A growing number of workers can’t find affordable housing in Johnson County, the state’s wealthiest county. With cheaper housing disappearing, pricier options proliferating and rents rising, residents working modest-paying jobs in offices, public safety and even public schools, among others, face the prospect of increasingly missing out on the suburban good life there. But while nonprofit activism is increasing awareness of the problem, there’s little clarity about how city government – and local candidates vying for your vote this fall – might contribute to addressing it.

Mill Valley High School counseling secretary Judy Intfen spends her days soothing the doubts and fears of nervous students and parents waiting to discuss their futures with counselors.

Inside the Shawnee school, Intfen almost immediately bonds with the teenagers. The candy jar filled with Kit Kats and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups doesn’t hurt. Yet even as she has attended to their needs, Intfen’s colleagues know that she is quietly dealing with a personal crisis.

The beloved secretary is among a growing number of Johnson Countians whose incomes have not kept pace with soaring housing costs, making affordable housing hard to come by.

“When I started looking for apartments I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m about ready to throw up. My rent is going to more than double,’” says Intfen, who lives in Overland Park near Johnson County Community College.

She’s spent years living with friends to make ends meet. But when her roommates gave notice this summer, Intfen was left wondering if she should double her rent and live alone or find a stranger to take over their portion of the lease.

“I’m 53 years old. I don’t want to bring someone into my house that I don’t know,” she says. “I feel like I’m caught in a black hole. I can’t afford to live by myself.”

Intfen, who makes less than $26,000 a year in a county where the median household income is $81,200 annually, is hardly alone. The average sale price of a home increased to $320,000 in 2017, and renters pay about $1,000 for rent. (The median value of a home in Johnson County is $232,500, according to the U.S Census Bureau, about 67% higher than the statewide median of $139,200, and more than 20% higher than Riley and Douglas counties, two of the state’s other housing hot spots.)

Yet 28% of jobs in Johnson County pay less than $15 an hour, below $32,000 annually, even with a low unemployment rate. Finding affordable housing – be it for seniors looking to downsize, teachers, firefighters, government workers or college graduates – has drawn the attention of local government, and nonprofit and business leaders in Johnson County.

Johnson County’s affordable housing crunch is a problem that’s at least a decade in the making as its housing market weathered a national collapse and remained strong. Since the last census, the county’s population has been growing faster than the housing supply, an estimated increase of about 9.8%, or about 54,000 people, compared with a 7.9% jump of about 18,000 housing units.

At the same time, the housing supply on the lower end of the market has been declining even as houses valued between $250,000 and $399,999 have been increasing. Valuations have been increasing in places such as Overland Park by an average of as much as 4% a year, a great trend for those looking to sell a home but sticker shock for many paying property taxes.

Renters have seen their costs rise as well. 

Intfen, who also babysits, house sits and dog sits whenever possible, wonders if elected officials truly understand her predicament and are aware of how quickly the market has shifted. Sometimes she wonders if her fellow Johnson Countians understand the toll it takes.

(The Journal hosted a launch event for the “heaviest lifts” edition on Oct. 15. Watch video of the event here: https://business.facebook.com/kansasleadershipcenter/videos/693606681150420/.)

An issue for local governments?

Thanks in part to local nonprofits and health advocates who have sounded the alarm, there’s growing awareness. In a county where the cost of living for groceries, health care, utilities and transportation remains close to the national averages, the high cost of housing stands out.

About 80 percent of local government candidates who responded to a survey from The Journal say that Johnson County lacks enough affordable housing. Most of the remainder say they aren’t sure.

But views vary widely about how big the problem is, what should be done about it and whether other issues should take precedence.

Eric Jenkins, an incumbent seeking reelection in Ward 2 on the Shawnee City Council, says his local governing body’s work should be focused on furthering an environment that would encourage the development of affordable housing. (His opponent, Andy Rondon, indicates that he is focused on affordable housing as part of a broader effort to promote sustainable living.)

“I do not feel the affordable housing issue is an issue for local government,” Jenkins wrote.

Others see government mostly as a barrier to the supply of affordable housing. Adam Mickelson, a candidate running against incumbent Jim Randall for the Ward 2 seat on the Olathe City Council, proposes decreasing development ordinance regulations and taxes, working with builders to encourage the construction of affordable homes and creating zones where affordable housing fits well in future land-use maps, perhaps prioritizing areas where land is cheaper.

“One of the greatest hindrances to affordable housing is government regulation,” Mickelson says.

