A 319-page study on affordable-housing needs in Johnson County and tangible strategies for filling gaps now sits in the hands of policymakers. The ideas were developed with input from more than 5,000 county residents. But change could be tough in a county that has long cultivated a suburban feel centered around pricey single-family homes.
David and Veronica Stogsdill hardly need a housing study to tell them that Johnson County doesn’t offer enough affordable housing. The Roeland Park couple scours the home market regularly. Home ownership is their dream but the sticker shock is numbing for Veronica, an educational aide in the Shawnee Mission School District.
“How can people afford this?” she wonders. Steven Bowes and his fiancee, Jade Stott, feel the same when it comes to apartments. For a long time, they couldn’t find a landlord willing to give them a second chance. Bowes, who has a criminal record, and Stott both work full time. They can afford rent. But Johnson County’s rental market is so competitive that it shuts them and other laborers out. Bowes started asking everyone he knew where the rest of the blue-collar workforce lives in Johnson County.
The answer is simple. Many cannot.
The need for affordable homes and rentals in Johnson County far exceeds the inventory, according to a 319-page housing study produced this year by the Johnson County Health Equity Network, a consortium of leaders from schools, businesses, contractors, health officials, planners and policymakers.
The next step in the process occurred this past summer when the Housing for All Toolkit was released offering tangible strategies to help cities proactively diversify their housing.
The release marks the end of a massive engagement process that brought together ideas and input from about 5,000 Johnson Countians from all walks of life.
“We have tried not to leave any stone unturned. We are leading as many horses to water as we can,” says Julie Brewer, executive director of United Community Services (UCS), which pushed for the housing inventory.
Yet while it marks the end of one chapter, it is most assuredly the beginning of the hard work.
The exhaustive reports are now largely in the hands of county and city policymakers who are charged with housing. How will those cities respond?
And how will they respond collectively? Affordable housing advocates say it will take every city sharing the risks financially and otherwise to prevail. It will take a bandwagon from Lenexa, Shawnee, Olathe, Merriam, Leawood, Westwood and others. Short of that, why would one city stick its neck out?
Some of that depends on more residents like the Stogsdills being willing to ask for change. Area social service agencies, who have been sounding the alarm for years, don’t believe that cities can ignore it any longer.
The report landed after the pandemic further exposed the deficiencies of Johnson County’s affordable-housing market and ensuing labor shortages. Johnson Countians more than ever have come to appreciate the crucial roles that teachers, police, firefighters, nursing home caregivers, grocery store employees and garbage truck drivers play in a community’s vitality.
“We were putting hero signs out in the yards of businesses and services that really made a difference to us,” Brewer says. “But how many of those heroes are able to live in our community?”
The Johnson County home market has been hot for years. But consider that from August 2020 to August 2021 the median sale price for a declining supply of homes went from $322,500 to $366,256 – about a 14% increase. The average selling price in August 2021 was $428,333.
Don’t expect policymakers to promptly jump on board. Any plan could easily fall apart if one city is left to shoulder the financial costs and take all the risks. During this fall’s elections, one Overland Park mayoral candidate questioned the “sprawl of apartments” encroaching on existing residential neighborhoods and causing traffic congestion and water runoff problems.
Not everyone will agree with what the housing study says and the toolkit offers.
The study offers unvarnished explanations as to why affordable housing is out of reach for some – a NIMBY mindset and a lingering history of housing segregation, redlining and racist deed restrictions. It matters because home ownership is considered the fastest way to build household wealth. It has given white Johnson Countians an intergenerational leg up on capital.
The study shows the need for more housing, period. Across all income levels, the Johnson County housing inventory must grow to keep pace with demand. So those large, high-density apartment buildings that many Johnson Countians seem to loathe? There’s a reason they keep multiplying.
But it’s not an either/or. The large, single-family homes that are a staple of suburban life aren’t going away. But other needs must be met. Some key points from the study and toolkit:
- The market is expected to supply a steady pace of large, single-family homes priced near $350,000 for years to come. But that won’t help those among the 28% who make less than $15 per hour.
- Just reaching a housing supply that could be deemed adequate would be a mammoth task requiring communities to be proactive. By 2030, Lenexa would need 1,443 owner-occupied units priced at less than $250,000 and 824 rentals that would cost less than $1,000 a month to meet its needs. And that wouldn’t include other housing that the city needs to meet expected growth.
- Zoning requirements may need to change to allow for redevelopment and infill projects, such as duplexes, smaller-format apartments, co-housing, and carriage or cottage courts, usually groups of detached homes with a shared interior courtyard.
