Editorial by Samuel Ast, political contributor
The race to become the next mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, will only heat up as this year cools down. Currently nine candidates are running for the job, including six now serving on the City Council. The field of contenders will narrow to just two after the primaries in April, with the final results becoming clear two months later after the general election in June. One thing to know: Housing seems to be the focal point of the discussion.
The mayor’s race is an indicator of which issues matter most to the city and its residents. Thus far, the debate has centered around several major issues, including access to affordable and quality housing as well as how to best incentivize new development without contributing to the more harmful aspects of gentrification taking place in other parts of the city to disastrous effect.
It is abundantly clear to anyone living in the metro area that parts of Kansas City are in dire need of rehabilitation and reinvestment in order to stem the outward flow of people, and by extension, valuable resources. Much-needed tax dollars have been leaking out of what are now some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods for more than 50 years–tax dollars that are crucial for funding schools and maintaining and improving our infrastructure. More discussion is needed, though, from the candidates concerning how they plan to capture the necessary amounts of public money needed to assist these residents and their families when it comes to housing.
One of the root causes of Kansas City’s deteriorating neighborhoods, businesses, high levels of poverty, and educational outcomes is the lack of availability of safe, affordable housing. Many competing housing ordinances have been floated by City Council members, though they often are short on specifics. One proposal released in September 2018 sketches a plan to add 5,000 affordable units to the city’s existing housing stock by 2023, something that is estimated to cost the city $75 million.
This number brings us to an important aspect of this–or any–plan, and that is funding. How the city plans to finance their efforts matters. One idea of how to generate and spend money for housing is to create a housing trust fund. This fund would subsidize home repairs and possibly even give mortgage loans to people living in certain areas where banks are reluctant to lend.
But if recent housing committee meetings are any indication, leaders still have a ways to go before they can effectively implement solutions to this growing need. What seems to be animating these meetings is an underlying confusion over locating a revenue source, and disagreement over finding ways to spend that money on housing. During a contentious Dec. 12 session, city officials grappled with their own legal team over questions as broad as constitutionality and as specific as the Hancock amendment, which places caps on the total amount of taxes that can be collected before voter approval is needed. Emerging in this fog of ambiguity are the early stages of a consensus that maybe a sales tax is the best bet for generating housing revenue.
Once a final plan is settled on, the Council must ensure that any unintended consequences of new housing are mitigated. This entails monitoring and adjusting property taxes as home prices rise so that more displacement does not follow, as well as making sure that tax incentives given to housing developers and investors are accompanied by rules that mandate certain portions of their units be reserved for low-income individuals.
But the issue of affordable housing goes far beyond constructing existing units. Coupled with the overall objective of increasing the city’s housing stock must be a series of reforms to housing and renting practices, more akin to the rental inspection program that voters passed in August 2018. Policies like rent control and other tenant protections should be considered.
Kansas City residents are generally open to the idea of tax increases for various city projects, like the Central City Economic Development sales tax increase passed in April 2019, for instance, and affordable housing projects remain widely popular with the public. It is unclear at this point which housing proposals, if any, will be voted on next year in addition to the individual candidates. One might expect to see a ballot that looks similar to the November voting over medical cannabis, which featured three separate measures related to the issue.
One thing is certain. Those running for mayor could benefit from more policy formulation and less grandstanding. Community outreach efforts are welcomed and necessary. Operating solely in the shadow of politics serves no one.