Part One: Does Kansas City Have an Affordable Housing Problem?
Kansas City has long been the crossroads of the United States. Once a frontier outpost in the 1800s, the region served as the trailhead for the Santa Fe, California, and Oregon Trails and was a robust riverboat shipping port. In modern times, Kansas City is among the most prominent intermodal hubs in the country. It is the largest freight center in the country by tonnage and the country’s third-largest trucking center. It’s far from an ocean or mountain, but its geographic advantages—its location and ample land—are at the heart of what the region is and how it sees itself.
That short description of Kansas City isn’t to imply that the region is some monolithic cow town with roads, and Kansas Citians have a plethora of living options to serve their lifestyle needs. Residents can make their home in a rural area and commute to an office downtown in as little as 15 minutes. Urban living options are plentiful, and the local art scene is vibrant and growing.
Indeed, variety is a hallmark of living in the City of Fountains, and that variety is facilitated by the vast geographic space available to its citizens. The Kansas City Metropolitan Statistical Area, or MSA, is the 31st largest in the country, but in terms of population density, the Kansas City MSA ranks far down the list at 121st. There’s space to live in Kansas City, and for years the living’s been relatively cheap.
With a variety of lifestyle choices and ample land, could Kansas City nonetheless be suffering from an affordability problem? Local reporting on its housing stock and costs has reflected many of the housing affordability journalism trends nationally, with most journalistic conclusions pointing to the Kansas City region being in the middle of some sort of a “housing crisis.” A June 2021 report by KCUR captures this dynamic well, suggesting that a “shortage of affordable housing in Kansas City is not a new problem. But the pandemic exacerbated the crisis and exposed the region’s failure to act” (Emphasis mine).
How can a region become “unaffordable” for housing, and what should constitute the region’s “action” to fight this “affordable housing” crisis? Often the solution provided by public officials to solve affordable housing problems is subsidies, typically either for new housing construction or some form of direct rent assistance. But the basis of the underlying claim—that affordable housing in Kansas City isn’t a “new problem”—requires greater evaluation than is typically given in news reports.
We’re told we have an affordable housing problem in Kansas City. But do we? This blog series will explore this question and consider whether the city and the state’s policies are aligned in a way to address the issue if it exists, or protect against its formation if it doesn’t.