- Programs that help preserve and rehabilitate existing housing stock are often worth the investment. That’s something every city can help with. Repairs often rank last on the priority list when homeowners’ budgets are bare, especially for seniors on fixed incomes and young families.
- Incentives could help offer developers a way to make more money on affordable housing in Johnson County. Funding mechanisms such as benefit districts and a housing trust fund can help share the financial risk. Cities could offer tax credits, tax-exempt bonds and lessen expensive hookup fees to entice developers.
- Advocacy is essential. It’s easier for homeowners to digest a duplex or cottage court development if they understand the need and design well ahead of public meetings. It takes open communication and residents being willing to tell policymakers they need housing.
The housing study, paid for by the county and 19 cities, was conducted after years of complaints about affordable housing in Johnson County.
The study group heard from 4,700 respondents and another 170 social service and policymakers who gathered for a summit to discuss housing. There were about 125 stakeholders represented, including several competing factions: home builders, tenant advocacy groups, landlords and homeless shelter advocates.
Brewer feared the pandemic would all but squelch the public listening sessions. The opposite happened. The sessions moved to Zoom and engagement was better, allowing more residents a chance to weigh in without leaving the house.
But even with input from 5,000 people, there’s still tremendous loyalty to the suburban feel long cultivated in Johnson County, among the state’s fastest growing areas, according to the 2020 census, and home to 609,863 residents.
Overland Park mayoral candidate Mike Czinege narrowly lost Tuesday night by just a few hundred votes to longtime council member Curt Skoog. But he certainly gave voice to skepticism about the need for zoning changes to allow for denser and more affordable housing to help low-income residents live closer to their jobs. He told The Shawnee Mission Post: “The KC metro is easily accessible throughout, with often no more than a 30-minute trip to reach most parts of the city, whether by car or public transportation … the suggestion that people are not able to live within a reasonable commute to employment in Overland Park is simply not as dire as the premised question would imply.”
Ideally, he said the jobs within Overland Park allow for hard-working and “prudently saving” families to transition from an apartment to a single-family home.
“Building endless, dense developments squeezed in alongside established neighborhoods is driving many longtime residents from those neighborhoods to flee to southern Johnson County, Miami County and rural Missouri,” he told The Post.
The Journal asked Czinege for comment on the county’s housing plan, but was unable to reach him. While Czinege’s views appeared to resonate with a significant number of voters, few other candidates shared his assessment of the situation. The Post asked every candidate about affordable housing, which was a question selected by a reader poll. Nearly all the other candidates throughout Johnson County agreed that it was a problem.
Skoog was one of those. He has supported several affordable housing projects and proposals including hotel conversion to apartments, higher-density apartments along Metcalf Avenue in the heart of Johnson County and redevelopment on vacant land.
“In the last few years, we have seen new housing return to north Overland Park for the first time in over 30 years. Additional new housing projects are expected, and I will advocate for a significant portion to be attainable,” he told The Post.
Changing the Rules?
The toolkit gives politicians some ideas to consider as they decide what, if anything, to do next. It offers five goals to consider for cities, though none will solve the problem in and of itself.
Among them: Help preserve and rehabilitate existing housing stock, offer incentives for public/private partnerships and create advocacy groups to build support and build an understanding about the need for affordable housing measures.
Another goal is reducing overall household expenses, be it with utility assistance or locating buildings closer to transportation, given the scarcity of public transportation in Johnson County. Johnson County could also use more middle density “house-scale” buildings that blend better with neighborhoods or walkable communities. It would fill housing for the missing middle, the toolkit suggests.
That’s already started in small doses.
Several small projects have sprung up in Overland Park that have tested the city’s amenability to affordable housing.
The first test came when a developer proposed building affordable duplexes and triplexes on two acres of vacant land in an older section of Overland Park. Neighbors argued that the density wasn’t the right feel. But their complaints were actually more about design layout. The city relaxed what had been non-negotiable setback rules to reconfigure the design. It created more harmony among neighbors, says Overland Park Planning Director Jack Messer.
“I think that’s probably our biggest lesson,” Messer says. “If we want a different kind of housing, I think that we need to think about how our rules affect the housing that we’re getting.”
Several Overland Park hotels are also being converted into affordable one-bedroom and studio apartments. The plans were approved despite non-compliance with the city’s strict parking mandates for apartments.
Plentiful parking is a staple of suburban life, so it’s not an insignificant adjustment.
“It’s going to take time for us to experiment with new ideas – to put in place new rules and regulations on those new ideas and then see what the reaction is,” he says.
