Part 5: Does Kansas City Have an Affordable Housing Problem?
(You can read part one, part two, part three, and part four in this series here.)
How affordable is housing in Kansas City? The answer depends not only on how you define “affordable” for individuals, but also for a city or region as a whole. Earlier posts in this series discussed housing affordability for individuals, and how factors other than income can affect what housing is attainable. But when it comes to regions, the question of affordability becomes much more complicated.
For most people, when they say housing is unaffordable, they mean that it’s too hard to find a suitable place to live in an area they want for a price they can afford. For a region, the affordability discussion can take many different shapes. Are there enough places to live? Is the cost of renting or purchasing housing too expensive everywhere, or in specific areas only? How many people are struggling to find affordable housing? What is causing the unaffordability? And what could be done to address the issue?
A few months ago, I wrote about a report that tried to assess the housing affordability situation in St. Louis, and the results were illuminating. Like Kansas City, St. Louis and the surrounding region score fairly well on most affordability metrics. Nevertheless, this particular report gave St. Louis a “C” grade. According to the report, the way to determine whether a region has an affordability problem is by taking the number of people earning different incomes and comparing that to the number of housing options that would be affordable for them. The idea seems straightforward enough, but the grades require a bit of nuance because of the way housing affordability is defined, which is residents spending 30% or less of their income on housing.
The middling grade for St. Louis was not a result of the region having too few places to live. In fact, there are more places to live in St. Louis than people to live in them. Nor was the issue that those earning around the area median income were having too hard of a time finding affordable places to live. The problem was specifically an inadequate supply of housing with low enough rents to be affordable for people making less than 30% of the area’s median income, which for St. Louis represents a family of three making less than $23,000 per year. To put that in context, affordable housing for this specific family would mean a 2–3-bedroom residence that costs (with utilities) less than $560 per month, which is understandably hard to find.
So, when does a region have a housing affordability problem? Tying the definition of “affordable” to the income of residents assures that some amount of housing will always be considered unaffordable to someone. Ultimately, when you’re not talking about places like San Francisco or New York City, the answer for most regions is likely a subjective one that local officials and their communities may be best equipped to handle. Regardless of what’s decided, it’s important that elected officials have a good idea of what they’re trying to solve and how they’re going to solve it before they start enacting policies or throwing tax dollars at the apparent problem.
The next post in the series will discuss some of the ways in which the government has tried to address housing affordability.