Affordable housing agency in Johnson County to close
Lawrence’s designated fund serving as model for advocates
OLATHE — For nearly two decades, Victoria Bruce has lived in a modest one-bedroom apartment at an affordable housing complex on Poplar Street in Olathe, close to friends and stores and not far from where she grew up.
“This is home. It’s safe. It’s comfortable,” said Bruce, 67, who is disabled and living on a fixed income. But she can afford the $435 monthly rent with a Section 8 housing voucher subsidy. “This was going to be my home for the rest of my life.”
Bruce and her neighbors are worried now because the nonprofit Johnson County Housing Coalition, which has operated the Poplar Place apartments since 1999, has lost its federal funding and is shutting down at the end of the year, The Kansas City Star reported.
Coalition Executive Director Allan Quigley, who is retiring, said the 39-unit complex will be sold, likely renovated, and he has no doubt the rents will increase.
Advocates for low-income residents say the demise of the Johnson County Housing Coalition, which assisted more than 1,000 residents in 300 units at its peak in 2010, is just one example of Johnson County’s dwindling number of affordable rental units. It’s putting increasing pressure on low-income residents, as the cost of shelter in the affluent county keeps rising.
It’s particularly affecting the elderly, disabled and low-income families with children, said Vince Donofrio, board secretary of the Olathe Housing Authority, which assists Olathe’s neediest residents but has a waiting list of more than 1,200 households.
“This truly is a group being left behind,” he said. “They can’t afford to live here. Where can you live for less than $1,000 a month?”
Quigley predicts that most of his tenants will be displaced and will have to move.
“They cannot afford a rent of $600 or $800 or more a month.”
Quigley realizes not every community wants low-income rental housing units. But he and his tenants say they’ve proven that properties like those managed by the Johnson County Housing Coalition can be safe, decent, well-maintained properties that are a lifeline for the clerks, fast-food workers, call center operators, truck drivers, nurses’ aides and retirees who have lived there.
It’s also healthy, advocates say, to have a diverse mix of incomes in the community.
Bruce and other tenants wonder what the future holds.
“There have been a couple of other neighbors wondering the same thing. What are we going to do?” she asked. “What’s going to happen to us? I don’t know.”
Beginning in 1999, the Housing Coalition got annual federal grants earmarked for community housing development. But Quigley said those grants have dried up in the past five years as Johnson County redirected those earmarks to building a handful of moderate-income home-ownership properties.
County housing officials acknowledge the emphasis for that federal community development housing funding has shifted to an ownership rather than a rental model.
Quigley said that leaves out the county’s most vulnerable residents who can’t afford to own a home.
Donofrio laments the loss of the Housing Coalition and points to another blow, citing large Johnson County complexes built in the late 1990s with low-income housing tax credits that are now expiring. The end result is that the affordable rents in those properties often increase, and the low-income tenants who have used government-funded subsidy vouchers to live there may have to move.
The number of housing vouchers in the county isn’t dropping significantly, holding at about 2,000, housing authority officials say. But it becomes harder for voucher holders to find a place that will accept them.
The median cost of renting an apartment in the county, including utilities, spiked from $846 in 2010 to $1,045 in 2016, according to the most recent census data. Median rents are almost surely even higher this year, as the county has seen a proliferation of luxury apartment projects, with some rents soaring well above $1,200 per month for a one-bedroom unit.
Johnson County’s cost of living increased by double digits from 2014 to 2017, with single adults needing to earn at least $16 per hour full-time, or $35,000, to afford necessities; households with children need nearly double that, according to research by United Community Services of Johnson County, a human services information and planning agency.
In Johnson County, 30 percent of jobs pay less than $15 per hour, the agency said. Thus, one in four Johnson County residents is burdened by housing costs, spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent.
Quigley said alleviating that burden was a mission for the Johnson County Housing Coalition, whose properties were aimed at families making less than $24,000 per year.
Quigley became agency director in 1999 and bought the Poplar Place complex with federal grant funds designated for special nonprofits called community housing development organizations. He evicted the drug dealers and prostitutes and fixed up the units to be livable and well-maintained.
Over the years, the agency acquired more homes, duplexes and apartments to rent in Olathe, Overland Park, Merriam and Mission, using a mix of federal grant funds and money generated by the projects themselves, including rent.
Bruce had moved into Poplar Place shortly before Quigley came on board in 1999 and remembers how the wild parties stopped. It became a good place after Quigley and his wife, Kathleen, took over.
“I stayed here 18 years because Mr. Quigley and Katie cleaned it up. They made it a home. They made it safe,” she said. “To see them go, it’s really going to bother me. This is really a nice place and they did a great job.”
Christine Perry, in her late 50s, came to Poplar Place five years ago after getting out of a bad marriage that left her penniless. She feels lucky to have found a place with a $435 monthly rent that hasn’t changed over the years. It’s allowed her to pay off debt and save some money.
Working full-time at an Olathe call center, she’s cherished her apartment as safe, clean, quiet and just a few miles from her job.
“It’s not a complete utopia,” she said, but added that Quigley has done a good job managing the complex. “He has a low tolerance point for BS, and he also has a nose for it.”
She knows the property will be sold toward the end of the year and the rent will almost surely go up. She’s tried to investigate other possibilities but hasn’t gotten very far. She would like to stay in Olathe, close to work and her community garden plot.
“I do look intermittently, but it’s so depressing,” she said. “You can’t find a decent place for less than $800 or $900.”
Being a landlord of a property with low-wage renters has its challenges, including dealing with some tenants with disabilities and mental health issues. But as Quigley prepares to retire and shutter the agency, he thinks about the people who were helped over the years.