Randall is not sure Johnson County lacks enough affordable housing for people who want to live there. He says he’ll continue “to support the updates and refurbishing of older homes in the city and support new developments that provide affordable housing.”

“Olathe has the highest inventory of affordable housing per capita of any city in Johnson County,” he wrote.

Other candidates, such as Rick Collins, who’s running for reelection as Overland Park’s 6th Ward representative, say that there needs to be a clearer understanding of what officials are trying to accomplish.

“We first need to define ‘affordable housing,’” he writes. “A better description may be attainable housing.”

Scott Hamblin, Collins’ general election opponent, says providing affordable housing is a worthy cause that brings significant challenges.

“High property values is also a sign of a healthy economy,” says Hamblin, who indicates he’s opposed to opposed to building apartments next to estate homes in the southern part of Ward 6.

“Many residents are not interested in seeing their property values drop because of actions taken by the government.”

Who wins? Who loses?

It’s not surprising that affordable housing concerns spark a divergence of opinions in Johnson County. It’s not a typical issue for local government. It’s not the same as fixing a street or opening a park.

So why tackle it at all? The answer is jobs, an issue that often commands the spotlight in local government. For businesses to grow and plant roots, they need employees – including those with lower incomes – to live within a reasonable distance.

But the complicated nature of the issue means it’s taking a variety of stakeholders to help communities diagnose the situation. United Community Services of Johnson County is one of the groups leading a charge to energize and educate others. It’s time to get off the sidelines, says the organization’s executive director, Julie Brewer.

She’s led an educational campaign that brings together cities, faith-based groups, nonprofits, school districts, health agencies and employers to inspire a collective purpose. It’s time, she says, to step away from the silos and work together to create collective change.

“What do I lose if we do nothing? What do I gain? How am I a part of creating that future? That’s an ongoing process,” she says.

It will not be easy. Developers, builders and real estate agents say the price of land, fees and many other factors in Johnson County demands high-priced homes and luxury apartments to make a profit and appease residents.

Home builders care about affordable housing, too, says Shawn Woods, president of the Home Builders Association of Greater Kansas City and owner of Ashlar Homes. But making the numbers work to build a $250,000 home is risky at best.

“Our permit, water tap and sewer tap on a house in Kansas City, Missouri is about $3,500. There are some areas of Johnson County that that same exact service and fee is $12,500,” he says.

Cities have long worked to keep existing residents from shouldering new construction costs especially in profitable markets. But builders believe at too high a cost.

In addition, housing codes used to be changed every eight to 10 years. But the cycle has moved to two to four years. Each cycle adds about $4,000 to $5,000 to a home price, he says.

While residents often protest lower-valued homes and apartments, Woods says that at times public sentiment has closed minds inside city halls, too. Some cities, he says, want to see $400,000 plus homes in order to fuel their tax base and pay for high-quality roads, parks and amenities that Johnson Countians desire.

But a market without homes at all price points creates a lopsided market, he says, and makes it harder for younger families to put down roots.

“Sometime in the last eight to 10 to 12 years, a $250,000 house became a bad word. It’s like nobody wants that in their neighborhood. And the thing that all these cities have lost sight of is: That’s what they were built on,” Woods says.

Changing public opinion?

Residents often protest even luxury apartments encroaching on their single-family homes. How would they feel about homes or apartments dubbed “affordable or workforce housing,” which the Urban Land Institute defines as housing that is affordable to households earning 60% to 120% of an area’s median income.

Housing, in conjunction with highways and public schools, has shaped the county’s growth for the last 70 years. The post-World War II boom for car-oriented suburbs was heavily fueled by housing. (Prior to the civil rights movement, housing was mainly reserved for white people since black people and other minorities were often barred from buying by restrictive covenants.) The housing boom in turn helped bring shopping centers and office parks. The single-family suburban home is part of a formula that’s led to the county becoming the state’s richest and most populous county.

But patterns of expansion in Johnson County have resulted in developments that not only provide access to good schools, safe neighborhoods and other amenities. They can confer status. Little wonder that affordable housing is seen as a threat.

Johnson County is a challenging market even for developers who specialize in affordable apartments, says Matt Gillam, partner with Overland Property Group.

The group uses federal low-income tax credits to build or rehabilitate apartment complexes in several states including Kansas, setting aside a certain number of housing for qualified residents who fall short of median incomes. Gillam’s business also develops what he calls luxury senior living, including a golf course community in Leawood where units go for $4,000 to $9,000 a month.

