Kansas housing crisis squashing opportunity for lower-income homebuyers

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TOPEKA — The entry point of $300,000 to $400,000 for a new house in Johnson County creates unyielding bottlenecks in the housing market for families looking to buy.

Demand for housing in the state’s most populous county has become intense enough $200,000 properties have been bulldozed and replaced by houses valued at four or five times that amount.

To the north in Wyandotte County, hundreds of thousands of dollars in monthly housing vouchers go unclaimed because too few landlords participate in the program. Fixed-income elderly residents struggle to afford a place where they can age in place. And, as is the case elsewhere, there is anxiety about what happens to people when the COVID-19 moratorium on foreclosures and evictions in Kansas expires at the end of May.

These snapshot insights into housing issues in Wyandotte and Johnson counties were part of an ongoing survey by the Kansas Housing Resources Corporation and the state’s Office of Rural Prosperity, which are managing the first statewide housing need assessment in three decades with help from the consulting firm RDG Planning & Design of Omaha, Nebraska.

Alissa Ice, director of housing development at KHRC, participated in the recent two-county town hall and boiled down sentiment of those in attendance to four words.

“We need more housing,” she said. “You cannot build a house in Johnson County for less than $300,000. That logjams current owners that can’t move from $200,000 to the next step up because there isn’t housing in the $275,000 range that would free up entry-level housing.”

Listening sessions to gather information on the status and future of housing in Kansas are scheduled for Dodge City on May 4, Sedgwick County on May 13, Manhattan on May 18 and Shawnee and Douglas counties on May 19. Public forums during April were conducted in Newton, Iola, Salina as well as Wyandotte and Johnson counties. An alternative to joining one of the meetings is to complete online the Kansas Statewide Housing Needs Assessment survey.

More info: Virtual forum for Shawnee and Douglas counties set for 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 19

When launching the study several months ago, Gov. Laura Kelly said the lack of affordable, quality housing was also a barrier to growth and development in rural communities. The quest is to figure out how to improve quality of life for Kansans regardless of zip code, she said.

The objective of the project is to assess housing opportunities, identify strategic goals and develop recommendations by December, said Ryan Vincent, executive director at KHRC. In the past, a shortage of comprehensive housing data limited the state’s ability to craft a precise path forward on providing affordable housing.

“It’s so important that we understand what your needs are so we can allocate resources,” he told participants in Johnson and Wyandotte counties. “The overall market right now is crazy.”

State Rep. Pam Curtis, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kansas, said she came away from the same meeting with appreciation for how some real-estate corporations were rapidly buying houses and renting them out. Corporate ownership has the potential of subjecting tenants to higher living costs, but also could inhibit the ability of local residents to buy homes.

“There are fewer individual mom-and-pop owners of rental property,” Curtis said. “There is more and more property owned by corporations. They are just so much less flexible and willing to rent, especially to high-risk renters.”

Emily Sharp, who also works with the KHRC, summarized insights of a small-group discussion by pointing to lack of options for people unable to take on a massive mortgage, especially the elderly who want to avoid living in a nursing facility.

She said there was a housing gap between people with incomes low enough to qualify for subsidized housing and the people of modest income who didn’t.

“We’re seeing a lot of that kind of missing middle where there’s not a lot of options for folks who aren’t served by affordable housing programs,” she said.

Westwood Mayor Paula Schwach said there was a lack of housing for people with disabilities and individuals who use wheelchairs. The majority of housing constructed in Johnson County tended to be in the luxury category priced as a level fewer and fewer people could afford. There is a swath of Kansans who don’t have credit scores necessary for a mortgage, she said.

“We need to help to establish quality credit, especially veterans who are leaving the service and coming back to civilian life,” Schwach said.

Matt Watkins, chairman of the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness and the Kansas City, Kansas Housing Authority Board, said about $800,000 in housing vouchers were given away each month. If another 400 landlords participated in the program, he said, the amount of monthly vouchers could be expanded by $200,000. He said: “We’re leaving money on the table.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Related opinion column:

• April 18, 2021: Ryan Desch: Shortage of single-family homes in Lawrence is cause for alarm (Column)

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