ROBERT PIERCE • Leader & Times
Efforts to get more local housing may be in the works after local leaders took part in a housing summit last week hosted by the Seward County Development Corporation.
SCDC Director Eli Svaty said those on hand looked at hosing data, particularly a few major elements of the industry.
“One was the Kansas Housing Assessment that was put on by Kansas Housing Resource Corporation and the Kansas Department of Commerce,” he said. “That was a statewide assessment of the current housing situation, but they also provided a regional Southwest Kansas one, which had a lot of specific information about Seward County.”
As the group studied the assessment, Svaty said the current state of local housing was addressed, along with needed economical support and the age of both the housing and population in the county.
“We looked at a lot of those demographics to see if that gives us any indication as far as what kind of housing we need or where we need to start,” he said.
Part of the summit also gave a peak into information from the KHRC, including recent tours in area communities like Minneola and Ulysses. Svaty said those tours covered expansions and new programming KHRC now offers.
“We went over that information as well so everybody in the room had the same shared knowledge,” he said.
Local numbers from the KDOC likewise were talked about, and this included affordability rates and what, based on income, people can afford both in terms of renting and buying.
“From there, we got into the actual meat of the day,” Svaty said. “We brought in a facilitator from Team Tech who’s worked with the area and the county a number of times before. She helped us facilitate the conversation, talking about what really is our vision, what do we see as our goals for housing in Liberal and Seward County over the next five to 10 years.”
Barriers to this were too discussed, and Svaty said that included what is holding local leaders at this time from achieving these goals.
“After lunch, we talked about strategizing, how do we remove those barriers,” he said. “If this is what’s holding us back, what are ways we then can work as a community and a county to remove those barriers? At the end, we focused on five key categories we want to address first moving forward so we can hopefully find some success in the housing market.”
At the end of the day after categories of concern were identified, summit participants signed up to help in the areas they felt most passionate about, and Svaty said those small groups will begin meeting several times each month.
“Over the next three months, we’ll also be reaching out to additional members of the community to come on board those so we have all the voices in the room present, and we’ll continue to meet as a whole group quarterly to check in and see how progress is going with each of those,” he said.
After recently applying for the KDOC’s Building A Stronger Economy (BASE) grant, local leaders learned grant money was not awarded. Svaty said this was disappointing, and it does not help the local housing situation, especially with a likely increase in demand on the horizon. He did, however, have some good news on that front.
“On the funding side, the moderate income housing program, which was historically a $2 million pool of money rewarded once a year, is now a $62 million pool of money that will have three rounds of funding with $5 million each round with individual awards up to $650,000,” he said. “Those first rounds open up in July, so we want to make sure for the community, we have as many applications as possible in the bank for that so we have better odds. The great thing is the city, with a local developer, put in an application last year, and it was denied, primarily because they didn’t have enough money in the pool to fund it.”
Svaty said news from the KHRC has anyone not funded by last year’s round of grants for any reason being shifted to the front of the line for the first round of upcoming funding.
“We’ve had conversations with them,” he said. “We’ve modified the application to meet their requests, and we’re confident that first one will go through. We want to make sure other developers in the city and the county know that option is available.”
Svaty said programs such as the Rural Housing Incentive District can help with funding for areas like streets, drainage and infrastructure costs for sewer and water.
“Moderate income housing grant money can be used for everything else – construction costs, engineering costs, down payment assistance,” he said. “It really provides a wide opportunity for developers.”
As for the average home age in Seward County, Svaty said data shows that year to be about 1970. He added Finney County and Ford County have similar numbers in Southwest Kansas, with average ages in 1977 and 1978, and some counties have even older homes.
“Comanche County’s is 1943,” he said. “It’s really all over the spectrum, but that’s still 52 years old for the average home in Seward County.”
Naturally, this presents a challenge for local officials, and Svaty said an additional challenge comes with matching housing needs with workforce needs.
“We’re trying to take an approach that says we need a very balanced look at housing,” he said. “We want to make sure we have high-end single family homes available for the people in the community who are looking to move up into those homes or move into the community and have the income to buy those.”
At the same time, Svaty said starter homes, as well as housing for teachers, professors and employees of National Beef and High Plains Ponderosa Dairy are needed.
“They need good quality housing as well,” he said. “The big questions are where do we put those in the community and how do we find the developers who can build those homes and still make money. That’s a challenge these days.”
Svaty said about 15 years ago, development leaders in Dodge City went to city and county commissions there, letting them know industry would not come without needed housing.
“It took them several years to get that machine going, but ever since then, they’ve been churning a few hundred houses every year,” he said. “As we’ve seen in Dodge City, they’ve had significant industrial growth as a result.”
With expansions at National Beef, High Plains Ponderosa Dairy and Conestoga Energy, local industry growth is happening right now, and Svaty said growth in the housing market needs to take place as well to support those industries.
“With other industries looking at us as a community and a county, they want to see we have the capacity to build houses,” he said. “They’re not going to want plant a new industry here if they see we’ve only built 100 houses over the last 10 years. We need to be able to prove we have the capacity and the knowledge to ramp up production when we need to.”
Many local businesses have a less than full workforce, which could be attributed to a lack in housing. Svaty said SCDC is conducting a study to see how much of an impact to a low housing supply is having on the employment numbers.
“I’ve sent out some quick surveys to a lot of local industries with that very specific question,” he said. “How many of your vacancies are due to the fact people simply cannot find a place to live in our community? That’s a challenge we’re facing all the time. That’s trying to bring in new people.”
Svaty said even with the community’s natural growth with students graduating from Liberal High School and schools in surrounding communities, it is likely only a small percentage of those young people who want to stay in Southwest Kansas and own their own house.
“We need to be constantly creating new places for them to live or transitioning people from those entry level homes into that next tier of housing so it frees up that space,” he said. “We’ve been a little behind the ball on that for a couple of years. It’s exciting to see so many representatives from so many different parts of the community coming together to start to work on how we solve that.”
In addition, Svaty said there are other areas of concern that need to be addressed before new housing is constructed.
“One was taking a look at our zoning policies, both as a city and county, and a more cohesive plan that says this is how we can streamline the zoning process and make sure we’re not hindering our own growth because of old policies that need to change,” he said. “We have a group that’s dedicated to working on that.”
Svaty said another group is dedicated to bringing more voices to the table, making sure if a strategic plan for housing is put in place, that plan includes exact types of housing for a particular demographic.
“We’re not just going to build a house and hope somebody buys it,” he said. “We’re going to build a house because we know these people and this demographic are looking for that.”
Still another group will work on workforce development.
“That’s a huge issue across the board, but especially in those construction trades,” Svaty said. “The community college is already looking at that particular program and what it would take to bring something like that back for the community.”
A challenge Svaty sees across the state is contractors in need of people with skills to build homes.
“Everyone needs houses, but we’re also going to need people who can build those house,” he said. “We have one group focused on messaging and making sure we’re getting a good positive message out there about the progress and the work that’s going on.”
One last group will look at funding opportunities.
“We have to be able to leverage all of those available funds,” Svaty said. “It is such a tight market now for developers, and we’re making sure it’s valuable and worthwhile for them to invest in building houses or apartments or duplexes in town. That is the result of making sure we’re using every resource available, combining resources when can to ensure it’s profitable and it’s good for the community.”