But affordable developments can be risky because if the project starts to lose money, Gillam must make up the loss for years. He needs to build efficient, sustainable buildings that stand up to years of wear. The finances can be challenging and everything depends on getting a share of the state’s hard-to-secure housing tax credits to help off-set high land prices.

Then, too, there are the protesters. More than once Gillam invested about $100,000 on a project that later didn’t get off the ground because city officials decided neighbors wouldn’t accept the affordable housing concept.

That’s not the case everywhere. Gillam points out that Dodge City elected officials stood up to nearly 200 upset homeowners and approved a workforce apartment complex anyway.

“Every single one of those neighbors now say how nice it is,” Gillam says. “A lot of them have kids and grandparents living in it now.”

Johnson County’s housing prices will only intensify without interventions, he says, based on his experience in other communities. Federal lawmakers support low-income housing tax credits, which are different from the federal rental voucher program known as Section 8, with bipartisan support, but far more money is needed, he says.

Free-market developers and builders can’t be expected to offer lower rent, he says. Banks wouldn’t finance the project.

“The free market will not correct this problem,” he says. “The finances don’t work for it to correct itself. The problem will only get worse.”

Without affordable housing, advocates say, the county faces the prospect of more and more people being priced out of the housing market – and not just those whose occupations are typically thought of as low income. An elementary teacher, firefighter, police patrol officer or registered nurse living alone cannot afford the average home if they are making a median wage in Johnson County, according to United Community Services’ data.

It’s important to note, Brewer says, that 1 in 3 Johnson County households are single heads of households.

A Burden to Health

One reason that affordable housing has risen to the top of the list among nonprofit advocates is they have come to see affordable housing as a health issue. United Community Services spent the last several years looking for the best way to affect health outcomes in Johnson County. It kept coming back to one major factor: housing costs.

Too many Johnson Countians are burdened by mortgages and rent that exceed 30% of their gross income, Brewer says. It’s proportionately worse for lower-income families. About 75% of Johnson Countians making between $20,000 and $34,999 spend more than 30% of their pay on housing. When housing becomes such a large portion of an overall budget, residents do what they can to get by, Brewer says, even if it means not buying medication or healthy food.

Housing inventory mirrors the problem. There were about 13,500 fewer homes available at the appraised value range of between $150,000 to $249,000 in 2017 compared to 2007. The hot spot was midrange homes valued at $250,000 to $399,999, a category in which about 17,000 units were added in 10 years, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

That’s happened while nearly 40% of the jobs in Johnson County can be sorted into three occupational groups: office and administrative support, sales, and food prep and serving. The median wage for those groups was $35,034, $31,569 and $19,779 respectively, according to the Kansas Department of Labor’s 2018 Wage Survey.

But political pressure for action is likely to build, especially if more seniors find themselves priced out of the market and make their voices heard come election time.

Increasingly Stuck

Communities are already seeing seniors that can’t afford to downsize because there isn’t a financially diverse array of senior housing. It means new families will have to go elsewhere to buy their first homes.

“We love our neighborhood schools. Neighborhood schools only stay neighborhood schools if the community is re-greened,” meaning, newer, younger families move in, Brewer says.

Johnson County Commissioner Becky Fast, who based her last campaign in part on affordable housing, has heard from several retirees who feel stuck. Senior housing is too expensive, but maintaining a home is costly, too. The only alternative is often to leave the county entirely.

Fast thinks affordable housing is part of a strong economy that attracts jobs.

“It’s part of an array of a strong, healthy, safe community, along with good roads and good schools,” she says. “It’s hard to attract businesses when there isn’t the housing supply to bring those businesses here.”

It’s disheartening to Fast to see residents with deep roots in her northeast district struggle. Generations of families have grown up around the same churches and schools as their grandparents. Their children can’t afford to come back, and they can’t afford to stay, threatening deep community ties that sustain health.

“How do we make this a community that people can grow up here and retire here?” Fast wonders. “That’s where it’s concerning to me. Are we becoming a Denver, where you have to then work an hour commute from where you live?”

Fast also worries about the health of families doubling up in small, postwar houses to pay the bills and take care of one another.

Moving in with family is exactly what Veronica, 38, and David Stogsdill, 37, were forced to do about five years ago. The couple and five children moved in with Veronica’s parents after David lost his heating and air conditioning job. The financial hit meant 10 people ended up living in a three-bedroom, one-bath Roeland Park home. Her parents are also guardians of their grandchild, who has autism.

