Reflecting the national trend in securing affordable housing in low to moderate income brackets, Finney County along with Kearny and Scott counties found 2017 a year of ups and downs, as well as a lot of uncertainty in its ongoing efforts to provide homes for those still wanting their own space to settle.

“We have been working on housing issues and subsequent challenges associated with those shortages for nearly two decades,” said Lona DuVall, Finney County Economic Development Corp. president and CEO. “All of our industries are affected by the housing shortages. Undoubtedly, though, those who rely upon affordable housing for their employee base are feeling it worst. Schools, manufacturing and retail all rely upon a workforce that is often just getting started in their careers and are therefore more reliant upon rental availability and starter homes.”

At the other end of the spectrum, there are the Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) who are, if not already there, staring down retirement, empty nests and homes and yards that are much more than they want or need. Still active and busy, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) recently reported that many would seriously consider moving out of their homes if they had something more suitable, affordable and one story with few or no stairs to negotiate.

That, according to Jeana Anliker, Realtor and president of Coldwell Banker in Garden City, would open up desirable living spaces in established neighborhoods that are close to schools for young families or those who have outgrown their starter homes.

“The demand for one-level patio homes, duplexes and townhomes is somewhat formidable,” Anliker said. “We have requests all the time for places with few or no stairs, one or two bedrooms with office space, and even three bedroom homes that would allow for, say two sisters or good friends, or a parent and an older adult child to share. The key is an open concept kitchen and living room, a safe place that can double as storage or a pantry, and floor covering choices that will accommodate walkers and wheelchairs. It’s all about aging in place.”

To that end, said DuVall, The Ranch House Senior Living Community project set to open this fall at 2900 Campus Drive, includes some independent living in one of its future phases. Currently, construction includes assisted living, skilled nursing and memory care sections.


Building partners

DuVall credits the City of Garden City as being very progressive and aggressive in helping to relieve the housing issues. Additionally, the Southwest Kansas Builders Association (formerly the Garden City Area Builders Association) also has come to the table to help identify solutions.

“The housing problem developed over several decades and will not be solved overnight, but we continue to move forward with helping to grow our existing businesses and attracting new industries," she said. "As with many community development concerns, we must consistently move forward through all viable avenues to solve the dilemma without letting it slow our progress in job creation."

The biggest barriers to housing development, according to DuVall, are still cost of infrastructure, buildable lot inventory and the increasing costs of construction. Most of these are solvable but require that all entities involved be on the same page to address each issue. Pushbacks are still coming from housing lenders who are hesitant to finance housing development.

“We are doing our part in educating them of the housing needs and are continuously looking to non-traditional financing measures to help ease the fiscal burden as well,” she said.


Housing with a commute

For Ralph Goodnight, Kearny County Community Development director, housing demands are coming from an influx of people from Garden City and Finney County. The new residents who have scored homes, a duplex or apartment in his Kearny County have said that even with a longer commute, they can better afford to live in Lakin or Deerfield and make the drive.

“There is still a demand for rental and single family homes based on landlord reports that all rentals are occupied and wait lists exists for occupancy,” Goodnight said. “In the last five years, we have built 10 new rental housing units (duplexes and fourplexes) and have twice been granted the Kansas Housing Resource Corporation's Moderate Income Housing Awards to help build those. The next tri-plex is scheduled for construction this late spring/early summer with occupancy by fall 2018.”

Goodnight added that as a result of the new construction, there have been additional property taxes from residential units, but not enough to affect the losses in valuation from fossil fuel depletion to overcome the previous valuations. Additionally, the school population has slowly grown.

“We have had increased interest from developers in new housing,” he said. “For the first time, some of the interested developers are from outside the region. I would say there is interest in building to accommodate a diverse demographic and not tied to one specific age group.”

As far as Goodnight is concerned, housing impacts his ability to attract and retain businesses in Kearny County. But as more housing becomes available, he believes Lakin and Deerfield are ready to accommodate growth.

“I see a steady uptick in growing the housing stock here,” he said. “The governing bodies (Kearny County Commission and Deerfield and Lakin city councils) are considering having a comprehensive, county-wide housing study completed to help assess the possibilities and help developers continue to explore available options.”


Housing tight in Scott City

Scott City also is challenged by building or otherwise finding housing choices for many socio-economic categories.

