Home coming: Ideas to fix housing problem

The lack of affordable and available housing is cited as one of the chief concerns of Kansas residents. A year-long study found some common challenges facing communities, and offered suggestions for strategies and solutions to help.

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December 10, 2021 - 3:12 PM

Charlie Cowell with RDG Design & Planning talks about a housing needs assessment study done this past year. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

Kansas has a lot of affordable houses.

Problem is, people are living in them.

And they probably need a little work.

When someone finds a nice house at a reasonable rate, they don’t want to leave. Even if it no longer meets their needs.

Freeing up those properties for others would help ease a housing shortage many communities are facing.

That was just one of many findings from a housing needs assessment survey conducted over the past year. 

The survey found one of the chief complaints about the housing situation across Kansas is a lack of affordable — and available — options. 

Most of the houses are old and need repairs, but owners can’t afford to renovate.

It costs more to build a new house than it would be worth — and there’s a labor shortage in the building trades industry — so there aren’t a lot of newer homes on the market. 

Solutions aren’t easy. 

They’ll require massive investments of money, time and effort. 

They’ll also require people to think a little bit differently about housing problems and solutions.

RESULTS from the Kansas Housing Needs Assessment were presented in Chanute on Thursday evening. 

It was the final stop on a statewide tour to cap a year of surveys, research and analysis to determine what are the main housing challenges in Kansas, and what can be done to address those issues.

Representatives of RDG Planning & Design spoke on behalf of the Kansas Housing Resources Corporation and the Office of Rural Prosperity. About a dozen people attended the Chanute presentation, including Thrive Allen County’s Jonathon Goering and Allen County Commissioner David Lee.

First, they outlined some of the key problem areas. Then, they offered suggestions on programs that could help, including things like tax incentives for remodel projects

Thrive Allen County’s Jonathon Goering, front row, third from left, is among those lisening to results from the Kansas Housing Needs Assessment study in Chanute on Thursday evening. Commissioner David Lee is in the far back, partially hidden. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

The housing problem

Several challenges make it difficult to find affordable housing across Kansas, RDG representatives Charlie Cowell and Amy Haase told the group. Specific issues vary from community to community, but in general they heard a lot of the same complaints no matter what part of the state they visited, from rural to urban areas.

Many spoke of the lack of affordable options. 

And while that is true, it’s more of a symptom than the disease.

In communities in Southeast Kansas, the median home value varies from $49,500 to $201,400. In Kansas, it is $159,900.

The median rent varies in SEK from $495 to $827 a month. Statewide, it averages $862.

Most houses in Kansas were built between 1948 and 1949.

At a public forum in Iola in April, attendees said they would most like to see housing rehabilitation loans and help with down payments and mortgages.

INCOMES in Kansas are rising, but haven’t kept up with inflation.

It’s expensive to build a new home. Most likely, its appraised value won’t come close to the building costs. And when newer houses are built, they tend to be constructed for either higher or lower income families, leaving a gap for those in the middle.

If a landlord wants to build new or renovate, they would have to charge higher rent than most residents could afford. 

That’s why it’s important to have diversity in your housing market, Cowell and Haase said. 

Some renters can afford $1,100 or $1,200 homes, so those properties need to be available. 

It’s also important to have low-income and Section 8 housing available. Landlords, though, may be reluctant to take the additional steps required to qualify for Section 8 housing. There’s enough demand for rental property in general, so why jump through the extra hoops?

HAASE touched on an issue she said is not typically included in a housing study: the lack of building trades professionals.

The pandemic-induced labor shortage has exacerbated that problem.

“If we don’t have someone to swing a hammer and install a toilet, we can’t address our housing needs,” she said. “Across the board, people said this is a critical issue.”

Amy Haase with RDG Design & Planning talks about a housing needs assessment survey.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

Strategies and goals

So, what can be done?

Cowell and Haase outlined numerous suggestions for improvements, from the local level to state and federal programs.

The timing of the release of the housing needs assessment study was strategic. The final report will be released later this month or in early January, just before the Kansas legislature starts its next session.

Cowell said to expect to hear a lot about housing in the coming months.

But the local level is where people can make the most impact, Haase pointed out.

Local leaders, and in particular, non-profit organizations can customize their suggestions in ways that best fit their communities.

For example, they noted how a little friendly competition between neighbors is good.

If you see your neighbor make improvements to their home, it might encourage you to do something to spruce up your place. And maybe that could inspire another neighbor.

Some counties have taken advantage of the tendency to “keep up with the Joneses” by offering special incentive programs. They might offer grants or tax breaks for remodel projects. But if you can convince your neighbors to renovate, too, you’ll each get more money.

Community leaders also can take a hard look at their codes and ordinances, and remove barriers for improvements.

That could include forming a regional cooperative for codes and building inspections, offering those services in communities that can’t afford full-time code enforcement officers. It also would make the rules more consistent for developers, as they would be the same in multiple cities.

It could also mean developing a pre-approved set of guidelines for developers. When they come into a city, they can pick a plan that is essentially guaranteed to be approved. They won’t have to waste time setting a hearing for a variance, for example.

THE MOST popular solution offered by RDG is the idea of hiring experts to help communities navigate through various housing-related issues.

Perhaps that could mean hiring extension agents dedicated to housing. A regional expert would become the go-to source for housing questions. They could help communities set up land banks. They could direct them to resources and education, or manage rehabilitation programs. 

“There are a lot of great programs and a lot of good knowledge, but maybe in your community you have lots of people wearing lots of hats, and being the housing expert is not one more hat someone can wear,” she said. 

It’s important to invest in people, they noted.

That includes investments in building trades programs, particularly through community colleges and high school tech programs. Those programs have some hurdles that need to be cleared at the state level, as well as challenges in finding qualified instructors.

At the local level, they suggested sponsorship and succession programs. Think about sponsorship programs similar to the way the healthcare industry does it: We’ll pay for your training if you agree to stay here and work for a period of time.

Businesses and industries also can play a role. Perhaps employers should start considering housing as an essential part of recruiting staff, they suggested. 

City and county leaders can encourage that type of investment by including housing in any sort of tax incentives packages.

LOTS OF housing assistance programs already exist, but they need more funding and better support, Haase and Cowell said.

This is the perfect time to make those investments, they noted.

With the infusion of federal coronavirus relief funds and infrastructure investments, communities have an opportunity to divert money into housing programs at both the local and state levels. 

For example, the state offers grants through its Moderate Income Housing Program, helping cities and counties develop housing for families that don’t qualify for federal housing assistance. But that program gets a lot of requests that it can’t afford to fund.

Another example is the Neighborhood Revitalization Program. It’s a well-known program offered in many communities, but it can be cumbersome to set up and manage. It offers property tax rebates to homeowners who make improvements to their properties.

But because it is a tax rebate program, it can be difficult for low-income families to come up with the money for a renovation and make the initial tax payments. 

Low-income housing assistance programs also have seen cuts in recent years, particularly when it comes to the tax credits used by developers. Those credits are lower, creating gaps in funding between the cost to build houses and what developers can recoup.

Legislative action may be needed to help with those programs, Cowell and Haase said.

Non-profits could fill in a lot of the gaps, as they have other funding sources and are looking to break even on development projects rather than turn a profit. 

Some non-profits are getting into the home rehab game, they noted, though typically on a smaller scale than developers looking to “flip” a house. 

IN GENERAL, it’s going to take a combination of solutions to make a difference, RDG representatives said.

Momentum is key. Once people start to see changes, they’ll be more likely to support additional investments.

“We need to find ways to get the ball rolling,” Haase said.

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