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Countywide study identifies housing gaps but Olathe is working on 'opportunities to advance housing initiatives' locally

Cities participated in a recent study that sought to clarify community-wide housing needs as a health equity issue.

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HousingForAll

A home in northwest Olathe near College Boulevard.

There’s a lack of “attainable” housing in Johnson County to different degrees across the community — that’s according to a recent housing study conducted by the nonprofit United Community Services of Johnson County located in Overland Park. 

Across the county, cities voluntarily participated in a recent study backed by a grant from the Kansas Health Foundation that sought to clarify community-wide housing needs and concerns as a health equity issue. 

“Housing was by far the biggest expense that anybody had, and it was becoming more and more challenging for people to manage it well,” said Kristy Baughman, director of education and planning for UCS. “Safe, stable, attainable housing is the foundation of healthy communities.” 

AREAS OF CONCERN 

Each city has specific gaps and surpluses related to its available housing stock, Baughman said, but there were common themes across the county. 

One key element the study identified is that the cost of living across Johnson County has increased faster than the average household income, according to the housing study report. 

“So we're not just talking about housing challenges facing people with lower incomes, we're talking about housing challenges for people who are just starting out starting families, we're talking about challenges for people who are already kind of established and would like to maybe move to a larger home but cannot find one that is affordable,” Baughman said, “and we're talking about older folks who are finding it more and more difficult to age in place and stay in their community.” 

Also, the county has seen an influx of multifamily housing options over the last decade or so but it has not kept pace with demand. In general, “more supply is needed across all price points and home types,” the first chapter of the housing study results say. That includes more affordable housing for aging populations who want to stay in their home city. There remains a lack of housing in the “missing middle,” which is another term to describe multifamily homes of a smaller scale than the high-rise apartment structures. This category often includes duplexes. 

There’s also a wide-range need for lower-cost rentals. In Olathe alone, the study predicts the city needs about 1,700 more rental units priced below $1,000 a month to meet demand. The only top-tier city with more need in that category is Overland Park, which is short by about 2,800 units. 

OLATHE HOUSING GAPS 

In Olathe — as well as Spring Hill and Overland Park — there was an increase in the number of households in cost-burdensome housing. That effect is felt more aggressively by renters. Between 2000 and 2018, there was an increase of more than 14% in that metric for Olathe. In 2018, the study reported that just shy of 47% of Olathe’s renters were living in cost-burdensome housing. 

Additionally, the city has“a good number of units available to households making between $25,000 and $75,000,” but those options “are filled by higher income households and often unavailable to households in this income range.” The study also says “more than half of the households earning more than [$150,000] fill units attainable to lower income households thus creating a shortage of housing units for many first-time home buyers and those looking to step up from their first home.” 

There is also a concern that the housing stock in the city may not be able to adequately meet the needs of “people with physical and/or mental disabilities, students, low wage workers and households needing access to transit.” Those concerns were highlighted in the community perceptions portion of Olathe’s community profile. 

HOUSING FOR ALL TOOL KIT 

But there is a “strong” drive from the city governments to address the concerns outlined in the study, Baughman says. 

“There is a lot of momentum to come up with innovative solutions,” she said. “I think that decisions that we make now about housing in Johnson County are going to be really vital in terms of what our community looks like going forward — who can afford to live here, who will be able to thrive here, what the spirit of our community … will be going forward.” 

Nearly 120 people from across Johnson County, including Olathe, sat on the Housing for All Task Force, which played a role in forming the associated housing toolkit meant to address barriers and outline areas of improvement. The task force is meant to shape strategies built from the findings of the study into community solutions. 

Per the document, “the Housing for All Task Force’s goal is to shape the future of housing by creating strategies to achieve the community’s vision of safe, stable, and attainable housing for all.” Such housing would not only be up to code, but it would be available at all income levels without being cost-burdensome — anything greater than 30% of a household’s income reaches that limit, according to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

The toolkit breaks into five areas of focus:

  • preserve and rehabilitate existing housing stock 

  • Reduce overall household expenses so housing is more affordable

  • Increase the variety of housing product types, especially middle density

  • Incentivize production of affordable and attainable housing stock by sharing risk, reducing gaps in the private market, and funding housing

  • Build affordable and attainable housing advocacy

Each of those areas is further broken down in the toolkit and can be personalized to the needs of each city, Baughman said. 

“I think the toolkit is helping cities to be able to identify what kind of barriers they face, what opportunities they have and provide just an opportunity for some creativity,” Baughman said. “The toolkit that we put out is designed to be flexible and to be used by every community in their own way.” 

OLATHE HOUSING SOLUTIONS 

Olathe, according to the toolkit summary document, already has a number of initiatives that meet these goals either fully or partially. 

In particular, Olathe has a Deferred Loan Program and an Emergency Repair Program that help to cover costs incurred from maintenance and repairs, which falls under the first focus area.  The city also has a Homeownership Program that helps prospective buyers learn about owning a home.  

Additionally, the townhomes — an infill development — east of Olathe West High fall under the third focus area, which focuses on increasing housing-type diversity. These homes are built in such a way that they are integrated into the surrounding neighborhood but offer more housing opportunities than traditional single-family dwellings. 

The toolkit also cites several factors as barriers to the affordable housing across all income levels, including the county’s history of residential redlining, low wages compared to high costs of living and restrictive zoning that limits multifamily housing. There is further discussion of some of the key problems facing current and potential residents in the county. Specifically, it emphasizes the cost of housing, development costs, lack of diversity in housing options among other things. 

Cody Kennedy, chief communications and marketing officer for Olathe, says city staff are “in the process of reviewing the final document and identifying opportunities to advance housing initiatives in Olathe.” Before the end of the year, city staff are also expected to give some kind of presentation on the findings of the study before the City Council. 

Dianna Wright, director of the economic focus area for the city, said the findings of the housing survey and the resulting toolkit play into the Olathe 2040 strategic plan. 

“One of our goals for in 2040 is to improve the health of all neighborhoods,” Wright said during an August City Council meeting. 

Beyond local governments, Baughman said citizens will need to play a role in finding solutions too. 

“I think that community engagement is really essential. I think that one of the things that made this work so successful was how many people in the county participated,” she said. “I don't think that it's going to be possible for one solution for all communities or one solution that's going to meet the needs for everyone. I think that it's going to take a lot of creativity and a lot of forward thinking and vision.”

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