Katie Eisenhour, executive director of Scott County Economic Development Committee, Inc., admits there has been some influx of residents from surrounding counties, but it’s not just a search for affordable housing.

“People moving to Scott City are coming here not necessarily to find more affordable housing, as our price points are very similar to Garden City’s,” she said. “The main reasons noted usually include choosing to live in a smaller community, with the amenities of a larger town nearby. The anchors of a strong community (access to healthcare, education and a high quality of life) seem to attract people of various demographics to Scott City.”

Eisenhour added that housing in Scott City was tight prior to identification of the issue in 2011. A recent survey of landlords reported a 97 percent average occupancy rate, down from 100 percent the two previous years. Since early 2012, 58 new housing units have been built — all private sector, single family homes. That, says Eisenhour, is a far cry from the “one home per year” built in the previous decade, putting Scott City roughly 50 housing units short. Even with this bold effort, the demand is still not being met.

“We have the Chestnut Street Project for moderate income families that is breaking ground this spring,” Eisenhour said. “There are no special assessment taxes for these 12 homeowners. Also, Scott City is the subject of a low income senior housing project that runs through a tax credit program, with the announcement before the end of May slated for 10 duplexes. If awarded, this will be the first low income housing constructed since 1981. We are long overdue.”

According to Eisenhour, sales tax is steady at 9 percent in the city. She said people pay as much or more when they make purchases in micropolitan or urban communities. Property taxes have increased some — due partly to issues at the state level, but the citizens also passed a $25 million bond issue to upgrade school facilities across the entire district. School enrollment increased 11 percent over two years, although 2017-18 saw the numbers slip a bit. Enrollment loss is considered temporary.

“Class size, particularly at the elementary level, is between 80 and 100 students per grade,” she said. “These numbers resemble Scott City in the early '80s. Demand for goods and services, particularly for some socio-economic groups, continues to rise.”


Developer and investor interest

Eisenhour maintains there is interest in building in Scott City, but the agricultural economy has tempered the excitement. What is happening in Scott City is 100 percent local up to this point, she said, but she sees that shifting in the 2018-19 timeframe and believes it would “be terrific to have a two-story apartment community option for each of Baby Boomers, single Millennials or younger or young families. Having them designed as pet-friendly would be ideal. We don’t have this option currently, and the return on investment is not there when you need only 16 to 24 units. Partnering with other neighboring communities is an idyllic prospect.”

Rents in Scott City are all over the board. Some that were exceedingly high in 2012 have softened considerably; others that are high-end rental properties can ask as much as $1,500 per month. About 75 percent of Scott City’s rental properties fall between $350 and $700.

Like her peers DuVall and Goodnight, Eisenhour knows that lack of housing and skilled workers is challenging throughout western Kansas. A tight housing market makes everyone uncomfortable. It is critical to achieve an optimal balance of housing options in every community, and to have rental rates that are workforce-affordable while creating some profitability for the owners.

“But when we work together as a community of leaders, we seem to have success finding solutions for those seeking somewhere to rent or buy; for someone seeking a good job or helping a local business to identify strong candidates for employment,” Eisenhour said.

As Eisenhour looks to the future, she feels positive about what is happening in Scott City, particularly in a challenged ag economy. She also believes Scott City has positioned itself well to take advantage of growth opportunities.

“Don’t get me wrong,” she said. “We started a little late because some identified what we were experiencing as a blip or a cycle rather than growth. But once we recognized bona fide indicators of growth, we are ‘all in!’ Scott Citians make decisions thoughtfully and strategically. We may not be adding housing at the rate some folks would like to see, but we will also not be regretful for the type of overbuilding that often shatters home valuations when the economics don’t support it. Yes, we might miss some opportunities, but that’s a risk we are willing to assume.”


Bright spots

All three county economic development leaders have seen a definite uptick in the understanding of how dire the housing situation is over the past several months. They know their communities have had some local investors step up to do what they can to help relieve some of the pressure, as well. And they admit they are getting some positive responses from developers from outside the market who are adept at using state and federal housing programs.

“We are making progress, but we recognize that it isn’t just about getting us caught up on housing,” DuVall said. “We must forever be diligent in ensuring that our communities stay ahead of housing development so we don’t end up having to fight the battle we are currently. Garden City is one of only a handful of Kansas communities that is growing at the rate we are, and in order to maintain and increase that growth, we will have to always be mindful of the community development concerns that coincide with economic development and job creation.”