Huddling for housing solutions

A dearth of affordable, quality housing has plagued rural areas like Allen County for years. Kansas State University spearheaded a discussion Thursday to look at possible solutions.


Local News

October 6, 2023 - 2:51 PM

Kansas State University sponsored a community conversation about housing Thursday afternoon at the Southwind Extension District office. Becky Gray, executive director of Building Health, a subsidiary of the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas, talks with Todd Gabbard, a professor of architecture at K-State, as they look at a student-designed model for an apartment development. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

There’s a simple solution to the housing crisis in Southeast Kansas: Money.

But without a ready supply of cash to build infrastructure and buildings, and without buyers flush with funds, the problem is a lot more difficult to solve. 

Even those who are passionate about finding solutions struggle to find the most effective way to improve affordable housing in a community.

Audience members listen during a housing forum Thursday in Iola. The event was hosted by Kansas State University.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

“You can recruit businesses all day long, but if you don’t have a bed for them to sleep in or safe day care for their children, they will not continue to work for you,” Jeri Hammerschmidt said. 

She has 20 years of experience in banking, real estate and economic development in rural communities and was part of a diverse group who gathered on Thursday afternoon to discuss housing. The conversation was part of a two-day event organized by Kansas State University. 

“It’s really a math equation,” Becky Gray, executive director of Building Health, said. 

“How do we get creative with capital to make housing affordable?”

Communities woo developers with various incentives such as abatement of property taxes, infrastructure and sometimes even free land. But developers are skeptical. Who would build a $250,000 home between two $30,000 homes in the middle of a small city in a rural area, where the vacancy rate is more than double other areas?

Iola City Administrator Matt Rehder speaks during a housing forum Thursday in Iola.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

And who can afford — or qualify — for a mortgage for such a home? If the developer receives incentives to build, are they passing those savings down to the buyer?

“How do we reduce the debt and make the sales price or the rent affordable to whatever market we’re aiming at? Sometimes it’s private money. Sometimes it’s grant money. Sometimes it’s municipal or public money.”

It’s a struggle Iola’s city administrator Matt Rehder knows all too well. 

Rehder was part of the panel and shared a recent example. A developer wanted to build houses and asked the city to extend street, water and electric infrastructure at the former Cedarbrook Golf Course. The city’s costs exceeded $1.5 million, forcing administrators to pull from other funds to pay for the work. Then, the developer backed out, leaving the city with 16 improved — but empty — lots.

“What do we do now?” Rehder asked. “Do we go even further and give the lots to a developer for free? We’ve already spent the money. We are doing everything but building a house and selling it ourselves.”

Thrive Allen County has been invested in housing since 2015, when the organization joined Iola Industries in support of a project to build a grocery store and apartment complex at the former hospital site. 

It was a learning experience — and a turning point for Thrive, the organization’s CEO, Lisse Regehr, said. Thrive’s primary focus is health; leaders realized how important housing is to the overall health of a community and its residents.

“We had community conversations, and we kept hearing people say, ‘We need housing,’” Regehr said. “So there’s been a concerted push toward that. We’re really trying. We have really strong partnerships and we’re going outside the box to come up with unique ways to solve issues.”

Thursday’s morning session at Allen Community College focused on applied learning, where students apply lessons learned in the classroom to real-world settings. Students and faculty from both Allen and K-State shared the value of applied learning and explored ways to strengthen the relationship between Allen and the Iola community.

Here, Allen students discuss how applied learning has enhanced their college education. From left, Emily Ator, an Allen sophomore from Iola; Anabeth Ratzlaff, sophomore from Kingman, Kan.; Josiah Bobb, a freshman from Trinidad and Tobago; Dr. Graciela Berumen, K-State’s assistant director of college access and community outreach; and Jay Leach, a Chanute sophomore at Allen.
Photo by Tim Stauffer / Iola Register

Momentum built. Multiple housing projects have been proposed in recent years. Some, such as the Cedarbrook development mentioned by Rehder, did not pan out. Others are pending, such as a proposal to convert three former elementary schools into apartments. Work has begun to convert the former Arkhaven nursing home into apartments.

