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Johnson County poverty increase highlights the need for affordable housing

Salvation Army food pantry
Five year poverty report in Johnson County
Posted at 6:48 PM, Feb 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-02 00:06:09-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — United Community Services of Johnson County released its five-year census report on poverty and the results point to a housing market that has yet to improve.

"We're seeing a bit of a missing middle," Julie Brewer executive director of United Community Services of Johnson County, said "We're seeing the cost burden of renters and some of that can be attributable to not enough variety of rental choices."

Brewer said renters and homeowners are cost-burdened, which means they are paying more than 30% of their income on housing.

Cost-burdened renters range from a high of 43% to a low of 39% over the last five years. For homeowners, the number ranges from 20% to 17% over the last five years.

The median household income in the county is $83,000. However, the income drastically drops to $39,000 if you are a female head-of-household. Black and Latino household median incomes also reflect a disproportionality.

Brewer said this problem has been building over time.

The 18 to 24-year-old age range has experienced the highest rate of poverty in just about every city in the county.

The poverty rate in Johnson County is 5.4%, which has remained the same over the last five years but certain pockets of the county are seeing increases, such as communities along the I-35 corridor.

Poverty in cities like Roeland Park, Merriam, Mission, Olathe and rural parts of Gardner and DeSoto has increased.

"You're looking at your work force and knowing about 40% of jobs in Johnson County fall into that office administration sector, the food service and retail sector, the customer service sector. And those salaries top out around $35,000 and when we compare that to housing prices, there's that disconnect," Brewer said.

In 2019, a group of cities committed to a county-wide housing study that started in 2020. The report will be released at the end of January. Brewer said the report will show a housing deficit for lower-income families.

Cities will use the information to update their strategic planning and improve housing.

Brewer said the five-year census data helps the county strengthen their safety nets.

This data cuts off at 2019, however Brewer said they already know poverty rates will be much higher in 2020.

Paid unemployment claims topped out at more than 18,000 in May. Unemployment claims dipped in the summer and early fall but started to increase again going into December, when more than 8,000 claims were paid out.

In 2020, when COVID-19 hit, all of the need came to a head. The long line of carts full of food donations at the Olathe Salvation Army reflects this impact, where the need has tripled.

Before the pandemic, The Salvation Army was receiving 20 appointments per month for people needing assistance. By April, they were dealing with 50.

It hasn't slowed down. In just three hours on Monday, 47 new people called for help with rent or utilities. Many are months behind.

Amanda Allen, the emergency assistance manager, said the majority of people needing help were already on the verge of being low-income before the pandemic.

"A year ago they would come to me and owe maybe a month's worth of rent with maybe a late fee. Now they're owing three and four months of rent with many, many late fees," Allen said.

People who were on the median or even higher income side also lost their jobs. Being able to afford $1,200 in rent quickly became impossible when they were only bringing in $900 worth of unemployment benefits.

"It goes back to the cost of living," Allen said. "If the cost of living remains high but someone's income remains the same or drops, how can they make an effort in their life?"

The Olathe Salvation Army can help anyone in Johnson County except for Overland Park and Lenexa because they don't have dollars allocated for those cities.

They can't help every person who calls but can refer people to other agencies like Catholic Charities and Jewish Community Center.

Allen said The Salvation Army is set to receive more county funding this year to help more people.

"I want to live in Johnson County because I work here," Allen said. "I should have the right to live and work in the same community just like anyone else."