Students Chime In on Hot Topic Discussion

Urban Planning Seniors Present Comprehensive Study on Affordable Housing in Kansas City

Affordable housing has been a hot topic in the Kansas City community for decades, and more recently due to new downtown housing developments and the continued revitalization of Troost Avenue. As city officials develop new housing policies, students from the University of Missouri-Kansas City have played a significant role in the community conversation.

A group of seven urban planning undergraduates spent the spring semester researching the city’s housing affordability issues as part of their final project in professor Stephanie Frank’s planning and design studio class. Seniors Sean Thomas, Dave McCumber, Billie Hufford, Thomas Kimmel, Taylor Vande Velde, Rawya Alrammah and Alexander Gilbertson put together a comprehensive planning study on housing affordability in Kansas City. Each student researched and wrote one chapter in the study. They recently sat down to discuss the background and recommendations included in their study.

Displacement, Sean Thomas

Thomas studied the characteristics conducive to pricing residents out of place, which he says is a hot topic as Kansas City begins to see more urban development. As urbanism becomes more expensive, he said there have to be protections in place for residents with fixed incomes already living in redeveloping areas of the city.

He found a common pattern in areas like downtown east, where a lot of low income residents are migrating out of the area. In his study, he investigated the correlation between the migration and urban development—were families being priced out and forced to move? His conclusion was that the increasing costs of living downtown cause longtime residents to be displaced because they can’t afford the rent.

Thomas looked into rent control as a way to protect families from being priced out of their own neighborhoods. He referenced New York City’s model on rent control as a good example, but due to preemptive policies in Missouri, he said “rent control is nearly impossible,” but he said community benefits agreements are still an option to consider.

Cultural Change, Dave McCumber

McCumber looked specifically at how neighborhood succession impacts cultural change. Neighborhood succession is the phasing out of a community historically occupied by a certain socioeconomic class, race or ethnicity as a result of other groups moving in. When that happens, he said “eventually you are going to end up with a totally different neighborhood that no longer has the culture that it once did.”

McCumber said neighborhood succession can sometimes be a side effect of urban development. On the east side of Troost Ave., it is happening because more young people are looking for and finding affordable housing in that area. In west side neighborhoods, however, the cause is a combination of spillover from the displacement of downtown residents, affordable housing and urban development. McCumber also recommended community benefits agreements as a possible solution to cultural change, as well as property tax freezes for low-income homeowners and a city program funded by development fees for home repair to help low-income homeowners do routine maintenance and prevent code violations.

Healthy Homes, Billie Hufford

Hufford studied the impact of substandard rental properties and how they impact residents’ health. She said low-income residents are sometimes forced into places with maintenance problems because it is all they can afford and, as a result, they end up with a variety of health issues such as asthma, lead poisoning and even cancer. That leads to increased costs for healthcare and insurance. As there is currently no system in place to analyze the internal quality of rental properties, she recommends the City look into rental inspection policies.

Hufford said the City has no system in place to pinpoint areas of poor housing quality and document the correlating health issues. However, she said “through other research we know that is happening, so rental inspections will force landlords to bring their housing up to code.”

Housing Stability for Families, Thomas Kimmel

Kimmel said unstable living conditions can be defined by residents having to make many short-distance moves within one calendar year—due in large part to eviction or the inability to afford increases in rent. According to Kimmel frequent moving can lead to negative public health and behavioral outcomes, especially in children—behavioral challenges at school, increased high school dropout rates, psychological trauma and heightened risks of drug and alcohol abuse.

His research revealed shocking levels of eviction in east and southeast Kansas City, particularly in areas like Blue Hills, and was able to link those evictions to communities of color and single-parent homes.

“There is literature that says when you hold certain variables constant, race is the single most-determinate factor in whether a family will be evicted or not, so obviously racial and economic circumstances disproportionately affect certain groups more than others,” Kimmel said.

He recommended city officials find a way to provide legal aid and services to families who are facing housing instability to help them avoid eviction. He said Minneapolis is a great example of how his recommendation could make a difference. According to Kimmel, Minneapolis has been able to significantly limit housing instability in the last several years by providing legal aid for families facing eviction.

Accessible Housing for the Aging Population, Taylor Vande Velde

The aging population is growing rapidly as the Baby Boom generation moves into that category. The issue with affordable housing, Vande Velde said, is that when you are on a fixed income and growing older, medical expenses typically increase. With the high cost of nursing homes, more cities are trying to promote aging in place, or keeping the elderly in their homes as they grow older and in return, increasing health services in the home as well as the supply of disability-accessible housing. Vande Velde said most Kansas City homes aren’t built to an accessible level.

