Steve Rose

JoCo’s affordable housing dilemma has no easy answers

A new home that was recently under construction in Prairie Village dwarfs many of the typical ranch houses in its neighborhood.
A new home that was recently under construction in Prairie Village dwarfs many of the typical ranch houses in its neighborhood. The Star

Don’t shoot the messenger — particularly during the holiday season — but let’s face it: The noble goal of increasing affordable housing in Johnson County is a steep mountain to climb.

The trends are moving rapidly in the opposite direction. The same dilemma exists in other affluent communities throughout the country, and even in Kansas City. But Johnson County’s widespread unaffordable housing is a crisis that has become a pox on our community.

Sadly, people who work in Johnson County in jobs such as fast food worker, truck driver or nurses’ aide have about zero chance of living in the county where they work. At the same time, many longtime residents are finding that they cannot afford to retire in the county where they have spent their lives.

How many new apartment complexes that are not “luxury apartments” have been built in Johnson County during the past seven years? The answer, according to housing experts, is almost zero. On the contrary, many owners of lower-income apartments are renovating them and then raising rates substantially. The math proves the point. Currently, there are only about 82 low-income apartment complexes in the whole county. They serve about 8,000 residents in a county that has a population of nearly 600,000.

The waiting lists to get into this lower-income housing are hopelessly long, usually years. Once in, almost no one leaves. The turnover rate is less than 10 percent. Residents stay years and years because there are no alternatives in Johnson County that they can afford.

Houses for rent are no better. Rents have tripled over the past several years. Landlords have raised rates far beyond what any subsidized voucher program offers as rent. Where landlords used to accept these government-subsidized vouchers, today they turn up their noses.

Who would blame them? They can make double at today’s rates by snubbing low-rent, government-subsidized vouchers.

The cost of living in Johnson County has skyrocketed. Today, a single adult — no family — must make at least $16 an hour, or about $35,000 a year, to survive living in the county. With a family of four, that income needs to double.

Organizations such as United Community Services in Johnson County have emphasized the need to increase affordable housing. In addition, two newly elected Johnson County commissioners have said they will make affordable housing a priority as well. But with limited local and state funding available, the task is daunting.

Until recently, there was a Johnson County agency dedicated to dealing with affordable housing. It focused on placing low-income residents into affordable housing in the county. The Johnson County Housing Coalition assisted about 1,000 residents in 300 low-income apartment units in the county. But because the number of affordable rental units kept dwindling, the agency had to throw in the towel and shut down. There was way too little inventory for the overwhelming demand.

So, with almost no low-income apartments or homes being built, and with existing low-income housing being renovated to command higher rents, it may be that, unfortunately, the individual working a lower-paying job must be resigned to living outside the county, in areas where schools and the quality of life may be less desirable.

There are plenty of citizens who bemoan the affordable housing crisis. But what’s needed is, for now, unattainable. More government funding is necessary to bring housing subsidies more in line with market rates. But housing assistance is facing budget cuts, pushed by President Donald Trump, as well as a recalcitrant Congress.

Perhaps that attitude could shift with the change in control in Congress. That may be the only real hope to make a dent. Until then, the meager efforts locally will not be enough, It appears Johnson County, like many other affluent communities, will be affordable only to middle- and higher-income residents.