Government & Politics

For residents already burdened by housing costs, utility bills can be a budget-buster

KC resident wants to see more jobs created along with the new affordable housing plan

Michael Byrd, an individual house rehabber in Kansas City for over 20 years, says he likes the City Council's affordable housing plan, but suggests adding some incentives for creating jobs.
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Michael Byrd, an individual house rehabber in Kansas City for over 20 years, says he likes the City Council's affordable housing plan, but suggests adding some incentives for creating jobs.

James Brox’s utility bills are now half what he paid when he moved into his home in Kansas City’s Santa Fe neighborhood nine years ago.

He has installed new furnace and central air systems, added ceiling insulation, replaced aging windows with modern panes, and put vents in the attic. All to protect his turn-of-the-century home from the elements and make it more energy efficient.

“Basically a lot of caulking and closing up cracks and just making the place really kind of airtight,” said the retired U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics economist. He thinks the city should help other homeowners do the same.

His work, which cost about $10,000, hasn’t yet paid for itself, but he has noticed the savings.

A $5 million weatherization policy is part of a sweeping new initiative under consideration by the City Council to help preserve and create more affordable housing. A central goal is creation of 5,000 affordable units by 2023.

On Wednesday, the council’s Housing Committee approved several ordinances laying out the early framework of the city’s first-ever long-range housing policy. One measure updates the score card the city uses to evaluate developers’ proposals by prioritizing affordable housing. Another streamlines issuance of permits to help builders to bring more units online. The full City Council is expected to start discussions Thursday.

The major agenda item calls for a $75 million Housing Trust Fund to support construction of new affordable units, help owners upgrade existing homes and to stabilize neighborhoods. The ordinance directs City Manager Troy Schulte to identify a source for those funds. Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner has proposed raising the money by increasing property taxes.

Councilman Quinton Lucas, housing committee chair, said it is critical to establish an ongoing source of funding “so that housing doesn’t feel like the thing that you’re trying to find some extra coins that are hidden under cushions for.”

Existing weatherization programs could get a financial boost as part of that spending.

Debate over more politically sensitive issues will be pushed into 2019. One proposal requires developers to include a certain percentage affordable units with new projects. Another limits landlords’ ability to turn away tenants based on their sources of income, like Social Security or federal housing assistance vouchers.

The stakes are high. Kansas City is short an estimated 7,000 homes for families making less than $15,000 a year. There’s a 10,000-unit shortage for households earning between $50,000 and $75,000.

At the same time, the city’s rents have been increasing. Nearly half the city’s renters and more than a quarter of its homeowners are spending more than they can afford on housing.

“I think that we have the potential in the passage of several ordinances to do some of the most impressive and dramatic affordable housing policy changes that folks have seen anywhere,” said Councilman Quinton Lucas, who represents the 3rd District at-large and is running for mayor.

‘Enough work for years’

For a home to be affordable, a household shouldn’t spend more than 30 percent of its monthly income on housing. Those living in Kansas City’s older, more poorly insulated homes often face utility bills that are a huge cost burden on top of rent or a mortgage.

“(In November), we had a meeting at one of our local churches because the residents were complaining, a lot of them seniors, because they had $700, $800 electrical bills,” said Joseph Jackson, another Santa Fe resident who attended multiple listening sessions held by city officials to collect input on housing proposals.

Weatherization of older homes is pricey, too. Windows, for example, must often be custom-ordered to fit frames larger than those in modern, more standardized designs.

Some assistance is already available. The Community Action Agency of Greater Kansas City offers a weatherization program for low-income residents using money from the federal government, Kansas City Power and Light Company and Spire.

But larger attempts have not been successful. In 2009, federal stimulus dollars were expected to provide weatherization of about 1,000 homes, but only a few hundred got the treatment.

Michael Byrd, a solo rehabber, suggested that the city create a jobs program as part of the affordable housing discussion. Byrd suggested training residents of the city’s core to rehab derelict or abandoned homes.

Byrd said it’s “heart-wrenching” to see new development restore neighborhoods without benefiting long-time residents who don’t have the skills to participate. “

Let’s go ahead and improve the housing stock but use this as an opportunity to improve the lives of the people that are already living there,” said Byrd, an accountant by trade.

He added, “There’s enough work to employ people for years...that want to work but they don’t have the skills.”

Lucas said his first priority is to create new affordable units, but that the city could encourage small-scale developers and remodeling companies to use various contractors.

“I don’t think we have the capacity to go out and hire 2,000 people tomorrow that are going to be rehabbing homes,” Lucas said. He added that the council needs the private sector to hire a diverse labor force and that the city could provide incentives.

Jackson said the city is making progress on affordable housing, but rising home values across the city are making property taxes more expensive and new development hasn’t brought online enough truly affordable homes. He said the city needs a comprehensive plan now.

“If we don’t look at it now, it’s going to be a bigger issue down the road,” Jackson said.