The Multimodal Route to Affordable Housing

By the BikeWalkKC Policy Team, Eric Bunch and Michael Kelley

It’s no secret that Kansas City (like the rest of the region and the nation) has an affordable housing problem. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines affordability as when a household spends no more than 30% of its income on housing-related costs. As a recent report from the City notes, “nearly 28% of homeowners and almost half of renters in the city are housing cost burdened.”

The availability of affordable housing — and an abundance of housing in general — in our urban core is an issue critical to our mission to make KCMO a more walkable, more bikeable place. This is why we support affordable housing policy.

Transportation and development patterns are interdependent: Safe active transportation and reliable public transit rely on proximity to housing, jobs, schools, parks, and daily necessities — for neighborhoods to be walkable, things have to be close together. Improving proximity through development increases demand for transit, bike lanes, and wider sidewalks. As cities respond to this demand by investing in complete streets and transit, there is a danger that housing costs will increase, potentially displacing the very people who most depend on these transportation options. In other words: as we improve the quality of life for KCMO, more people want to live here.

There is no question that demand for housing is increasing, particularly in neighborhoods in the River-Crown-Plaza corridor. How we respond to that demand is critical to our city’s future.

In recognition of this challenge, KCMO City Councilman Quinton Lucas and Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner have introduced a suite of affordable housing legislation. We look at a couple of these in a bit more detail below.

BikeWalkKC welcomes this effort to address one of the most pressing issues of the decade, but we also encourage city officials to examine the full range of needs for improving access to housing and opportunity. Specifically, we must address equitable mobility by expanding safe, reliable transportation options. Agencies like HUD are increasingly finding in their own research that:

  • “Transportation is the second-largest annual expenditure after housing.” Editorial note: In Kansas City, the cost of transportation is about equal to that of housing for the average resident.
  • “Limited transportation options mean reduced access to jobs, public spaces (such as parks, plazas, and campuses), and key goods and services.”
  • Forcing development of places that rely on car transportation “can hinder the purpose of housing assistance by increasing a household’s expenditures on transportation, even as they save money on housing.”

How we build housing is important, but so is what considerations we give to connecting such development to the rest of the city. Deliberately thinking about how we can enable future residents to move from their dwellings to their jobs, schools, and elsewhere has serious implications for our economy, our culture, and our climate.

You can view the package of proposed policies here, but there are two areas in particular that deserve a closer look as this discussion moves forward:

  • Resolution 180722 would require a study of a potential inclusionary zoning policy for KCMO. As the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University explains, “[Inclusionary zoning] policies either require or encourage new residential developments to make a certain percentage of the housing units affordable to low- or moderate-income residents.”This is smart because it begins the process of evaluating what is the appropriate approach for the Kansas City housing market. However, there is a risk that inclusionary zoning policy makes development so costly or onerous that new housing supply dries up, making housing even less affordable. This study should answer some important questions of how we apply it here:
    • Is the inclusion of some amount of affordable housing required of all developments? Or is it required for just those receiving public incentives? Or is it just for the ones within a certain distance of public transportation?
    • What’s the right amount of affordable housing in each project?
    • Does it apply to developments of any size or just larger projects?
    • What about developments that don’t include housing, like office or retail? Is there a linkage fee to help develop affordable housing elsewhere?
  • Ordinance 180723 is intended to encourage the development of dense housing, particularly near transit corridors. Among other things, it would reduce the required parking in new developments near transit. This “density bonus” ordinance relates to the city’s adopted transit-oriented development (TOD) policy and should rely on expanding multimodal transportation opportunities.While the city’s TOD policy encourages walkable, higher intensity development near public transportation, such an approach isn’t always the case in practice. Instead, there tends to be an emphasis on where new residents will park and the impact on congestion. Exisiting residents express concerns over losing neighborhood character, building height, and view obstruction. This fundamentally ignores the needs of low- and even moderate-income residents.

    As a 2009 survey from the Federal Highway Administration notes, low-income households “have the lowest rates of single occupancy vehicle use and the highest usage of less costly travel modes: carpool, transit, bike and walk.” Dedicating more space to parking increases the cost of new developments and reduces the number of residences. This extra cost is passed on to the tenants if the development happens at all. As such, the proposal to reduce parking minimums in this ordinance is a good step. But many parts of the city have already completely eliminated parking minimums. City officials should ensure this ordinance does not inadvertently reinstate mandatory parking minimums where we’ve already taken deliberate steps to remove them.

    This ordinance can be further strengthened in a few ways, if not now, perhaps in the future:

    • Institute parking maximums for development in high-frequency transit corridors.
    • Require that developers “unbundle” the cost of parking from rent – rolling parking fees into rent unfairly causes a burden for those who don’t drive. This especially harms lower-income residents.
    • Upzone areas within a quarter mile of high-frequency transit – huge swaths of the city within walking distance to MAX routes and future streetcar routes have such strict zoning that much of the historic building stock (including single family homes) would be illegal if it were built today. Until this is addressed, hundreds of lots, ready for small scale development, will remain vacant.

At the end of the day, this policy package and the debate that necessitated its creation is about providing equitable opportunities for all of our neighbors: opportunities for more jobs, more options for healthcare, and greater choices for education, to name a few. If we want to build a better Kansas City, that means we must build a more inclusive Kansas City, which must start and end with how we provide greater opportunities for people to get from one place to another.

Posted in Advocacy, Local, News and tagged , , , , , .