David created a fourth bedroom in the unfinished basement by framing walls and lifting up the floor to accommodate for the water that leaks during rainstorms. Buying a door was too expensive, so they draped a drop cloth for privacy.

The Stogsdills both work, but David, who apprenticed as an HVAC technician with his dad, has yet to land a job that pays what he used to make, $18 an hour. These days he makes $11 an hour in a warehouse job while Veronica pulls in $14.42 an hour as an educational aide at a local school district.

Life is different now. Veronica and David gave up a second vehicle, and they carpool to work. A long dining table allows them to eat meals together. They map out showers, pitch in where talents and time allow with raising children and tending to basic needs. Their two oldest children have graduated and moved out.

If the Stogsdills moved away, it would mean leaving their family, whom they depend for support. Social workers contend those family connections are crucial so families aren’t further isolated.

But their reasons cut deeper. David knows the toll that moving and mobility can take on children after moving constantly as a child.

Ultimately the reason the family stays is largely the same as any other Johnson County family. The high-quality schools offer opportunity.

“All of the staff that is at (their youngest daughter’s) school, they are so nice and kind to the students,” Veronica says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the staff or the principal.”

Originally, the family planned to be back on its own quickly, but their health has spiraled downward. Kidney stones, a heart problem, a staph infection, an appendix removal and more left them with $75,000 in medical debt, Veronica says.

It’s an all-too-common story reflected in research that shows how families become burdened by housing, utility and transportation costs. The effects of stress take a toll on health outcomes and life expectancies. Housing, as a big-ticket item, is a massive source of stress. 

Brewer wonders how someone who loses their footing even for a short while can ever recover. Expensive housing makes it almost impossible to launch families back into the middle class.

United Community Services of Johnson County, where Julie Brewer is the executive director, is working with a multitude of stakeholders to implement an affordable housing strategy.

Moving back to their old apartment is no longer an option for the Stogsdills. Their three-bedroom apartment’s rent went from $645 to $986 in five years, David says. The complex added the word “retreat” to its title as rent skyrocketed. It accepts Section 8 vouchers, but the family doesn’t qualify to get on the year-plus waiting list.

It’s a depressing thought for the Stogsdills. They wonder who elected officials are serving by offering tax incentives to developers or to businesses offering jobs below $12 an hour. Where will those employees live?

“I don’t know how much politicians are aware … that there is this gap,” Veronica says.

“Everything we have seen that is being built around this area is luxury apartments and high-end retirement living.”

“Other people are in the same boat,” David says, pointing out that the family next door just took in their daughter, her fiance and two children. She’s a day care worker, and he’s in HVAC.

What’s a city to do?

But what exactly is it that a city can do to create more affordable housing?

There are plenty of alternatives being tried.  Some think tiny-home villages – like a highly successful and touted veterans community in Kansas City, Missouri – might be the answer. But tenant advocates say while it’s a great option, it’s hardly the ideal for many.

Other metropolitan areas have considered allowing existing homeowners to build accessory dwelling units – dubbed granny units – where it makes sense. Designers have suggested houses made from 3-D printed parts as another possibility.

But none of those options is expected to gain much traction in the Kansas City metro area. Right now, the region is instead in diagnosis mode.

The National League of Cities has taken a keen interest in the Kansas City region this year after the First Suburbs Coalition and the Mid-America Regional Council won a grant to help study the housing issue. The league hired a consultant to study workforce housing. The study is still underway, but an initial data assessment indicated that Kansas and Missouri suburbs need to rethink their approaches.

Some of the work confirms what local officials already knew: that older housing stock can face hefty maintenance expenses that puts it out of reach for many lower-wage employees. In Johnson County’s wealthiest suburbs, the study confirmed that many of the basic community helpers are not able to live among the residents they serve.

Among the options summit strategists have suggested city officials consider:

Create a regional workforce housing awareness campaign to lessen the public stigma.

Better utilize tax abatements for new and existing homes and homebuyer assistance programs.

The consultant also recommended that local officials actively encourage the development of workforce housing by reducing regulations involving setbacks and density requirements while easing or waiving some fees and layering financial incentives.

In Johnson County, some small steps have been taken. Overland Park and Lenexa included affordable housing as priorities for future growth. The Overland Park City Council also approved a controversial development plan to build smaller, affordable homes – priced at about $250,000 – in an older section of the city where a few lots went undeveloped for decades.

Neighbors argued that a developer wanted to put too many houses on small plats. City Council members disagreed, saying the homes were financially attainable. Meanwhile, time-worn patterns of development in Johnson County – from building McMansions to trendy teardowns – continue.

