Kansas City has a housing problem. Officials have been working on it for years with little success, despite the commitment of the city council and the mayor to fix it.
Pushed by renters and the grassroots activist group KC Tenants, at that time a relatively new renters’ rights organization, fixing Kansas City’s housing problems became a major issue in the spring 2019 city elections. So it wasn’t surprising that within months of the election, the council members and new Mayor Quinton Lucas passed the Tenants Bill of Rights, expanding renters’ rights and establishing the city’s commitment to protecting them.
That was late 2019, and the council was off to a fast start on housing that appeared promising. Understandably, the world’s focus changed just months later when attention shifted to fighting a global pandemic. However, three full years after their election to address the city’s housing issues, the city council and mayor have garnered only a few temporary wins against the city’s housing problems. Solutions that significantly improve the city’s problem with homelessness and its lack of quality affordable housing have been modest and few.
In the midst of the pandemic, the issue of housing remained important. Thanks to eviction moratoriums, a large number of residents remained housed; rent and mortgage assistance made available through federal funding helped wipe out housing debts and the city focused on methods to help keep the houseless safe and healthy in the midst of a contagious and deadly disease.
However, In January 2021 the mayor and city council were forced into action by the newly formed Kansas City Homeless Union that began encampments on the lawn of city hall and at a second location in Westport. In response to the freezing death of a housing encampment resident, the city had opened Bartle Hall as a nightly warming facility, but that wasn’t enough for said members of the homeless. The union’s demands included stable dignified housing assistance and a seat at the decision-making table.
The city threatened to dismantle the encampment. However, on the second scheduled date for the eviction, activists showed up in support of the Homeless Union. The mobilization was enough to get the mayor to sit down with the union and negotiate.
The growing problem with houselessness hasn’t escaped the Midwest with cities in both Kansas and Missouri struggling to find creative solutions.
KC Tenants, a renter’s union founded in 2019, continually pushes the City to provide safe, accessible ,truly affordable homes, but a solution will come with a big price tag.
A lot more than the bright yellow t-shirts the members are known for.
In early April, the Homeless Union and the city reached an agreement. In a short-term fix, the city agreed to provide housing in hotels for up to 500 people for 90 days. At that time, the estimated homeless population of the city was estimated at between from 1,500 to 2,000.
Two months into the hotel program, the administrators had helped 344 people. Ten of those people found permanent housing and 46 found part-time or full-time employment.
The agreement with the Homeless Union also included a proposal to work with the unhoused to find jobs, including positions in the city’s Public Works Department. The houseless were also given a seat at the table – positions on the city’s Houseless Task Force established to look at solutions to address homelessness in the city.
The city also put forth a plan to sell homes from the city housing bank for $1 to organizations that would renovate them and prioritize renting the houses to people whose household income was less than 30% of the city’s median income.
Requests for proposals were sent but with the houses needing tens of thousands of dollars in renovations, the program as proposed proved financially impossible for the organizations to balance the costs of repairs against the rent level required in the proposal.
Only four responses were received by the July 2021 deadline. Two of those proposals advanced for further review, but neither of those fully met the program’s requirements.
With the end to the 90-day hotel agreement approaching, the city began looking into the concept of a tiny-home pallet village called Verge. The city originally proposed a $2.7 million program that would house 200 people, but had an ultimate goal of building 600 of these 64-sq.-ft., climate-controlled pallet homes.
The city would be responsible for maintaining and providing food and onsite laundry facilities. Wraparound services, including counseling, employment assistance and case workers, would also be provided.
The idea sounded great, until people began to realize the small homes wouldn’t have running water or bathrooms, both of which would be provided at a centralized location in the village. Soon there were cries from the community expressing concerns about the habitability of the homes and calling the project inhumane.
However, the largest problem with the project became where to put the village. Out came the NIMBYs – the Not in My Back Yard people – many of whom wrapped their opposition to the village around the “inhumanity” of the project rather than acknowledge what many perceived as their truel opposition – placing a project they perceived as potentially dangerous in their neighborhood.
When 3rd District Councilwoman Melissa Robinson introduced a resolution to house the project at the Municipal Farm, a 440-acre facility located south of KC professional sports complex, members of the nearby Eastwood Hills community immediately opposed it.
Their opposition was enough to put the pallet homes on hold, where they still remain.
Houseless Task Force
In February 2021, Mayor Lucas announced formation of a Houseless Task Force to look at ideas to address the issue. Fifth District City Councilwoman Ryanna Parks-Shaw was appointed to chair the committee. Although the task force has been hard at work, so far they’ve failed to make an impact on this issue.
The task force’s most visible project to date was the introduction of Heart Carts, personal rolling carts provided free of charge to the homeless to keep their belongings in. While Parks-Shaw caught a lot of grief for the carts (which were rolling garbage cans with “Heart Cart” labels glued on), the program did provide a needed service.
The city provided 70 carts and the Downtown Council provided a secure facility for cart storage. “We have been listening to the community, and seeking innovative ways to help those in need,” said Parks-Shaw at the Heart Cart launch. “The Heart Cart symbolizes our concern, while solving a problem in a very practical way.”
Other Projects that Failed
Pallet homes failed to move forward and the plan to renovate housing bank homes, as proposed, proved unworkable. Those are just two of the city’s proposed ideas to end houselessness that have failed to be implemented.
Working on the theory of “housing first” that affirms getting people housed should be the city’s highest priority, Councilmember Robinson introduced a proposal to have City Manager Brian Platt determine the cost for building low-barrier emergency shelters.
Many of the shelters run by local nonprofits have a lot of restrictions. Some of them require you to participate in prayer groups, or counseling or drug rehabilitation. Because of the many restrictions, including the hours you can come and go, many of the homeless won’t go to the shelters.
“You can’t come. You can’t go. They’re locked down,” said James Qadhafi Shelby, president and organizer of the Kansas City Homeless Union. “When you can’t go and come as you choose, you’re in jail.”
The shelters proposed by Robinson would place much lower restrictions and requirements on individuals wanting to access the shelters services. This plan, introduced last month, has also stalled with councilmembers agreeing not to take piecemeal action. Even though the ideas had the support of Councilmember Parks-Shaw who chairs the Houseless Task Force, a committee of the City Council voted to wait on moving this idea forward until a more comprehensive housing plan being prepared by the city Houseless Task Force is presented. That plan is expected sometime this month.
Other plans that are on hold include a program that would have made showers available for the homes, a confusing proposal that would have allowed landowners to permit individuals to tent on their property and a proposal to convert old hotel space into affordable housing.
The Houseless Task Force has been working on a comprehensive plan to address homelessness and they’re scheduled to present the plan before the end of this month.
How this plan will differ from the plan submitted by the city’s Housing Department in the past is unclear. For certain, say the professionals, it needs to be different than what the city is doing today.
“You have to think big to solve this problem,” said Josh Henges, Kansas City’s Housing Prevention Coordinator. “Big and creative. Because what we’re doing right now is not working, and I think it’s painfully obvious.”