Olathe & Southwest Joco

League of Women Voters report: Here’s who can’t afford to live in Johnson County

Olathe is one of the Johnson County cities where housing costs are too high for many workers.
Olathe is one of the Johnson County cities where housing costs are too high for many workers. File photo

According to a new report by the League of Women Voters of Johnson County, anyone working full-time as a retail sales clerk, janitor or home health aide cannot, on their own, afford to rent or buy a home in any of the county’s 20 cities.

Only in Edgerton can a paramedic, school social worker or firefighter afford to own a home without devoting more than 30 percent of his or her income to housing, which experts say is the maximum a household can afford without becoming “cost-burdened” with housing.

And in only six cities, the report said, are rents affordable for a paramedic or school social worker.

The League of Women Voters will present its findings to the public at 9 a.m. Feb. 2 at Atonement Lutheran Church, 9948 Metcalf Ave. in Overland Park. It also will conduct three follow-up meetings where members will help the organization draft an affordable housing policy.

By taking a formal position, the League of Women Voters will then be able to encourage local governments to promote affordable housing, said Lee Rowe of Overland Park, who co-chaired the League’s 10-member committee that studied the issue.

“I care about people who work here,” she said. “As we walk around or do business here, we know that the people who are helping us are probably not able to live here. They have to come in from elsewhere.”

The report noted that affordable housing enables communities to thrive.

“Safe, stable, affordable housing is essential to civic life. Without a place to call home and a sense of community, people cannot participate in civic life, including local politics and voting,” the report stated. “Housing that is affordable to workers – including those entering the job market and baby boomers still working – can spur economic development, and in turn enhance a community’s appeal to residents of a variety of incomes and ages.”

The committee conducted its research from June 2017 through November 2018, relying primarily on data from 2017.

The median rent in Johnson County that year was $1,044, the report said, which requires an annual income of $41,000 for a household to avoid being cost-burdened. The average sale price of homes in the county was $324,393, requiring an income of nearly $74,000 for monthly payments to be below the cost-burdened level.

Using Census estimates from 2017, the League noted that 23 percent of Johnson County households pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing, which includes mortgage or rent plus insurance, utilities and real estate taxes. For renters, roughly one-third of households in the county, the figure was 40 percent.

The study also found that fewer than 2,500 rental units rented for less than $500 a month in 2017.

“Households who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing may have difficulty affording necessities, such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care,” the report said.

Finding an affordable home may be even more daunting in the current housing market, because the Census figures are based on what people were actually paying for housing in 2017.

“I live in what I consider an affordable house, but the prices keep going up because people want to move here and people want to stay here. “ Rowe said. “It’s really tough.”

The obvious reasons behind the problem are rising housing costs, stagnant wages and fixed incomes. In 2017, the report noted, three-quarters of Johnson County jobs paid median annual wages under $50,000.

“The starting wage for 70 percent of all jobs is less than $30,000,” the report said, “making it even more difficult for young adults to find housing that is affordable in Johnson County.”

Less obvious, according to the report, are policy choices, the smaller profit margins on affordable housing construction and a general lack of interest, or even hostility, toward the topic. The report noted that Kansas passed a law in 2016 prohibiting local governments from enacting zoning laws that mandate some affordable units.

“While modest efforts exist locally to address the most extreme examples of lack of affordability (such as homelessness), a coordinated county-wide effort to promote or support a broader range of responses to housing affordability does not exist,” the report said.

Underscoring the importance of the issue, Rowe suggested, is that county officials frequently talk about enhancing transportation to serve the large numbers of workers who commute to Johnson County from elsewhere. A particular problem here, she said, is that less wealthy counties receive much of the state and federal money devoted to affordable housing.

The report listed a number of potential strategies used elsewhere, such as incentives for mixed-use development, converting vacant and underused retail space for multi-family housing, and establishing a local housing trust fund to preserve affordable units and stimulate construction of new ones.