The projects show how important housing advocacy could be in the years ahead. Without strong support, affordable housing could take decades as city leaders wait anxiously to see who wants to go first.
After all, not everyone will love a triplex turning up on the unused church lot down the street.
Yes In My Backyard
There’s one ace in the hole for residents desperate for true starter homes or cheaper rent, says Sonja Trauss, president of YIMBY (Yes in my Backyard) Law, a legal nonprofit that originated in San Francisco that promotes fair, abundant housing. Showing up to advocate for affordable housing at public meetings is a powerful tool.
Trauss grew so frustrated by the NIMBY complaints that had doomed residential housing in her neighborhood that she started writing letters to support nearly every housing project that popped up in her community. A developer thought it was a prank.
“People just hate developers for some reason. We treat them like they make cigarettes,” she says.
Residents were positive that their home values would plummet anytime an apartment was built. Research across the country generally shows the opposite, but the discourse was so berserk, she says, that no one could hear reason over the NIMBY cries.
She’s heard residents compare new buildings to a violent assault “or every new building is urban renewal.” Some have argued that housing would destroy their morning coffee break and backyard plants.
“This is a huge public policy decision,” she says. “People are going to have housing for 70 years, and do you think anyone cares about your morning routines?”
Except elected officials do care.
And why wouldn’t they, she says, when not one person shows up to ask for more housing.
“All you have to do is show up and be seen with this point of view so the decision-makers know that this view exists,” Trauss says.
Policymakers know that you don’t attract sound commercial businesses by hauling in employees by bus, she says.
“If you want jobs in your community, you have to want housing in your community too,” Trauss says. Her advice to residents like the Stogsdill family? Show up.
The couple, who first spoke with The Journal in 2019, have a story worth telling. Seven years ago they moved in with Veronica’s parents when David temporarily lost his job. At the time it meant having 10 people living in a three-bedroom, one-bath Roeland Park home. It hasn’t been ideal but it allowed their youngest daughter to remain in her Johnson County school. It was one shred of stability as the family encountered many challenges.
Their story might be dismissed as an anomaly, but they offer this: Down the street from the Stogsdills, a teacher lives with her mother.
Another neighbor was doubling up in a home with a parent until they were able to buy an affordable home outside of Johnson County.
The couple made headway on medical bills and planned to buy a home around 2023. Then the pandemic hit. David was laid-off from his heating and air-conditioning job after becoming sick with what doctors later said was likely COVID. Testing wasn’t widespread at the time.
David says he filed for unemployment benefits in the early days of the pandemic. He and his wife suffered more health battles, which is common in cost-burdened households. Veronica needed a hysterectomy. David battled depression as he struggled with COVID isolation and worried that his family would never get out of the hole. He knows that some Americans were angered that so many service sector employees collected unemployment. But it helped his family pay down a significant amount of debt while many companies weren’t hiring.
An unlikely event led David to a new job. The transmission went out on the family’s only car, a 2008 Nissan Maxima. A familiar face pulled up in the tow truck. The driver was an old pal looking to hire someone he could trust to drive. David started days later making significantly more than his last HVAC job.
After they purchase a used car, the Stogsdills will once again put money away to invest in a home. They hope the prices don’t escalate so fast that it prices them completely out of the market.
As for the Stogsdill family speaking up to advocate for affordable housing, it’s unlikely. “David and I have social anxiety, so speaking in public is not our favorite thing to do,” she says.
Vince Munoz, a tenant organizer with Rent Zero Kansas, says many residents stay mum about their finances and housing.
The group is trying to organize Kansans to collectively create change for renters.
The group had a seat at the table as the housing toolkit was created.
Still Munoz, who lives in Mission, wishes the finished product had more policy suggestions to help renters.
“Part of affordable housing is changing the power dynamic between renters and landlords,” he says.
Do they consider how a security deposit is a barrier to housing?
“Some people might think security deposits are reasonable, but for many people that can really set you back,” he says.
Munoz thinks a tipping point has been reached in Johnson County because residents absolutely know that housing is out of reach for many.
“I mean it’s so egregious now that people get it,” he says.
But residents may not care about changing the dynamics. The real question, he says, might be determining who wins and loses from less affordable housing.
One housing category that gets little attention is the needs of the homeless population. Many homeless people work but live in their cars, couch surf or find temporary shelter with social service groups. Others suffer chronic conditions that require intense social service help.
The bottom line: Johnson County has a growing need for homeless shelters, which are in short supply.
