum we’ve already had," she says. “To take that success, and keep it moving forward to really help our city."
They both talk about renovating and rehabbing vacant and abandoned homes. Lucas claims his opponent will emphasize economic development priorities over basic services.
“And how do we look to general fund dollars to spend on things like housing instead of a $2.5 million parking garage in the West Bottoms, which my opponent supported, that went to a development that wasn’t affordable?" Lucas asks.
Justus says she wouldn't use money from the citywide sales tax for economic development along Prospect Corridor.
Lucas says that he'd like to see as much as half of that tax revenue goes toward housing.
Regardless of who wins the election later this month, former Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver, now the Congressman from Missouri's 5th district, says even the best policy the new mayor pushes won’t make up for the losses in state and federal funds.
“I think political players are trying to carve out space for themselves … and it’s going to be difficult, no matter who is elected mayor,” he says.
Serda says the question for whoever’s elected mayor will be: What are the city’s broader goals for housing policy?
“Are we trying to repopulate neighborhoods … to provide better quality housing to those who already live in (blighted) areas?” he asks. “Or are we trying to re-attract new people, maybe people from the suburbs, maybe people that used to live in the city back into the city?”
Justus and Lucas have both identified housing as a top priority. It will be up to voters to decide who they believe has the best approach to addressing it.