Officials continue to compile more information about affordable housing.  As the National League of Cities continues its work, Johnson County will begin its own housing study. United Community Services teamed up with the county and several cities this fall to conduct a housing study. Brewer thinks its findings will shape the discussion, although a Johnson County Community Development Office housing market needs and analysis released in 2004 identified many of the issues being discussed presently but did little to move the needle.

Maybe it’s an income problem?

Not everybody who studies the affordable housing issue is convinced that building more housing is the solution.

Some, like Kirk McClure, professor of urban planning at the University of Kansas School of Public Affairs and Administration, think affordable housing is at adequate levels for Johnson County unlike, say, Seattle and Los Angeles. Why simply  build more housing, which will also eventually be marked up? The real solution, he believes, is improved wages, increased minimum wage and wage assistance.

“They need rents below $500,” he says.

The problem is that the price of land doesn’t allow for that without subsidies.

“Nobody can afford to purchase, maintain, pay taxes on housing that you rent out for, say, $350 a month,” he says.

Although McClure thinks the best way to fix the problem is by encouraging federal officials to help with more targeted subsidies, he says there is room for better city and state cooperation. Kansas has a little used program called mortgage revenue bonds that allow the state to offer loans to moderate-income, first-time homebuyers.

McClure also says the state is still heavily influenced by real estate agents, builders and developers, who have long shaped the housing narrative in Kansas.

“We need to be guided more in serving our needs,” he says. “We’ve got to start having the Johnson County delegation show some backbone and testify against the homebuilders.”

Real estate groups have long been successful in Topeka, most recently pushing the Legislature to pass a law banning cities from forcing developers to set aside a portion of new construction for affordable units because it infringed on the rights of property owners and violated free market principles.

Affordable housing advocates argue that the law makes no sense, especially when developers sometimes receive taxpayer-funded subsidies to finance luxury construction at the expense of schools, libraries and others.

However, builders and developers point out that putting the onus on homebuilders to increase the amount of affordable housing penalizes their industry, which is already heavily regulated.

“You’re basically just taking money out of one pocket and handing it to another,” says Woods, the president of the Home Builders Association of Greater Kansas City.

Instead he’d like to see cities working with the building industry to come up with solutions.

“It can be done, but it’s going to take some thinking outside the box. I don’t think the way to do that is to penalize a developer for building a bigger house,” Woods says.

McClure thinks local officials need to get out their toolboxes and start being creative. Play the game, McClure says, by doing things like increasing water connection fees with a caveat: “We’ll reduce them if you set aside 20%” of the units for workforce housing.

“There are creative ways to do this,” he says. “You’ve got to connect to a water system in order to have water.”

Luxury apartments, like these under construction at 119th Street and Ridgeview Road in Olathe, have become unaffordable for seniors as well as low-wage earners.

A place to work and live?

As she mulls her housing situation, Intfen wishes cities would think about someone like her. She doesn’t want a tiny house or a single-family home. She’s content to rent. Intfen once had an ownership share in the well-known Paddy

O’Quigley’s Pub & Grille. For more than 21 years, the Irish pub was mainstay at 119th Street and Roe Avenue in Leawood.

Back then, Intfen did everything from managing, hiring and training staff to payroll and more.

She spent 60-plus hours a week at her small business. She didn’t have time to attend to home ownership. One year she went without a salary as the business weathered the recession. Making a down payment and paying a mortgage was one thing. Confronting the inevitable home repair emergency was another.

“I don’t want my furnace to go out. I don’t want my roof to leak. There’s no way I could afford to get those things fixed,” she says.

Intfen just wants something affordable in a safe environment. “I want a bedroom, a kitchen, living room, storage. I want the basics,” she says.

Back at Mill Valley High School, students and school staff seem to enjoy having Intfen around the building.

She likens her job to a flight controller at times. She will likely get to know every student.

She’ll try to learn their names, and often a lot more, before sending them off to meet with the right counselor. The students have noticed. They dedicated a full page to her in the 2018 yearbook.

“I love it,” she says of her job. “I love the kids, love the administration. I really do enjoy every aspect.”

There’s certainly a place for her to work, but the question policymakers in Johnson County will face in the years to come is whether something needs to be done to ensure she and others in her situation also have a place to live.

Journal Fall edition cover

A version of this article appears in the Fall 2019 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. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit  https://kansasleadershipcenter.org/store/one-year-subscription-to-the-journal-4-upcoming-issues/.

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