Summit a chance to strategize on housing issues

4/4/2013

By SCOTT AUST

By SCOTT AUST

saust@gctelegram.com

About two dozen people ranging from area county economic development officials and city planners to private developers and state agencies attended a Kansas Regional Workforce Housing Summit Wednesday morning at the Finnup Center.

Sponsored by the Greater Kansas City LISC and Kansas Policy Network, the summit offered attendees a chance to talk about strategies and results in other communities to address housing issues.

"Finding affordable workforce housing for Kansans is a growing issue across the state," Ashley Jones-Wisner, Greater Kansas City LISC state policy director, said. "Subsidized housing for low-income individuals is available, and higher wage earners can find ample housing. But opportunities for the middle class, both rental and home ownership, are dwindling, especially in the rural parts of the state."

A panel discussion featured Joann Knight, executive director of Dodge City/Ford County Development Corp.; Christy Hopkins, director of Greeley County Community Development; Simone Cahoj, director of Wichita County Economic Development; and Shara Gonzales, president and CEO of New Beginnings Inc., an organization that deals with community housing issues in Hutchinson.

Panelists shared some of the things they have been doing in their communities to increase housing. Knight said her organization features a strong partnership between the city, county and businesses. Dodge City has performed three housing assessments in the last 12 years, in 2000, 2008 and 2012. The last housing assessment in 2012 showed over the next five years Dodge City will need to add 471 owner-occupied homes and 470 rental units. In addition, the same study indicated the city should add another 485 owner-occupied homes and 393 rental units between 2018 and 2022 to meet housing needs.

Knight said employers have reported losing employees, or potential employees, because no housing could be found. To spur development, the community offers Rural Housing Incentive Districts and the Neighborhood Revitalization Program.

The RHID is a program that allows the increase in property taxes created by the development to be used to reimburse the developer for land and some public infrastructure costs. The NRP offers a 95 percent, five-year property tax rebate on the incremental increase. A project can't use both.

"If it wasn't for RHID and the NRP, we wouldn't have development happening," Knight said. "It definitely has helped with the land cost and the public infrastructure cost to offset construction costs for developers to be able to make a little bit of profit. At the market rates we were having, it just wasn't profitable."

Knight said there are 356 units under development now in Dodge City.

In Hutchinson, the city began an aggressive campaign in 2000 to attract new manufacturing and industry to the area, Gonzales said, which resulted in 2006 in bringing a Siemens plant to the city to manufacture wind-related equipment, as well as some of Siemens' suppliers.

"It started as wonderful economic development for our community. We gave at least $10 million in property tax abatements for a $50 million plant," she said.

The plant began operating in 2008. A 2009 housing needs assessment found the city wasn't taking care of existing housing, and a lot of Siemens employees weren't living in the community. Gonzales said it was learned that workers were turned off by some of the blighted-looking entryways into the community, so they ended up living in surrounding communities.

A housing task force was created that came up with strategies to address housing issues, including the creation of a housing authority, a one-stop shop for people to access housing resources, and a decision to redevelop neighborhoods.

Cahoj highlighted a senior housing project in Wichita County that resulted from a consultant's recommendation after a housing assessment indicated that 66 percent of homes in the county were owned by people age 60 and older.

Such a high percentage makes it difficult for younger workers and families to find places to move into. The consultant indicated the county could handle eight to 10 units of senior housing at $1,500 per month rents.

Cahoj said local officials were skeptical people would pay that much, but following a community survey found seven people who were interested in selling their homes and moving into a rental and could pay $1,200 to $1,500 in monthly rent.

Cahoj said ground was broken on the housing units in November 2012 and there were four signed contracts and four deposits ready to go. Since then, there have been seven home sales and the way was cleared for opening up two rental homes.

"It's not building 20 apartments for workforce housing immediately, but we're starting to see a trickle-down effect," she said.

Hopkins said Greeley County has been involved in the Public Square Community initiative since 2004, which tried to bring together several sectors of the community to talk about housing, including contractors, local government, schools and businesses.

"One of the challenges is, if you're not looking for housing, it's not important to you," she said. "If you're not the one trying to hire employees or trying to find a place for a teacher to live, it's not relevant to a lot of people."

Hopkins said locals went on an available home tour to try and raise awareness about availability and the quality of housing in the community, which was "eye opening." They also secured 25 acres for development with the help of city government, but hit a wall about a year ago, slowing down progress. She said there are some apartments being developed, and one spec house, but the county is not seeing the kind of housing or the growth rate it would like to address housing needs.

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