Gov. Laura Kelly signed bipartisan legislation that addresses Kansas’ rural housing shortage through a bundle of tax credits. The pandemic exacerbated problems associated with the lack of affordable housing. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
By Lily O’Shea Becker, Kansas Reflector
TOPEKA — Rural communities in Kansas are struggling with some big city problems: homelessness and a lack of affordable housing.
Efforts to boost the state’s affordable housing found bipartisan support in the Legislature this past session, but it is unclear how much the measures will relieve the pressures on communities as the number of unsheltered individuals has increased across Kansas.
House Bill 2237, which Gov. Laura Kelly signed in May, aims to address Kansas’ housing shortage through a bundle of tax credits encouraging residential housing, especially in rural areas.
Kelly and other supporters of the measure described it as an aid to economic development.
“By expanding access to quality, affordable housing, communities and businesses can better recruit and retain workers, families, and entrepreneurs in rural Kansas,” Kelly said. “This bill gives our rural communities more tools to spur economic growth vital to the economy.”
When Kelly took office, she established the Office of Rural Prosperity. Last year, the office and the Kansas Housing Resources Corporation conducted the first Kansas Statewide Housing Needs Assessment in 30 years, verifying the need for affordable housing expansion in Kansas, especially in rural communities.
“We know that we have an aging housing stock in our state. We know that there’s a lack of safe, affordable, accessible housing,” said Ryan Vincent, executive director of Kansas Housing Resource Corporation. “We simply haven’t kept up enough units of housing, but we also know the pandemic has thrown a lot more need. So I keep saying that the problem became a crisis with the pandemic.”
The 2021 rental vacancy rate in Kansas was 8.8 percent, compared with the national average of 5.6 percent, according to data from the Federal Reserve of St. Louis. But some rural communities in Kansas reported vacancy rates above 10%, according to the Kansas Statewide Housing Assessment. A 5 percent to 7 percent vacancy rate is considered optimal for individuals entering the market.
“We have this nationwide housing crunch, and it’s really hitting us hard,” said Deborah Snapp, executive director of Catholic Charities of Southwest Kansas in Dodge City. “Particularly Dodge City and Garden City, where we have a lot of economic growth going on and new businesses that are coming. You know, everybody needs housing, so we’re seeing a lot of landlords that can increase their rents.”
Since 2019 rent has gone up 0.3 percent in Ford County, where Dodge City is located, and in nearby Finney County, home to Garden City, rent has increased by 6 percent, according to a Washington Post database.
Beth Waddle, who is based in Fort Scott and is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Continuum of Care regional coordinator for east-central Kansas, said she frequently sees people lose housing vouchers because they cannot find available affordable housing.
Housing isn’t the only need. Snapp, who is also the Continuum of Care regional coordinator of southwest Kansas, said there is a lack of options for chronically homeless individuals with undiagnosed and untreated mental health and substance abuse disorders in southwest Kansas.
The area “could use more shelters,” Snapp said. “We could use more robust shelters like what they have in Liberal, where they really provide supportive services and can stay there for a longer period of time.”
Snapp said city and county officials in southwest Kansas tend to let the responsibility of providing support to homeless individuals fall on nonprofits.
“They don’t really oppose us, and they’re helpful to us as they can be, but they’re really not interested in taking that on as part of their budgetary concerns,” Snapp said.
Meghan Thompson, housing program coordinator for Prairie View Mental Health and Continuum of Care regional coordinator for south-central Kansas, said in Newton Prairie View leases 11 permanent supportive apartments, which are fully furnished and rent is covered for the first six months, for people diagnosed with mental illness. Following the first six months, tenants pay 30% of their income in rent and can stay as long as they need. Tenants are also taught life skills.
“I think places like Newton will build housing, but it’s more for the middle class or upper-middle class, people who are coming in for jobs,” Thompson said. “This town is trying to attract industry, which is great, except you also need housing for all the people that are living here.”
Thompson said she gets calls every other day from people who cannot afford or find a home.
The Legislature’s plan
Vincent, who has been with Kansas Housing for 18 years, said the legislative effort to address the housing shortage included $62 million in grants and loans appropriated for moderate-income housing development in Kansas, a dramatic increase compared with the $2 million budget typically appropriated.
The Legislature established two new tax credits to fund housing development.
One is an affordable state tax credit, which will be coupled with a federal tax credit to facilitate approximately 20 development projects a year, compared with the typical 10 to 12 developments, Vincent said. The other tax credit, called the housing investor credit, is a $13 million annual credit used to address housing development with a focus on rural communities.
It also authorizes the Kansas Housing Resources Corporation to guarantee loans of $100,000 or less on single family homes in counties with less than 10,000 population.
“I think the thing that the housing study really put into writing was just the fact that every community has its own housing needs, every region does,” Vincent said. “There’s commonality, there’s similarities, but there’s no one solution to any community’s housing needs, and it really takes the whole range of services.”
Vincent said Kansas Housing receives approximately 4,000 applications a week from Kansans who are facing eviction.
“I think that when a pandemic hit, we wouldn’t have had the crisis that we have if people already had healthy homes that were affordable, so that when they lost their job, they wouldn’t immediately be getting evicted or foreclosed on,” Vincent said.
“So I do think it takes addressing the income side, I think it takes addressing long-term housing solutions, which we’ve got great models for. We just have to have the actual funding for the development, which this new state investment is a good down payment for.”
Catholic Charities of Southwest Kansas serves 28 counties in the region as a homeless service provider and receives U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funding through the Continuum of Care.
Kansas Statewide Homeless Coalition is a nonprofit based in Lawrence that provides advocacy, education and collaboration to end homelessness in Kansas.
This article was used by permission from the Kansas Reflector. The Kansas Reflector is a non-profit online news organization serving Kansas. For more information on the organization, go to its website at www.kansasreflector.com.