“We have all this momentum, but then we kind of get stutter-stepped. Barriers come up. Developers drop. Grants don’t come through. So we pivot and try to find another way.”

Thrive has worked with R. Todd Gabbard, a professor of architecture at K-State. In recent years, he has brought students to study the needs of communities in Allen County. Students met with local leaders to learn about the communities and offer a fresh perspective.

“We help people visualize solutions,” Gabbard said. “I like to get students involved and bring them to small towns like Iola, to help them understand the context of what they do. They talk to people, they help identify problems and think about solutions.”

When Thrive and other groups asked state lawmakers to approve Lehigh Portland State Park, they used the students’ work to show how the land could potentially be developed.

Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

WHAT does “affordable housing” mean?

As Gray noted, there’s a math equation for that. 

The Department of Housing and Urban Development defines “affordable housing” as spending less than 30% of post-tax income on housing. Yet, a national coalition found 18 million families in the U.S. spend more than 50% of their income on housing.

“Affordable housing is such a broad term,” Hammerschmidt said.

“Basically what that means is ‘affordable to me.’ It’s very subjective. For a long time, everything was about low-income housing. We’re forgetting about our workforce and blue-collar workers who have been neglected for a long time.”

From left, Becky Gray, Todd Gabbord, Jeri Hammerschmidt, Matt Rehder and Lisse Regehr serve as panelists during a housing forum sponsored by Kansas State University Thursday in Iola.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

Hammerschmidt works for First Step Builders, a contracting company that helps communities in southeast Kansas obtain housing, and serves on the board of SEK Inc., a housing coalition. She said banks look at gross income, not net, in calculating whether someone can afford a mortgage. 

“If you’re relying on a bank to tell you what you can afford, you’re screwed as soon as you walk in the door,” she said. 

Gabbard, the professor, noted efforts to solve the housing problem typically focus on specific segments of the population, such as those who are low income versus moderate income.

“But, basically, housing is not affordable at pretty much every level, unless you win the lottery,” he said.

Gray added to his point, mentioning other groups that have unique challenges. Her organization, Building Health, is a subsidiary of Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas that was created to address the “social determinants” of health such as housing, transportation, early childhood education “and things in the built-environment that impact our health outcomes.” 

She pointed out the aging Baby Boomer population is creating a “Silver Tsunami” of seniors who want to remain in their homes but cannot always maintain them properly. Young adults who have mental or physical challenges need supportive services to help them navigate the complexity of home ownership. 

Thrive Allen County CEO speaks during a housing forum in Iola Thursday.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

MANY STATE and local groups are working to improve the housing situation in Kansas.

The Kansas Housing Resource Center recently was awarded $65 million in grants for efforts to improve housing for moderate-income levels. Other housing assistance programs also have targeted working families with moderate incomes. 

Darin Luebbering, president of Advanced Systems Homes, attended the event as an audience member. He discussed Neosho Memorial Regional Medical Center’s Green Living program, a maintenance-free housing program for seniors. When the resident is ready to move to an assisted living center, the program buys back the house. 

Gabbard said that’s just one example of how public and private organizations can find alternative solutions. 

Tonya Johnson, vice president of finance and operations at Allen Community College, reflected Thursday on the importance of student internships as Stephen Ebel, Allen’s director for institutional effectiveness and research, and Dr. Bruce Moses, Allen president, listen.Photo by Tim Stauffer / Iola Register

“I think there is a model for a nonprofit developer, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a city,” he said. 

Hammerschmidt noted SEK Inc. will host a housing conference in November “to ensure everyone doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel and we can work together as a team: industries, hospitals, municipalities.

“It’s going to take the whole community.”



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