The Kansas City housing crisis forced this couple to stay in a long-term hotel. And it’s only getting worse | KCUR 89.3
Night after night, Stephanie Murray sits late in a recliner, searching the internet for help. It’s not his reclining chair; only one at an Extended Stay America hotel in Overland Park, Kansas. Murray, her husband and her two dogs have lived there for 17 months.
At $ 56.72 per day, she needs some charity help to foot the bill for the room. She also needs help finding an apartment that accepts the federal housing voucher she recently received after a five-year wait.
“I’m 56 and feel like I’m 106,” Murray says.
The pandemic has not brought housing insecurity into Murray’s life. She has struggled to find a safe and affordable place to stay since at least the Great Recession of 2008.
But, like hundreds of people in the Kansas City area, the pandemic has made Murray’s situation worse. And as housing shortages worsen, so do health problems and people’s ability to cope.
Murray says her stress levels are at their peak and her husband had a second heart attack in September in the hotel lobby. He suffers from congestive heart failure and they try to save miles on their old car by limiting driving to his various doctor’s appointments.
Housing in general is difficult to find in Kansas City. Here and in all the countries, demand is higher and supply is lower than it has been for decades.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Missouri has an extreme deficit of affordable and available housing – the state is short of 122,075 units. Kansas is short by 44,042. And these calculations are based on the 2019 census data; today’s numbers are probably higher.
During the pandemic, the demand for affordable housing far outstripped supply, leaving families like the Murrays in dire straits. The reasons are complex.
“It has to do with people looking for houses, it has to do with house prices, it has to do with rising house prices affecting rising rents. It has to do with jobs, and it also recently has to do with the pandemic. There are a lot of issues involved, ”says Paul Wenske.
Wenske has spent years studying housing instability in Kansas City, first covering the pre-recession period for the Kansas City Star as a consumer journalist, then working for six years at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City as a community development specialist.
After spending so much time trying to figure out the intricacies, he and his wife, Nancy Meis, decided to be part of the solution. In six years, they have bought, rehabilitated and resold or rented about 30 houses on both sides of the border.
Murray’s husband helped rehabilitate Wenske until he was physically unable to work. Like Stephanie Murray, he receives disability awards.
For several years, Murray and her husband, who did not wish to be interviewed, lived in a house in Mission, Kansas, where she was a paid caregiver to an older friend. When the man died early in the pandemic from an illness unrelated to COVID, the couple were left homeless.
“It was quick. We had nowhere to go,” said Murray.
In the spring of 2020, the Murrays and their two pit bulls slept in their car on various QuikTrips. One night in Merriam, Kansas, just off Interstate-35, a woman approached them and offered to help her.
“She brought us over here and she said, ‘I’m going to pay for two weeks,’ Murray said.
Murray has since paid the daily rate by calling churches and nonprofits as far away as the Lake of the Ozarks.
Wenske says the Kansas City area hasn’t learned the lesson of the Great Recession – that we need more affordable housing.
“What is happening right now is suddenly, ‘Oh my god, we have this problem,’ he said. “Well, we had it, and we didn’t solve it, and now we have to do it.”
He makes the familiar list of what led to the subprime meltdown in 2008: fraud, Wall Street greed, inflated valuations, predatory lending, and reckless banking. Inflated valuations and the willingness of banks to lend to people who couldn’t quite afford their payments led to foreclosures.
“Not only have consumers lost homes, but investors have lost homes,” Wenske said. “Let’s say you own 10 homes, and you go into foreclosure. All the tenants of these houses suddenly lost their houses.
Banks sold plots of empty houses at low prices, often to foreign investors who repaired them and sold or rented them for more than they were worth.
For more than a decade, the prices for rentals and resales of homes have been rising steadily. Wenske says they were up 16% last year.
At worst, nationwide unemployment has hit 14.8% in 2020. Renters and landlords are behind on payments, and many may never catch up.
“I think there is a root cause that has been somewhat compounded by the pandemic,” said Kelly Edmiston. He was a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City for 15 years and is now an assistant professor of population health at the University of Kansas School of Medicine.
After suffering a foreclosure, potential buyers find it difficult to get another mortgage, Edmiston says. For many of those who lost their homes during the recession, “renting was really the only option. Not only did the rents go up, but people ended up in poorly conditioned places. They were the only ones who were affordable and available.
Daniel Threet, Research Analyst at National Low Income Housing Coalition in Washington, DC, says the national shortage of affordable rental housing available to very low-income households dates back at least 14 years.
“In 2007, there were about 40 affordable and available units for 100 very low-income renter households, while in 2019 there were 37,” says Threet. “Lower income tenants struggle because the market alone never produces enough to be affordable for these tenants. “
It doesn’t sound like a big decrease, but these are pre-pandemic numbers.
In addition, a new study shows that nationally, between 2004 and 2019, available rentals costing more than $ 1,000 per month increased by 10.4 million, while rentals of $ 600 and under decreased by 2.5 million.
In 2016, the Murrays applied for a federal housing grant. They finally received a Section 8 voucher in April – for a one-bedroom apartment up to $ 857 per month. But Stephanie Murray explains that the actual rent cannot exceed $ 700 because it also has to cover utilities. She has not yet found a place at this price.
“It’s not just about getting this wonderful voucher,” she says.
President Biden’s initial $ 2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal included more than $ 200 billion for affordable housing in places like Kansas City. But, at the dismay of local leaders, the latest compromise version omits affordable housing assistance absolutely.
John Wood, director of neighborhood and housing services in Kansas City, says the city is keenly aware of the longstanding affordable housing shortage.
In 2018, the city council approved creation a housing trust fund. Wood says he’s intended to hold $ 75 million from sources other than federal or state aid. Possible sources of income are sales tax or property tax, the private sector or bond financing.
“These dollars would not have the federal regulations that would go with them and would give the city a lot more flexibility to do creative financing to create more affordable housing units,” Wood said.
But although the fund exists, no money is invested in it. City, community and business leaders have yet to agree where this should come from.
Tenant advocacy group KC Tenants has announced its own people’s housing trust fund – they want to fund it with money taken from the police department and developers.
“Let’s make it really strong and involve the public sector,” Wood said of the town’s initial fund. “Let’s involve the private sector, engage civic leadership and promote this concept that we need to create more affordable housing for people who need it.
Wenske says lasting partnerships will create more permanent solutions than recent ideas such as small household communities and accommodating homeless people in hotel rooms. He sees these ideas as more fashionable than sustainable, and they fail to address the fundamental issues.
In the fall of 2018, Wenske began working with the Salvation Army on some sort of pilot program with one of their rental properties.
“They put homeless people in a house and then they pay the rent,” he says. “And we paid for utilities and all the maintenance and things like that. It worked very well.
The partnership feels enduring – and perhaps one of the many lessons Kansas City can learn from as it struggles to tame the affordable housing crisis.
This piece is part of a collaboration that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, The Beacon / KCUR 89.3; Bridge Michigan / Side Effects Public Media; Cicero Independiente / South Side Weekly; Detour Detroit / Planet Detroit / Tostada Magazine; Evanston Roundtable / Growing Community Media; Pilot and review Madison365 / Wausau; and MinnPost / Sahan Journal.
The project was made possible through a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with additional support from INN’s Amplify News project and the Solutions Journalism Network.