One of the biggest success stories is Donna Johnson, who said she was at a hopeless point in her life before she met the Quigleys. She had gotten out of the Johnson County jail in September 2001 at age 33 after serving time for forgery and drug possession. She was working at a nearby McDonald’s when she heard about Poplar Place. There were no openings, so she stayed several nights in her car by the McDonald’s dumpster while she pleaded with the Quigleys for a chance to rent from them, despite her terrible credit history.
A unit opened up, and they said yes.
“Getting the apartment here was like the best thing that had happened to me in years,” she said. “It was my little corner of the world.”
She had no furniture initially, but she didn’t care. “I had a key to an apartment that was mine. It was the most amazing feeling.”
The Quigleys helped her scrounge bunk beds so her 12-year-old twins, living with Johnson’s mother, could visit. Over the next nine months, Johnson stayed sober and slowly rebuilt her life. “Katie and Allan were more than just property managers. They truly care about people. They cared about me.”
She met a man in a recovery group and nine months later they moved in together. Now married for 15 years, they both have good jobs and an upscale home in Overland Park. Johnson, now 50, regained custody of her kids and had another child. She credits her rebirth to the Johnson County Housing Coalition.
“The gratitude I have is almost indescribable,” she said of that life-changing opportunity years ago.
Quigley laments it won’t be available much longer. He’s turning 66 in July and is ready to retire.
He tried to find someone else to take over but couldn’t. Losing federal funding support meant that over the past five years, the agency has slowly divested itself of all but about 60 units in Poplar Place and a few other locations. Those will be sold by the end of the year. Some may stay affordable, but most will not.
After the agency sold the 82-unit Sheridan Village in Olathe last summer, Quigley said, he heard from tenants that the rents increased by several hundred dollars. One-bedroom units now start at $575 and two-bedroom units start at $725.
“They didn’t stay low-income,” Quigley said. “Those folks had to move.”
Some moved to Wyandotte County, and others moved in with family, but he doesn’t know where most ended up. He worries about his residents having to move out of the county, especially because most of them work nearby.
Another trend affecting access to low-income rental is the shift away from tax credit properties.
Under the tax credit program, owners agree to keep rents affordable for families with incomes at or below 60 percent of the local median income. Tax credit units are available to families with Section 8 vouchers, who generally earn less than $40,000 a year. The vouchers are key because they cover much of a rental unit’s costs and help assure that low-income residents pay no more than 40 percent of their income for shelter.
But as those tax credits have expired in recent years at many large complexes, Donofrio explains, the properties can raise their rents to market rate and stop accepting the Section 8 vouchers. As monthly charges rise by hundreds of dollars, it can mean the residents have to move as their leases come due.
As landlords get out of the business of accepting Section 8 vouchers, low-income residents struggle to find a place to live in the county where they work or have family ties.
Donofrio calculates that at its peak earlier this decade, Johnson County had more than 55 low-income housing tax credit properties with more than 5,300 affordable units that took Section 8 vouchers. But more than 15 of those properties have expired from the program in recent years or will roll off in the next few years, at a loss of more than 2,300 affordable units.
Only two new properties have come online in Johnson County since 2014, both in Gardner, with 87 tax credit units. Another new project, a 200-unit senior living property, is currently planned, again in Gardner, to open in 2019.
Tax credit properties that have converted to market rate include the 384-unit Ridgeview Apartments in Olathe that now advertises rents in the $750 to $850 range.
Kathy Rankin, executive director of the Olathe Housing Authority, recalls when the Ridgeview Apartments stopped taking the authority’s Section 8 vouchers a few years ago. It affected three dozen of her clients who had to find new places to live, some outside of Johnson County.
“We had 30-some elderly, disabled, in one-bedroom apartments,” she said. “They’d been there since it opened almost 15 years ago. They all had to move.”
She said another big Olathe project, Fieldstone, with 195 tax credit units, is expected to phase out in the next few years, as are hundreds of apartment units in Lenexa, Mission and Overland Park.
Many other communities are also confronting an affordable housing shortage and looking for answers.
As downtown Kansas City rents have skyrocketed, the Kansas City Council has urged developers to include more affordable units in their properties.
Earlier this year, the Kansas City Council passed an ordinance to waive sales taxes on construction materials for apartment projects that agree to make at least 15 percent of units affordable for low-income residents.
The state of Kansas has actually made it harder to promote affordability, with a 2016 law that prohibits local governments from enacting zoning laws that mandate some affordable units.
Still, the city of Lawrence has a new approach that Donofrio and others think has merit.
In November 2017, Lawrence voters by a large margin approved a proposal to renew a city sales tax of 1/20th of a cent and redirect it to an affordable housing fund. Lawrence is doing a comprehensive study on how best to spend that money, said Assistant City Manager Diane Stoddard.
The tax, which will be earmarked for housing beginning in 2019, is expected to raise about $1 million per year for 10 years, to be added to general fund dollars.
“It really isn’t enough, but it is something, and it’s a designated funding source. We feel like it’s certainly a lot more than we have had,” Stoddard said.
United Community Services will also spend the next two years looking at ways to implement affordable housing strategies, according to Executive Director Julie Brewer. Along with the Lawrence example, she said, they are looking at states like Michigan and Ohio that have housing trusts or private foundations that subsidize construction costs and thus reduce rents and housing prices.
Donofrio notes Johnson County has a specific fund for public art but not for affordable housing, which he said also deserves emphasis. He points out the county produced an affordable housing action plan in 2008 but didn’t implement much of it and said the problem is as critical as ever.
Still, he’s optimistic it’s becoming a higher priority to address, as more community leaders and advocates start speaking out and raising awareness, particularly about the Lawrence model of a dedicated affordable housing fund.
“People in this county have a big heart,” Donofrio said. “They care, but they don’t know. All this data has opened up some eyes.”