Wichita's director of Housing and Community Services shares her thoughts on how the city can stay economical without displacing residents.
THE FINE LINE OF AFFORDABILITY
When newcomers visit Wichita, many inevitably bring up the affordable cost of living, especially in regard to housing. For most Americans, rent and mortgage payments are the largest monthly expense they accrue. And research shows that affordable housing positively impacts education, health and economic outcomes of communities at-large. But keeping housing affordable for residents while maintaining and improving spaces requires a delicate balance. This is especially important now, as Wichita finds itself in the thick of a housing boom with listings selling at an unprecedented pace.
So we sat down with Sally Stang, director of housing and community services for the City of Wichita, to discuss the challenges facing our community and the opportunities working to keep housing affordable. As director, Stang manages a budget of rougly $26 million and is responsible for almost 600 units of public housing. Here's our conversation:
What are some of the biggest challenges facing Wichita housing?
Some of the biggest challenges facing housing in Wichita are the lack of quality affordable housing. Housing costs in Wichita are relatively low compared to other parts of the country. However, residents still struggle to find housing that is affordable. Affordability is a relative term for each household. Wichita needs a wide variety of types of affordable housing.
Residency in single-family homes is often viewed as the “American Dream.” However, due to materials and labor costs, coupled with low property values, it’s impossible to build a new single-family home for what it will appraise. Much of the existing housing stock, although it is low cost, needs significant rehabilitation.
How has COVID-19 impacted housing in Wichita? Are there short-term and long-term concerns we should be talking about?
COVID-19 has caused a negative financial impact for thousands of Wichitans. It’s affecting their ability to pay their rent, mortgages and utilities. Luckily, both the Consolidated Appropriations Act and the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act have provided funding to assist renters who have been financially impacted by COVID-19. In addition, the ARP is making funding available for mortgage and utility assistance for homeowners.
COVID-19 also substantially changed how homeless services and shelters operate. CARES funding through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has assisted existing providers and even allowed for the purchase of the 316 Hotel to provide additional short-term shelter. That space is being transformed into Permanent Supportive Housing for those coming from homelessness. The project, now called the Studios at Humankind, are owned and operated by Humankind Ministries. Additional funding is coming from the ARP to provide more opportunities like this.
It’s imperative that existing residents are engaged in the process and invited to the table when major development projects are proposed.Sally Stang
What are some of the most important housing and community services that are provided to Wichitans?
We have such a wide berth of programs and assistance provided by the department. There are more than 30 I could list off the top of my head. A few I want to make sure to mention are the Public Housing, Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program, Mainstream Voucher Program, Family Self-Sufficiency Program and Homeownership Voucher Program. They are all programs funded and administered by HUD’s Office of Public and Indian Housing. The purpose of all of these programs is to make safe, decent and sanitary housing affordable to those making less than 50% of the area median income with a priority for those with income less than 30%. These programs either provide subsidies to public and private landlords or give participants opportunities to move off subsidy into self-sufficiency.
The Homeowner Rehabilitation, Rental, Historic, and Lead Paid Programs are designed to make improvements to the existing affordable housing stock by providing grants and loans for qualifying property owners to make needed repairs to keep their homes decent, safe and sanitary as well as improve the quality of housing in neighborhoods. In addition, funding to Affordable Housing Developers such as Habitat for Humanity, Mennonite Housing, and PowerCDC subsidizes the cost to build new, affordable single-family homes that record affordability restrictions.
The programs within the Wichita Sedgwick County Community Action Project (WSCCAP) division are designed to tackle issues of poverty. Increasing housing affordability can be accomplished through either keeping housing costs down or by increasing household income. Whereas the other programs I’ve mentioned strive to keep costs down, many of the programs in the WSCCAP division strive to increase household income. This includes the Individual and Family Development and Job Training Assistance programs, which work with individuals to improve their education and jobs. WSCCAP also provides funding for medical expenses for the uninsured, youth meal programs and summer camp funding to improve the lives of households and work to break poverty cycles for future generations.
What makes Wichita’s housing and community services offerings unique?
Typically the Housing Authority, Community Development Programs, and the Community Action Agency are three separate organizations. The fact that these three areas are divisions within a single department of the City allows us to leverage resources and develop creative programs.
As an example, The Way to Work Summer Youth Program uses Community Development Block Grant and Community Service Block Grant funds to provide training and employment stipends for low income youth ages 14-17, many of which come from the families participating in the Public Housing and Housing Choice Voucher programs. Another example, Emergency Solutions Grants funds provide caseworkers and landlord incentives for homeless families referred by Continuum of Care agencies for a Homeless Preference Housing Choice Voucher.
The fact that these three areas are divisions within a single department of the City allows us to leverage resources and develop creative programs.Sally Stang
How can Wichita assure housing costs stay low while still improving life for its residents?
It’s important that Wichita continues to grow the stock of affordable housing. One strategy we are working on is the rehabilitation of the multifamily Public Housing buildings under HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration program. Closing and construction is scheduled to begin this summer. However, we have a new strategy for the Public Housing single-family homes. We are requesting to dispose of the 352 units under HUD’s Section 18 program to local non-profit and for-profit developers with a preference to those who will rehab the units and keep them as affordable rentals or affordable homeownership units. This will result in an additional Preservation Housing Voucher for any existing resident and it allows us to build high quality replacement housing. This strategy can net us three units of affordable housing from each one.
What is your view on gentrification and how we can elevate housing opportunities without displacing individuals?
It’s imperative that existing residents are engaged in the process and invited to the table when major development projects are proposed. In addition, those residents need to be protected from predatory actions and lending.
HUD has programs in place through its Housing Counseling Agencies to try and identify predatory practices and organizations. Unfortunately, there is only one HUD Housing Counseling Agency in Wichita – Consumer Credit Counseling Services, Inc. – and there are only five in the whole state of Kansas. For residents, the best practices include not engaging with those who call on the phone or knock on the door offering something too good to be true because it probably is too good to be true. Residents should only engage in financial and real estate activities with reputable organizations. I always recommend that they start with their local bank, someone with whom they already have a relationship and have a long-standing history in the community.
What is the future of Wichita housing?
As a department, we will constantly strive to expand resources, improve processes and work collaboratively in order to provide the highest level of services for the community. We are investing in technology to reduce administrative costs so more money is available for programs and projects.
Click here to see all the programs and information the City of Wichita’s Housing & Community Services department has available.