A canvasser knocks on a white door decorated with an autumn wreath.
Maya Neal, a leader with KC Tenants Power, knocks on an apartment door in south Kansas City. Both housing activists and government officials are supporting Kansas City Question 2, which would add $50 million to the city’s housing trust fund. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

Housing activists like Maya Neal have had their differences with city hall. But an afternoon in late October found Neal knocking on doors in south Kansas City in support of a ballot question sponsored by Mayor Quinton Lucas and the City Council.

“I’m going around talking to neighbors about Question 2 on November’s ballot. It’s $50 million for the housing trust fund,” Neal, a leader of the newly founded KC Tenants Power group, told residents who answered her knock. “If passed, this money would go towards creating or maintaining affordable units in Kansas City. This would be around $580 per month for a one-bedroom. Can we count on your ‘yes’ vote?”

Some residents at the senior living facility where Neal was canvassing that day answered that they’ll need to do more research. Others were pleasantly surprised at the level of affordability the housing trust fund promises.

“Affordable housing in Kansas City sucks,” one resident said. A nearby homeowner said, “That’s much better than I would think.” Both said they would be voting yes on Kansas City Question 2 in the Nov. 8 general election.

“I would say most of the people that I talk to are absolutely on board that affordable housing at the deeper affordability — $550 to $750 per month — is what Kansas City needs,” Neal told The Beacon.

Shall the City of Kansas City, Missouri issue its general obligation bonds in an amount not to exceed $50,000,000.00 for the purpose of affordable housing through the rehabilitation, renovation, and construction of houses and buildings, including blight removal, to provide affordable housing for very low- to moderate-income households?

The authorization of the bonds will authorize the City to maintain tangible property tax rates sufficient to pay the interest and principal on the bonds until fully paid.

This money could help fund more than 2,000 new affordable housing units

The ballot question would authorize the city to issue a $50 million bond. It would come at no additional cost to taxpayers because it would replace a different bond that the city will finish paying this year. With that bond fully paid off, Lucas said he believes there is space in the city’s expense budget to take on another debt of $50 million.

“I compare it to if you bought a car, and then you fully pay it off,” Lucas told The Beacon. “You were still used to paying $200 a month, right? We’re just transferring the amount of money to be paid on it.”

However, the bond would be a one-time payment to the housing trust fund, and the proposal includes no continual funding for the fund. Once the $50 million runs out, the city will need to replenish the fund to keep using it.

Lucas said he wants to make sure the program works before the city commits to any additional funding. 

“You want to make sure that you’re actually spending the money well,” he said. “We want to show our success, show how many units we build.”

He gave the example of a program in Los Angeles that spent $550,000 on each housing unit it created. For a $50 million fund, this would translate to fewer than 100 housing units.

By comparison, Lucas said Kansas City’s housing trust fund spent $23,000 per unit with its initial allotted funding. With this cost level, the $50 million bond from Kansas City Question 2 could create more than 2,000 housing units if approved. 

How the city chooses its projects

The Housing Trust Fund Advisory Board includes nine members from a variety of local nonprofits and businesses. Two of the members are from KC Tenants. 

The board considers applications for funding, which could include new developments, renovations of existing structures, support for homeowners or transitional housing. Application materials can be found on its website. The board then recommends projects to the City Council for approval.

In August, the advisory board recommended 14 projects for approval, all of which were approved by the City Council, totaling a little less than $8 million. The projects include 456 affordable units. Nearly half of this funding went to transitional housing for people with disabilities, survivors of domestic violence and those who are currently unhoused.

To keep costs down, the housing trust fund will not only go toward construction of new housing, but it will also rehabilitate existing housing. Lucas also hopes the advisory board will also make use of federal and state grants to ensure the $50 million would go as far as possible.

When deciding which projects to prioritize, the board considers how long the housing will be affordable, how deeply affordable the units are and whether the housing is suitable for families. For-profit developers are allowed to apply for funding, but funds are capped at 10% of their total expenses.

City Council resolution promises housing at 30% of the area median income

KC Tenants passed out flyers and door hangers in south Kansas City on Oct. 26. After City Council promised to prioritize “deeply affordable” housing, KC Tenants endorsed Kansas City Question 2. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

KC Tenants Power and its sibling organization, KC Tenants, were not always on board with the notion of a ballot question to funnel money into a city-run housing trust fund.

At meetings, tenants were skeptical about whether the promised $50 million would go toward housing that they considered truly affordable. In the past, the City Council has deemed $1,200 for a one-bedroom apartment “affordable.” 

“We publicly disagreed with the mayor and City Council when they doubled down on a definition of ‘affordable’ that was unrealistic for tenants,” Neal said. 

The disagreement resulted in a compromise resolution, passed on Oct. 13. Now, the housing trust fund will prioritize “deeply affordable” housing, making it a realistic option for tenants whose household income is 30% of the Kansas City area median income (AMI).

KC Tenants has vocally disagreed with Lucas’ approach to affordable housing in Kansas City on multiple occasions. Most recently, the organization opposed the city’s decision to roll back its set-aside ordinance after it was in place for 19 months.

The ordinance had previously required that at least 10% of apartment units in a development be affordable for households making 30% of the AMI — the same level of affordability that the housing trust fund promises. Another 10% would be affordable for households making 60% of the AMI.

After the City Council voted 9-4 to change the ordinance, developers are now required to set aside 20% of units as affordable only for households making 60% of the AMI. This equates to roughly $1,180 per month for a one-bedroom apartment.

KC Tenants wrote the resolution for City Council that promised the additional money for the housing trust fund would pay for “deeply affordable” housing. And now that the resolution has passed, with the sponsorship of Lucas and City Council members Melissa Robinson, Andrea Bough, Eric Bunch, Dan Fowler, Brandon Ellington and Ryana Parks-Shaw, KC Tenants leaders have backed Kansas City Question 2. KC Tenants Power members like Neal are out canvassing in favor of its passage.

Neal said she hopes the mayor and City Council will commit to continued cooperation with KC Tenants, and she said they would also like to see continued investment in the housing trust fund.

“We believe that this is a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough,” Neal said. “KC Tenants, we would like to see continual funding for the housing trust fund, and we are organizing to ensure that there is continual funding.”

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Josh Merchant is The Kansas City Beacon's local government reporter. After graduating from Seattle University, Josh attended Columbia Journalism School, earning a master’s degree in investigative journalism....