Opinion: Rethinking the suburban model

Kansas today is an increasingly urban state. More precisely, it is mostly suburban. More than half of the state’s population lives in just five counties: Johnson, Sedgwick, Shawnee, Wyandotte and Douglas. In many of these communities, most people choose to live not in the city’s core but in the suburban areas around it. The state’s most populated county, Johnson, is entirely suburban except for disappearing, rural southern and western edges.

In Kansas and all over the United States, suburban communities were established and grew based on restrictive zoning that strongly favored single-family houses on medium-sized or large lots, along the interstate highway system. The move to the suburbs often excluded lower income people and those of color, who had great difficulties getting home loans from bankers or cooperation from Realtors. Many were simply told they were not welcome.

Later, when middle class people of color did seek to relocate, they were often steered to certain suburban locations and away from others by Realtors, which is called “blockbusting.” This is what happened to the south Kansas City, Missouri, community of Hickman Mills, where I grew up, along with nearby Grandview. Life was pretty good in our increasingly diverse community, until white families started moving out in droves.

Today, the suburban model is being re-thought. Lawrence city officials are creating a new land development code emphasizing mixed-use neighborhoods, walking, cycling, public transportation and more multifamily housing. In Wichita, the Sedgwick County Commission recently rezoned a suburban area for duplexes amid controversy. Topeka officials shot down a plan to rezone a parcel of land for a drug treatment facility. Opponents argued that a citywide development plan was needed first.

The rezoning fight turned particularly hostile in Prairie Village, a suburb in northeast Johnson County. It was originally developed in the 1940s by developer J.C. Nichols, who created Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza. Prairie Village is comfortable, with plenty of trees and parks. It is accessible and walkable, has great schools, and is an easy drive to the downtowns of both Kansas Cities. Today, most homes there cost $300,000 to $500,000.

Unfortunately, Nichols also included the notorious restrictive deed covenants, which held that “none of said land may be conveyed to, used, owned, or occupied by negroes as owners or tenants.” These cannot be enforced today due to court rulings, federal and state laws, but they remain in the property deeds.

With property costs rising, Prairie Village Mayor Eric Mikkelson and allies propose reforming one of the most protected aspects of suburban life- property zoning. They seek more multifamily housing such as apartments and condominiums, plus allowing property owners to construct “granny flats,” which are small auxiliary housing that owners rent out for extra income.

Prairie Villagers are also concerned about “teardowns” — well-to-do people buying older, smaller houses just for the lots, tearing them down and building a larger house. These push up property assessments for the whole community, crowding out neighbors with modest incomes who can no longer afford the property taxes.

The inevitable backlash came with Prairie Village United. They want all rezoning decided parcel by parcel rather than by a citywide growth plan. They also want to limit the mayor’s powers. A Prairie Village United supporter recently won a city council seat. Tensions run high at public meetings.

Today’s suburbs were built with highway commuting, blockbusting and exclusive zoning. With housing costs skyrocketing and Kansas becoming mostly suburban, a re-think is in order. Controversies in Wichita, Topeka and Prairie Village show that it will not be easy.

— Michael Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.


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