Advocacy Organization Throws Kansas City Politics a Curveball Two-Weeks Out From Election
By Samuel Ast, Political Contributor
Earlier this March, an advocacy organization representing renters held a protest in front of City Hall to unveil their platform and to demand a response from a large field of local candidates seeking elected office in Kansas City.
The group’s debut comes just a month away from the April 2 primary, at the tail end of a campaign season that has been laser focused on housing issues since the first forums were held last year.
Since then, six mayoral candidates and five candidates for city council have formally issued direct responses to a questionnaire sent to them by the new organization, KC Tenants.
Included in the questionnaire were questions pertaining to the group’s platform, which includes a comprehensive list of proposed fixes to a number of issues concerning affordable housing, renter protections, and ethics reform surrounding political contributions made by landlords, developers and realtors.
According to the organization’s platform, the group believes that contributions from the development industry buy them “undue influence in municipal elections and local policymaking.” As far as municipal candidates are concerned, a statement with that kind of clarity is harder to come by.
Stacey Johnson-Cosby, a city council candidate for Sixth District, does not believe that voting on legislation that pertains to development or housing after accepting contributions from those affiliated with the real estate industry represents a conflict of interest. According to Johnson-Cosby, a policy that prohibits what KC Tenants calls developer dollars, would keep those with the experience and the skills in real estate from serving Kansas City on the council.
“It would bar people from the very industry that we currently need to solve the affordable housing crisis problem,” said Stacey. “Where does it end? Who chooses which professions are barred? This barring of participants of certain professions only serves to limit who participates in our democracy – as candidates and contributors, and that’s not fair,” she adds.
Second District Councilman Dan Fowler, who is Chairman of the Ethics Committee and also serves as Vice Chair of the Housing Committee, does not think that KC Tenant’s developer dollars ban is workable, and also argued against the notion that accepting campaign contributions sways council votes.
“Taken to the logical extremes, there are very few people in Kansas City who do not have some kind of interest in real estate or development. A homeowner has an interest in real estate,” said Fowler. “A person working for an apartment complex may have an interest as well because that person is employed in maintaining real estate,” he continues, “So where do you draw the line?”
Andrea Bough, who is also running for the Sixth District city council seat and is an attorney who represents Missouri and Kansas developers, was among those that responded to KC Tenants platform. “Several of my clients and colleagues have contributed to my campaign. These contributions, however, account for less than 10 percent of my total contributions,” she said in a response to the questionnaire sent out by the group. She has also committed to recuse herself from any project that involves a client of her firm if she is elected–a procedure already mandated by the city’s Code of Ethics.
Despite the chorus of those arguing against the idea of municipal campaign finance reform, some–like mayoral hopeful and current chair of the Housing Committee Quinton Lucas– remain open to discussing a ban on developer dollars in municipal campaigns, and are willing to commit to working with the group on some of their other goals.
One such goal is to see to it that a Housing Trust Fund is established and adequately funded. KC Tenants is supportive of the council’s efforts to create a $75 million trust fund to help fund housing rehabilitation and new construction, though they make clear their belief that $75 million is not enough.
One question that has dogged the Housing Committee since the idea was first formulated is how to fund the Housing Trust Fund. Some have suggested that money could be diverted to the fund from the city’s existing general fund, or by using money generated by the Central City Economic Development sales tax approved by voters in 2017.
To this point Councilman Fowler thinks that the only way to go about finding revenue for housing would be through a property tax increase, a proposal that has been floated by Finance Committee Chair, and mayoral candidate, Scott Wagner.
“I do not see the existing general fund as a viable option. There are already too many pressures on it. If the pre-K sales tax passes, then an Economic Development sales tax is not an option because we will not be able to raise any more Economic Development sales taxes because of state imposed caps. That leaves the property tax,” said Fowler.
Last month, members of the Housing Committee unanimously agreed to hold discussions about potential sources of funding after the April 2 election during the committee’s April 10 meeting.