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Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy

Engaging the Public on Affordable Housing

By Donna Schenck-Hamlin

In Manhattan, Kansas, the dearth of affordable housing is being highlighted in election forums, thanks to growing citizen engagement with the problem over the past two years. The Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy (ICDD) has taken a leading role in supporting public forums and issue learning on this topic with its project, Community Solutions to Affordable Housing (CSAH), funded by the Kansas Health Foundation (KHF). ICDD collaborates on the KHF grant with Kansas State University’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional and Community Planning (LARCP) in coordination with the Flint Hills Wellness Coalition, to convene conversations and build consensus across private, government, and non-profit sectors. 

In 2018, the CSAH project led summer study circles by Manhattan residents that prioritized three solutions for further investigation: rental inspections, community land trusts, and neighborhood revitalization. During the fall and spring semesters, the project focused local attention on methods employed in other municipalities.  Working models were presented by visitors in public seminars that CSAH organized with Safe and Affordable Housing Action (SAHA). A second public forum was conducted in May 2019, and additional study circles are scheduled to develop proposals inspired by these models.    

One proposal is developing with ideas from the Lawrence Community Housing Trust (LCHT). The trust is based on a “shared-equity” model of home-ownership, where the land is maintained in perpetuity by the trust for income-qualified owners of the home on that land.  The trust collects a share of the appreciated value at re-sale and ensures that the next owner is qualified by income to purchase the house.  Trust ownership of the land that reduces the housing cost is coupled at LCHT with community benefits of improved property maintenance and homeownership education, key elements that improve long-term residential stability. This solution addresses the challenge to home ownership that occurs when growth in open market rates for property surpasses area wage and salary rates. Workforce housing is a concern for anchor institutions like Kansas State University and Ft. Riley, whose employees may not find nearby housing options without severe cost-burden (i.e., paying over 50% of household income on rent or mortgage). ICDD is facilitating conversations among local organizations and agencies about establishing a demonstration project for the shared equity model. 

Mandatory rental inspections are another policy of Lawrence that Manhattan is considering. Renters Together MHK, a grassroots organization that emerged during conversational events spawned by CSAH, has submitted a proposal to routinize rental inspections as a means of enforcing health and safety codes. With bi-weekly meetings devoted to education and advocacy, Renters Together has highlighted poor conditions coupled with high prices of many rentals that low- to moderate-income wage-earners face in our community. Students and Ft. Riley soldiers make up a large segment of the population, yet they differ in their experience of support systems for renters. Responsibility for off-post housing inspection is enforced by the military’s Housing Services Office, that demands inspection prior to occupancy.  

But K-State students and other non-military residents of Manhattan bear the responsibility for demanding and documenting inspections during rental contract negotiations, as well as reporting code violations and pursuing remedies. Without sufficient support (K-State’s Off-Campus Housing Support is staffed by one part-time student), mistrust or fear of landlord relations often inhibits student renters from pursuing remedies to substandard rentals. K-State Student Governing Association leaders became actively engaged with the CSAH project and with Renters Together, passing resolutions in support of reforms and organizing a campus town hall event with city commissioners. Continued work on the rental registration ordinance and other actions to improve rental housing are being cited in commissioner campaigns leading up to the November election.

New construction of large apartment complexes during a time of reduced student enrollment may not have significantly reduced cost burden on renters, but it has accentuated the quantity of poorly maintained houses in the core area of Manhattan. Testimonials offered in CSAH conversations repeatedly cited past decades of insufficient development to meet rental demand, which converted formerly owner-occupied neighborhoods into areas of high-turnover, high-density occupancy. For first-time buyers as well as resident owners, the wear-and-tear of surrounding transient occupancy devalues their property, while their household competes for space and pricing with investments financed by the rental businesses.  Emporia has employed neighborhood revitalization programs that target down-graded portions of the city near their university campus.  A talk by their community development coordinator was paired with a presentation by the Manhattan Riley County Preservation Alliance, highlighting the multiple goals and challenges to affordability of revitalization. CSAH study circles in 2019 are focused on crafting neighborhood solutions that support affordable rehabilitation to sustain, not displace residents. 

As these proposals for affordable housing are crafted, public policy-makers and private or non-profit interest groups are being encouraged by ICDD to co-mingle and discuss the pro’s and con’s with one another. For the institute, this project is as important for its inclusive public engagement as it is for the policy initiatives it produces.