Editor’s note: This story is being re-published with permission from The Wichita Eagle through the Wichita Journalism Collaborative. Video of the forum comes from KSN TV, which also a member of the WJC.
Wichita’s housing shortage took center stage this week as Mayor Brandon Whipple and challenger Lily Wu discussed how to get more people into affordable dwellings.
The Wichita Journalism Collaborative hosted the Oct. 11 forum jointly with Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that has built 100 homes in the A. Price Woodard neighborhood in northeast Wichita since 2014.
Fewer homes have been sold this year than last year in the metro area, and that figure is projected to go down again in 2024, largely because of supply issues. Wichita is short as many as 40,000 units, including roughly 20,000 rental units.
“People want to own homes but that’s not the only option, and we have to be realistic about that,” said Wu, who said she lives with her parents in a house they recently paid off. “That is not just the only way to the American Dream. Renting is also a great option. The problem is we emphasize so much buying homes . . . but we also need to celebrate those that choose other options.”
By definition, for housing to be affordable, tenants should spend no more than 30% of their gross income on rent and utilities.
Whipple said City Hall has made strides both in working with landlords to increase their participation in housing voucher programs and in efforts to strengthen code enforcement and crack down on black mold and other unsafe conditions in apartments.
“We’re too good a community to allow people to frankly live a socially unacceptable standard — especially when they’re paying — so we have taken this on because it’s a responsibility that we protect the rights of Wichitans, including their rental rights,” Whipple said.
The candidates agreed more rental units are needed downtown to accommodate students at the forthcoming $300 million Wichita Biomedical Center.
ENCOURAGING DEVELOPMENT OF AFFORDABLE HOMES
An audience member asked Whipple and Wu how they would go about encouraging nonprofit and for-profit developers to build $150,000-or-less homes intended for people making less than $60,000 a year.
Wu said the “sweat equity” of Habitat for Humanity volunteers makes affordable single-family homes a reality but that between high material costs and ongoing labor issues, it’s an ambitious goal for private developers.
“When I spoke with some of those who build, one of the things they mentioned was, well, duplexes we can confidently build in that range,” Wu said.
Still, developers stand to make significantly more money building luxury developments on the outskirts of town than focusing on in-fill and affordable housing, Whipple acknowledged.
“Could we have a type of incentive where we’re going to allow you basically the same deal we do for people who are bringing businesses here where if you’re building affordable housing, we’ll try to knock off the sales tax for that material and maybe even work in property tax for the first five to ten years,” Whipple said.
Wu agreed that there are ways to responsibly offer incentives for private developers, specifically citing the property tax rebate that comes along with industrial revenue bonds.
“I want to be clear because any time I bring up the word ‘developer,’ I want to make sure that people understand the process needs to be transparent,” Wu said. “We need to communicate. We need to hold developers accountable. If they’re going to promise X, Y and Z, they need to deliver on X, Y and Z and we need to come back and review.”
FEEDBACK ON CANDIDATES’ HOUSING STANCES
Titus James, who attended the forum at the Advanced Learning Library and has lived in Wichita for almost 45 years, said he was heartened by the tone of the conversation Wednesday.
“First of all, I didn’t hear a debate. I heard information being exchanged,” said James, who is supporting Whipple for re-election.
“The mayor has really been working at it. He’s trying to use all the channels that are available . . . I heard him say he’s in favor of a tenants’ union, which I felt was awesome if the people could ever get themselves together.”
Another attendee, Jason Edwards, said he was most interested in the candidates’ response to a question about what needs to happen to make sure Wichita has an emergency overnight homeless shelter this winter after HumanKind announced its facility could not open. “What I heard from both candidates that I liked is that they both are concerned about the homelessness,” Edwards said. “They are attentive to the homelessness problem. . . . No one has a complete solution but I think that they are searching for a solution.” He said he’s planning to vote for Wu. “I felt her [to be] more personable,” Edwards said. “As someone who went to journalism school and her being a former journalist, I believe that she has the know how of information that the community needs and I just trust her that she’s going to try her best to build a bridge.”