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House hunting in Kansas? Here's why the middle class has it especially hard

 A for sale sign sits in front of a home in Hays. Especially in rural areas, a lack of moderately priced homes and an aging housing stock have strained the market.
David Condos
Kansas News Service
A for sale sign sits in front of a home in Hays. Especially in rural areas, a lack of moderately priced homes and an aging housing stock have strained the market.

Statewide housing shortages continue to lock middle class Kansans out of home ownership and threaten the state’s economic growth. A new study highlights some solutions.

HAYS, Kansas — The first comprehensive look at housing needs in Kansas in nearly three decades confirmed the obvious — the state needs more — and pinpointed a particular shortage of options for middle class families.

Much of the state’s housing stock has been aimed where the money is — high-priced single-family homes or taxpayer-subsidized affordable housing.

Ryan Vincent, executive director of the Kansas Housing Resources Corporation, said that leaves a huge chunk of the population in the middle without many options for making Kansas home.

“That’s our teachers. It’s our police officers. It’s our nurses and the people that our society depends on to function,” Vincent said. “That moderate income housing band is absolutely essential for virtually every community, rural and urban alike.”

The report from the state and the Kansas Housing Resources Corp. surveyed more than 4,000 Kansans earlier this year and analyzed data from the U.S. Census to paint a picture of the state’s most pressing housing challenges and potential solutions.

Vincent said the state’s lack of middle income housing has been a consistent theme he’s heard from Kansans at the assessment’s listening sessions, which continued this month with stops in Hays and nine other cities statewide.

Especially with this year’s rise in the price of construction materials, the cost to build a small- to medium-sized house in rural Kansas often exceeds the finished home’s value upon appraisal.

“We’re hearing from communities from Salina to Iola to Norton that there’s employers wanting to come in and bring in good-paying jobs,” he said. “But the housing, the homes are what's holding us back.”

And the state’s housing shortage doesn’t just have economic development implications.

Vincent points out that housing stability is also a key factor in shaping the health and education outcomes for Kansas families. He said that’s felt across the state.

“If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we’re all interdependent and interconnected,” he said. “We all benefit when we have enough healthy, affordable, accessible homes across our state in every region.”

 At the assessment's listening session in Hays, consultant Amy Haase presents the study's preliminary findings.
David Condos
Kansas News Service
At the assessment's listening session in Hays, consultant Amy Haase presents the study's preliminary findings.

An issue of survival

So what will it take to meet this critical need across Kansas?

The report points to several potential solutions.

  • Building more housing for middle-class Kansans may mean taxpayer subsidies that can make the math work for development in areas where resale prices are low. That could include tax breaks for businesses that put money toward home construction in communities where workers live.

  • Fixing up the state’s aging housing stock. The report shows that most homes in Kansas were built before 1960. In rural parts of northwest and north-central Kansas, a majority of homes date back to the 1940s. Many have become dilapidated or sit vacant. So the report not only suggests more money for new construction. It also calls for more loans for refurbishing aging housing.

  • Diversifying from the detached single-family homes that dominate the state’s housing market, especially in rural areas. For instance, building smaller single-family homes, or more duplexes and condominiums to accommodate people at different stages of their lives. The report suggests more flexible zoning and streamlined construction permit processes.

  • The report says the state needs more people capable of working in home construction. It suggests more funding for training at community colleges and high schools.

Another solution that could address Kansas' housing shortfall would be to expand funding for a program that has already seen success.

The state’s moderate-income housing grant program has helped some rural towns take on new housing projects over the past nine years. For example, Dodge City has used those state tax dollars to fund a partnership with the local community college where students build moderately priced duplexes as part of their construction training.

But the state funding for that program — currently $2 million a year — doesn’t come close to meeting the demand, so many communities that apply for the grant get turned away.

And the program is currently only available to places with less than 60,000 residents, so opening it up to larger cities could boost middle-income housing development in places like Wichita and Topeka.

State Treasurer Lynn Rogers, who attended the Hays listening session, said that the data in the report — illustrating Kansas’ widespread housing problems and the potential impact of real solutions — could finally help build the political capital needed to spur momentum in the Legislature.

“We’ve got the stats to help them understand that it’s a statewide issue,” Rogers said. “It’s not a partisan issue. It's a community survival, community growth issue.”

The full report and its recommendations will be released within a few weeks.

David Condos covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @davidcondos.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Copyright 2021 High Plains Public Radio. To see more, visit High Plains Public Radio.

David Condos is the western Kansas correspondent for the Kansas News Service and High Plains Public Radio based in Hays, Kansas. Prior to joining KNS and HPPR, David spent four years covering mental health, addiction, trauma and rural healthcare issues as a freelance producer, reporter and host. His work has been heard on WPLN News, WAMC's 51% and Nashville Public Radio podcasts Neighbors and The Promise. After growing up in Nebraska, Colorado and Illinois, David graduated from Belmont University in Nashville and worked as an award-winning recording artist, songwriter and touring musician.