On Thursday, the Topeka City Council voted 7-0 to sell the disused Van Buren School building and three other properties to Pioneer Group, Inc. — a Topeka-based organization that redevelops neighborhoods and restores historic buildings in Kansas and Missouri. Pioneer Group purchased the properties for $1 and plans to launch a $10 million project to create 81 units of affordable housing on them. If construction hasn’t commenced by Jan. 1, 2019, ownership of the properties will be transferred back to the city.
Far too many Americans struggle to afford a place to live. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s most recent “Out of Reach” report on the affordability of housing in the United States, workers need to make an average of $21.21 per hour to afford “modest, two-bedroom rental home” without spending more than 30 percent of their income. This is almost three times more than the federal minimum wage ($7.25 per hour) and “$4.83 higher than the estimated average hourly wage of $16.38 earned by renters nationwide.”
Kansans need to earn $15.59 per hour to afford a decent place to live without sacrificing an inordinate share of their income, but the average renter only makes $13.21.
While many Topekans struggle to pay for a place to live, Kansas has more affordable housing options than most of the country. And according to a MagnifyMoney survey released in 2016, Shawnee County has one of the least expensive housing markets in the state. While the survey found that the average 25 to 44-year-old would have to save for more than 5.3 years to buy a house in Lawrence or Manhattan, that number is almost cut in half for Topekans: 2.75 years. Moreover, the NLIHC says renters in Topeka only need to earn $14.62 per hour — less than the state average (and much less than Lawrence and Manhattan at $16.25 and $16.10, respectively).
Kirk McClure is a professor in the University of Kansas’s Department of Urban Planning, and he says more units of affordable housing will have a limited impact: “Research shows that prices do not come down when more units are built, so building more units is not going to solve the problem. The units are priced reasonably. We have too many households who cannot afford to enter the housing market because of their very low incomes. The answer is not to build more units; the answer is to raise the incomes.”
As of June 2017, there were 2,000 people on a waiting list for Section 8 housing in Topeka. While the restoration and conversion of Van Buren will improve a blighted building, we need to acknowledge that more housing units might not address the difficulties faced by low-income renters and would-be homeowners in our community. As McClure explained, the problem is more fundamental — if Topekans don’t have enough money to afford any of the housing options that are already available, it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to afford the new units in Van Buren. We need to focus on eliminating poverty and attracting better-paying jobs.
Meanwhile, there are programs that get straight to the root of this issue. Topeka Opportunity to Own (an initiative that has been replicated across the state) provides down payment assistance to low-income members of our community, allowing them to get over the initial obstacles to home ownership. And Shelter Plus Care provides rental assistance for people who are receiving treatment for mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, or AIDS.
While we’re glad Van Buren will be restored, we need to figure out if more inexpensive apartments are really making a decisive difference for low-income Topekans.
Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Matt Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.