‘This is war’: Protester arrested as KC approves change to housing affordability rate

·6 min read

Chaos erupted Thursday at City Hall as Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas shouted for his colleagues to keep voting over the chanting of KC Tenants members who overpowered the council meeting.

One leader with the advocacy group was arrested and escorted out of council chambers as dozens of KC Tenants members demonstrated against an ordinance proposed by Lucas that would grow the city’s housing inventory.

Lucas’ proposal eases the requirements for developers to create affordable housing. Opponents have balked at the city’s calculation for affordability, which would classify nearly $1,200 a month for a one-bedroom apartment as affordable. Critics have said this cost doesn’t reflect affordable rent options for most working class Kansas Citians. Others have said the plan was too rushed. An attempt by Councilwoman Andrea Bough, District 6 at-large, to hold the ordinance a week failed.

Councilwoman Melissa Robinson, who represents District 3 on the East Side, voted in favor of the ordinance, arguing that it would make way for more homes and a growing middle class in the district.

Robinson grew up in the district where she shared a block with professionals like doctors and a judge. She wants to see that again.

“We need people to come back home to the 3rd District,” she said.

Yet, she acknowledged that the ordinance is not going to improve living situations for those most vulnerable.

“This is not affordability for everyone,” she said. “But it’s affordability for some people, especially middle-class people.”

Maya Neal, a member of KC Tenants, was handcuffed and led out of the Kansas City Council chamber Thursday afternoon after protesters began shouting as city council members debated legislation on affordable housing. About 50 members of the city wide tenant union were on hand to protest the passing of housing legislation despite tenants showing strong opposition to the current definition of affordability.
Maya Neal, a member of KC Tenants, was handcuffed and led out of the Kansas City Council chamber Thursday afternoon after protesters began shouting as city council members debated legislation on affordable housing. About 50 members of the city wide tenant union were on hand to protest the passing of housing legislation despite tenants showing strong opposition to the current definition of affordability.

But Councilman Brandon Ellington, District 3 at-large, noted that the ordinance does nothing to incentivize development in distressed parts of the city.

“This ain’t for the East Side,” he said. “This ain’t for the 3rd District.”

Ellington underscored that all the ordinance does is change the affordability threshold for developers.

“Anything else is theory,” he said.

The ordinance ultimately passed 9-4 before the overwhelming chants of KC Tenants forced council members to prematurely adjourn the meeting and hold over remaining agenda items until next week.

Ellington voted against the ordinance alongside Bough, Councilman Eric Bunch, District 4, and Heather Hall, District 1.

The council also moved legislation putting a $175 million bond issue before voters in November. If approved, the new debt would fund improvements to Bartle Hall, city pools and add $50 million into the city’s affordable housing trust fund. All council members but Ellington voted in favor.

The housing plan

The housing plan will create more lenient affordable housing requirements for private developers seeking city incentives. Under this change, the city will need to set aside fewer affordable units or the cost of units marked affordable will be raised.

Lucas’ legislative package is in response to a measure unanimously approved by council in January 2021 requiring that real estate developers seeking government financial aid include affordable units in most apartment projects, or pay into the housing trust fund. That legislation required one-fifth of the units in most taxpayer-subsidized apartment buildings to be affordable. Half of those had to be affordable to families earning 70% of the area median income and the other half to those earning 30%.

The new proposal changes that. In exchange for incentives, developers will have to set aside one-fifth of their units to those earning 60% of the area median income.

At that rate, the city would deem a one-bedroom apartment that costs $1,172 per month affordable to a single person. A family of three earning about $53,000 per year, for example, would qualify for a subsidized two-bedroom apartment that rents for $1,319 per month.

In the past 18 months, since that legislation passed, no new apartment complexes seeking taxpayer-funded incentives were proposed in Kansas City. Lucas has said he hopes the latest legislation will boost the supply of housing in the city and help slow the rapid rise in rents for people who can least afford it.

“We’re a city that needs to build more housing, and I’m concerned when people aren’t building housing in Kansas City,” Lucas said in an earlier interview. “We need more product to make sure that we can have places for people to live in our city, and I think this is a bold proposal that does that.”

A second piece of the mayor’s legislative package was held Wednesday. That piece, if passed, would fundamentally alter the approval process for projects receiving taxpayer incentives by giving the city manager power to approve standardized incentives for projects, rather than the City Council and economic development boards that now have oversight.

The mayor has said this change would help “fast track” projects, adding that developers have said it’s too difficult to build in Kansas City. Affordable housing advocates have argued that this ordinance would reduce opportunities for debate through public meetings.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas struggled to communicate with City Council members while members of KC Tenants protested Thursday afternoon in council chambers at City Hall. The council left the chamber to continue their meeting elsewhere.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas struggled to communicate with City Council members while members of KC Tenants protested Thursday afternoon in council chambers at City Hall. The council left the chamber to continue their meeting elsewhere.

KC Tenants opposes mayor’s plan

KC Tenants has been among the most vocal opposition to the ordinance.

The advocacy group conducted a survey with more than 700 participants who reported earning $2,500 a month, on average, and spending about $1,400 of it on housing expenses.

This comes out to more than half of their monthly earnings.

Those who put more than 30% of their income towards housing are considered cost-burdened, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Those who put more than half their income towards housing are considered “severely cost-burdened.” This can affect people’s ability to afford other essential items, like groceries.

In Kansas City, the median cost of rent is $1,326, up 13% since July 2021. In certain ZIP codes, the median rent price is up by 42%. For many, these housing costs are rising much faster than incomes, Michael Frisch, urban planning professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, previously told The Star.

KC Tenants has pointed to inflation as a reason for affordability numbers looking higher than expected.

Tiana Caldwell, an organizer with the group and a member of the city’s health commission, was the sole person arrested Thursday, KC Tenants leaders said.

“I helped to found KC Tenants three and a half years ago and the mayor looked me in the face and promised he would fight for me. Now he’s selling me out,” she said in a statement Thursday afternoon. “They showed me I have to fight to survive. I’ll keep fighting. I’m going to be here and they’re going to have to face me every time. I have no fear. This is war.”

The Star’s Kynala Phillips and Mike Hendricks contributed.

Members of KC Tenants disrupted a City council meeting Thursday afternoon at City Hall. The protesters began shouting as city council members debated legislation on affordable housing. About 50 members of the city wide tenant union were on hand to protest the passing of housing legislation despite tenants showing strong opposition to the current definition of affordability.
Members of KC Tenants disrupted a City council meeting Thursday afternoon at City Hall. The protesters began shouting as city council members debated legislation on affordable housing. About 50 members of the city wide tenant union were on hand to protest the passing of housing legislation despite tenants showing strong opposition to the current definition of affordability.