Should KC raise property taxes to provide affordable housing? It’s worth discussing

The year 2018 may eventually be remembered as the turning point in Kansas City’s important discussion about housing and the urgent need for quality, low-cost homes for workers and their families.

Talk is cheap, of course. That’s why 2019 should be remembered as the year Kansas City moved away from just talking about affordable housing and started doing something significant to help provide it.

That effort could be boosted by a proposal that would impose a modest property tax increase for a housing fund. The money raised — roughly $41 million over 10 years — would pay for minor home repairs, financing and other affordable housing programs “in the public interest.”

Kansas City Councilman Scott Wagner wants a citywide vote on the plan next November.

Other affordable housing proposals are also on the table. Councilmen Quinton Lucas and Scott Taylor have offered plans to fill in other pieces of the puzzle. Yes, all three are mayoral candidates, but that shouldn’t deter Kansas City from considering their plans on the merits.

Recently, Councilwoman Katheryn Shields authored a plan to divert city fees from scooter rentals into affordable housing programs. It won’t provide a lot of money, but it’s a start.

To be clear: Wagner’s property tax increase won’t provide enough money to solve the affordable housing problem, either. In fact, there are still important questions to be answered about his approach. After all, a property tax increase would affect poor Kansas Citians as well as wealthier residents. A housing policy is supposed to help the poor.

But Wagner and others working on the problem deserve credit for understanding a basic concept: Providing affordable housing options won’t be cheap. It will take money — including some public funds — to improve the city’s housing stock, particularly in the poorest neighborhoods.

That doesn’t necessarily mean higher taxes. It could mean targeted tax abatements and credits — tax-increment financing for homeowners, if you will. It could mean requiring greater investments from private developers seeking incentives for projects.

Matching grants, rent regulation, code enforcement, vacant housing teardowns and neighborhood improvements are all part of the picture. Some work is already underway to address these concerns.

Next year, Kansas Citians should judge mayoral and council candidates on the quality of their comprehensive plans for housing. A candidate should be able to show how the pieces of his or her housing plan fit together to provide the maximum benefit at the minimum cost to taxpayers.

Those candidates may want to think beyond cost and subsidies, too. Minneapolis recently agreed to end single-family zoning, a move supporters say will lead to different affordable housing options in every neighborhood.

Would such an approach work in Kansas City? Maybe. But it can’t be proposed in isolation. The affordable housing problem is far too big for any one solution to work on its own.

Instead, it will take everyone — elected officials, developers, financiers, neighborhood activists and others — to formulate a policy that will make homes and neighborhoods safer. The next year is the time to get that done, and the work of Wagner, Lucas, Taylor and other leaders is an important part of that effort.