The homeless population includes many unlikely people like Bowes and Stott. They were recently accepted into Hillcrest Transitional Living, which offers a 90-day rent-free housing program. The couple, who are expecting a baby, will live in an Overland Park house divided into apartments while they participate in the strict all-needs, no-wants budgeting program. The proven program traditionally stabilizes a family before they must find their own place within a budget.
Bowes and Stott feel lucky to have found Hillcrest. Although they both had jobs, they had no permanent home. The couple, who are both in recovery for drugs and alcohol, have been shut out of many apartments because Bowes has a violent felony on his record.
The couple understand why many landlords would turn them down. They are upfront about it. The changes they made persuaded Hillcrest, largely supported by religious agencies, to accept the couple.
Stott, a mother of two, wants to stay in Johnson County because her older son receives high-quality special education services in the public school system. But even applying for apartments is expensive. She asks if they accept felons and they tell her to pay the application fee to find out.
“You ask people for resources, and no one really knows,” she says. “They just keep telling you to call places.”
Throughout the Kansas City metro area, many landlords won’t rent to someone whose rent exceeds 30% of their monthly income. It’s sound thinking to avoid a heavy rent burden. But it’s also unrealistic for many, given Johnson County prices, says Brookelyn Morris, a Hillcrest caseworker. It puts an $800 one-bedroom apartment out of reach for many.
“They have to make $2,400 to be approved. And that’s for $800 (rent). That’s on the cheap side,” she says. “That’s our No. 1 barrier, for sure. They may be able to afford the rent, and the utilities and their bills for the apartment but still not make three times the rent.”
Johnson County isn’t alone.
Nationwide, minimum-wage workers cannot afford a two-bedroom rental, and one-bedroom rentals are unattainable in 95% of U.S. counties, according to a 2020 National Low Income Housing Coalition report.
United Community Services compiled diverse accounts from people in nearly every demographic during its work: Seniors on a fixed income who couldn’t afford to downsize let alone keep their homes up to code. Community helpers – teachers, firefighters and police officers – who stay afloat by choosing to live outside the communities they serve. College graduates weighed down with debt and unable to return to Johnson County.
Working poor who were unable to qualify for a rental application in a highly competitive market. Young families who have been pushed to Gardner, Spring Hill and DeSoto for starter homes, choices that add to their transportation costs. UCS also heard from employers struggling to find service sector employees.
All of this might be great news for existing homeowners with increasing values. Yet a surprise might set in when it’s time to move. There aren’t a lot of local housing choices. The one-dimensional nature of many of Johnson County’s housing developments means there are limited alternatives for those needing a larger home as well as people who want to downsize.
That reality further gums up the market inventory, Brewer says. It also hits home when residents experience unexpected life events such as a divorce, illness, death or job loss.
It took decades to build Johnson County into the richest county in Kansas, admired for its homes, high-quality schools, vibrant parks and quality of life. It might take several more to change its approach to housing.
Brewer is optimistic given the changes she’s already seen in Overland Park and elsewhere. Affordable housing has come up at nearly every candidate forum in Johnson County since 2019.
Several projects are underway. Gardner approved a $15 million townhome project for “workforce housing” near the 3,000-acre logistics park in Edgerton. The project won’t be completed for more than a year but the developer’s cell phone rings regularly with hopeful tenants who long for the high-quality homes and income-based rent it offers.
A funder request led to nine local nonprofit groups building a coalition to better coordinate home repair needs. Group members, among them Habitat for Humanity of Kansas City, will still operate separately but they’ve let down their competitive walls to share ideas and help more residents.
The city of Prairie Village and Johnson County have already formed separate committees to brainstorm affordable housing options. Their ideas won’t be unveiled until later this year.
If commissioner Shirley Allenbrand has her way, there will be a nonprofit foundation or trust created to bring together private and public donors. The trust could be used to set aside land or money for affordable housing or possibly beef up home repair grants. It needs to pull together business, religious and government officials in order to gain traction, she says.
It could be a pivotal way for landlocked cities to participate and not leave other growing cities with the obligation to serve the need. Cities with open land – Shawnee, Lenexa, Overland Park and Olathe – didn’t create the problem and shouldn’t be the only ones solving it.
All of the work is a start, Brewer says. Ultimately no agency – not even hers – can force a solution. Critics might want her to pound her fists and hammer public officials until policies change.
But it’s not her job.
“We’re not that heavy-handed advocacy agency,” Brewer says, noting that it’s time to give the work back. “We’ve always been steeped in doing the impactful research.”
Those efforts have laid out for officials across the county the scope of the affordable-housing problem and possible solutions. What happens next will depend on how much people who live and work in Johnson County, and the policymakers who serve, want to see change.
A version of this article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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