One solution she suggested is to encourage the development of “granny flats,” or accessory dwelling units, in single family homes. Kansas City has a majority of single family lots, so this would increase the diversity and affordable supply for not just the elderly, but also others who would be able to rent these units. She also suggests converting spaces like basements or garages, or building onto homes as an additional alternative for those struggling to keep up with health expenses, which is a big issue for the aging population.

Public Supply Programs, Rawya Alrammah

Alrammah studied public supply programs like Section 8 and low-income housing tax credits. She learned that the most subsidized people are those with the largest mortgages, rather than those in public housing. Most of these subsidized programs are located in areas with higher concentrations of poverty and where the majority of the population is people of color. This has to do with lower land values and housing costs and the continuation of an unfair real estate market.

Alrammah looked at the possible solution of relocating section 8 and low-income tax credit programs to areas less afflicted by poverty. She said although these programs are still serving mostly low-income or disabled populations, fewer people are benefiting because the median threshold for low-income has risen.

The Low-Income Threshold

According to the U.S. Department of Urban Development (HUD), the Greater Kansas City metropolitan area is approximately $80,000 for a family of four. The American Community Survey’s five-year estimate, published in 2016, $61,826 (not dependent on family size) per year in Kansas City, Missouri alone. These figures are used to calculate the income threshold for qualification for housing assistance. The median income for the Greater Kansas City metro is applied to all parts of the metro area.

“HUD has a threshold of percentages for the entire metropolitan statistical area, which is problematic because we are looking at applying a standard that include incomes from affluent areas like Mission Hills, Overland Park, Leawood and Lee’s Summit to the central city,” said Kimmel.

The threshold for what is classified as the lowest income category in Kansas City, Missouri is set at about 30 percent of the area median family income—just over $18,500. A yearly wage, assuming an individual is working a 40 hour week at minimum wage with no time off, equates to just slightly above $15,000. The group said even if residents are working full-time at minimum wage, they are automatically classified as being in poverty.

The group’s research showed that in the state of Missouri, in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment, residents need to be making a minimum of $15 per hour, which is why they recommend an increase in minimum wage—currently $7.85 per hour.

Circumstances like this lead to informal housing arrangements—overcrowded homes, makeshift living quarters, or living in motels—just to afford shelter. However, Hufford said, there have been instances of fires with dramatic impacts because many of these housing accommodations are not up to code.

Preservation and Demolition of Affordable Housing, Alexander Gilbertson

Gilbertson said the current political climate shows that the prospects are dim for increased federal funding for housing assistance. So he looked into neighborhoods where there is affordable housing and recommended giving developers more incentive to continue with their affordability restrictions. He also looked into creative solutions for affordable housing that goes around government funding and looks for more community-driven efforts. An example of such would be a community land trust where families will be able to lease housing on land owned by nonprofit organizations.

With a community land trust, families would theoretically be able to purchase many continuous parcels of land and place them in the ownership of a nonprofit organization and allow individuals to invest in the equity of the structure on the land. This would be a great tool for areas prone to displacement and gentrification.

Part of that is looking into the land bank in Kansas City, which is in charge of all vacant properties in the city. Gilbertson said within the last 10 – 20 years, more cities have had policies to demolish dangerous buildings. Instead, he’s looking into solutions that encourage refurbishing those vacant buildings, or reusing material from the demolition rather than throwing them away.

So, Why Now?

Frank said the housing affordability discussion has been building for a while. One spark has been Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted, which breaks down how the system profits from eviction.

Urban development has helped drive this conversation in Kansas City. The city has seen a lot of new construction in downtown areas that once housed lower income families. Frank said “these new places are all luxury or built at the higher end of the market.” Though developers want to build for the current market, Frank said the issue remains that housing doesn’t trickle down and incomes are not keeping up with the cost of living. In addition, public housing sustains very little governmental support.

“We’ve always had a housing problem in this country, but we are hitting crisis points in many parts of the country,” said Frank, including Kansas City. “We don’t get the attention of the super-hot housing markets and it’s unevenly disbursed at both a massive geography and a metro level.”

Frank said the market is primarily serving populations returning to the urban core they left decades ago—wealthier, particularly white households – while populations who have historically remained are being displaced.

The students presented their report to a small crowd of faculty and representatives from the City of Kansas City, Missouri and local planning and real estate firms at the conclusion of the semester. They hope that city officials will consider a few of their recommendations as they engage in affordable housing policy discussions.

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