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Affordable housing taking center stage in City Hall

Posted: 7:04 PM, Jul 12, 2018
Updated: 2018-07-13 00:04:30Z

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — By the end of the summer, Kansas City will have a new five-year housing policy. 

The affordable housing issue has captured the attention of not only the Department of Neighborhoods and Housing Services but also council members running for higher office.

For all parties interested, the definition of affordable can be elusive.

"Me personally, I was paying on average in the $600's, $700's," Jazmine Wood, describing her rent in Kansas City, said. 

"I felt like $700 was affordable for one person, a one bedroom for myself," Jessica Montoya, who rents in Hyde Park, said. 

The answer varies depending on income, the cost of utilities and many other factors. 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's guidelines define housing as affordable if it takes up no more than 30 percent of gross median household income. That doesn't take into account the amount left after taxes. 

"There still isn't a science to that term yet," Director of Neighborhoods and Housing Services John Wood said. 

At the end of last year, City Council gave his department a big task: to create a five-year housing plan. Since then Wood and his staff have been busy interviewing council members, developers and groups that help the homeless. They also held public meetings, gathering feedback from 250 people. 

Wood found the same theme came up time and time again.

"The prominent one was just simply affordable. I need a house that I can afford. I need a unit that I can afford," he said. 

The debate over affordability reached a fever pitch this spring when City Council passed incentives for Three Light. In exchange, Cordish was to add 100 "affordable" units in another downtown building it owns. The problem? There was no definition for affordable housing. 

Councilman Quinton Lucas introduced legislation setting it at no more than 30 percent of median household income, which is the federal guideline. Council passed the ordinance, which applies to projects receiving tax incentives from the city. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median income in Kansas City in 2016 was $47,489. That means rent would need to be less than $1,187. 

"I think it's really a fairness and equity issue, and I'm glad people are talking about it now," Lucas said.

This week another mayoral candidate, Councilman Scott Taylor, also waded into the issue. Taylor proposed using TIF surpluses to start an affordable housing fund.

"I think we could do more from an affordable housing standpoint, get ahead of the curve and not be in the position Denver has been in, Seattle and San Francisco," Taylor said in a committee meeting Wednesday.

Lucas dismissed Taylor's proposal, saying it was not a long-term solution for affordable housing. Councilwoman Heather Hall suggested adding the surpluses to an existing fund to help residents with water bills. That idea was tabled until September.

The five-year housing plan will be ready either next month or in September. John Wood hopes they can answer what affordable truly means.

"My goal is to have a definition for it that applies to Kansas City that's relatively universal. That's the goal," he said.