Three Light luxury apartments are headed downtown. But where’s the affordable housing?

People paused to admire the view of downtown from one of the penthouses on the 26th floor at the One Light apartment building in December 2015.
People paused to admire the view of downtown from one of the penthouses on the 26th floor at the One Light apartment building in December 2015. File photo

This week, the Kansas City Council will consider public subsidies for Three Light, a 300-unit high-rise apartment building planned for downtown. The city will borrow $17.5 million for the project, mostly to pay for a parking garage.

Kansas City provided similar subsidies for One Light, a 307-unit building downtown, and Two Light, a 295-unit structure at Truman Road and Grand Boulevard.

Two Light opens this spring. It’s already fully leased. A 1,000 square-foot unit will cost about $2,200 a month on average.

Last month, Kansas City Councilwoman Katheryn Shields asked if any of the Lights — One, Two, or Three — contain so-called “affordable” units, with rents low enough for poorer Kansas Citians to afford.

The answer was no.

That’s a concern. City subsidies for the three high-rise structures — mandated by agreements signed years ago — will soon exceed $50 million. Yet many Kansas Citians can’t even dream of actually living in one.

Cordish, which owns the buildings, says they have designed them to be affordable for renters of moderate incomes, about $48,000 a year. They also argue — as does the city — that the apartments are an overall benefit for the community, providing enough cash to pay for the parking garages over time.

Perhaps. But it’s increasingly clear that City Hall must spend time this year to better match its incentive structure with the need for quality affordable housing in every part of the community.

The need is unmistakable. According to a recent KSHB report, more than 13,000 Kansas Citians are waiting for affordable housing. Some families are waiting for months, even years, for access to homes with rents they can pay.

The squeeze will only get worse. On Tuesday, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens bragged to a Riverside audience about his efforts to eliminate tax credits for low-income housing in the state.

Greitens said the credits are inefficient, and some critics agree. To date, however, there is no credible plan for replacing the credits, or for providing incentives for developers to build low-cost housing.

Local governments will need to step in. And that means more than leaning on Washington for additional funds.

Instead, Kansas City must review its policies to make sure affordable housing is a top priority. One council member said Friday that review could include more “carrots” — incentives for developers who include low-cost units — and “sticks,” which would punish builders who leave affordable units out.

It’s crucial that the discussion include the need for affordable units and homes across Kansas City, not just in certain areas. That includes downtown.

To its credit, Cordish said Friday it is amenable to having that discussion. That may not change the plans at Three Light — the city’s agreement with Cordish requires some subsidies — but it serves notice that future construction help will need to meet higher standards for bolstering the entire community.

This year and next will be a critical opportunity to develop a comprehensive housing and neighborhood strategy in Kansas City. The City Council must address the need for better homes and neighborhoods, whether they come in small single-family homes or big skyscrapers downtown.

From a $995 studio in a historic building to a $2,800 two-bedroom in a Power & Light District high rise, here’s what money can get you in Kansas City's downtown loop.