The Emporia City Commission discussed updates to its Rural Housing Incentive District (RHID) policy to address the housing shortage in Emporia during its study session Wednesday morning.
Special Projects Coordinator Jim Witt explained that about 53% of local households could afford houses priced at $150,000 and that this data point would help guide the commission in moving forward with making decisions in regard to housing. However, he also said that the variability of housing prices would be important to consider as well.
“That’s the second point, I think, to be made is that the rising costs of housing — affordable materials, etc. — is going to impact whatever we do,” Witt said.
Witt also pointed out that the cheapest house that has been developed in Emporia in recent years was $180,000.
“So one of the issues when we’re building new housing is, how much of our population can really afford that?” he said.
Witt detailed how Dodge City has successfully implemented the RHID program to build nearly 400 housing units in the past 12 years.
In the Dodge City model, Witt said, “the city becomes the developer. In this sense, the developer of the infrastructure pays themselves off, repays themselves through the RHID process. It’s a little different strategy. They’ve been successful at it. Will we be? I would think so, but you can’t make any promises.”
The commission seemed to be impressed by the Dodge City model and interested in investigating what it would look like to implement that in Emporia.
Mayor Rob Gilligan explained the appeal of the Dodge City model.
“[The Dodge City model] frees up capital for infrastructure costs at the front but creates a safety net so that we’re not just over-building a bunch of empty lots like some communities in Kansas have and they’ve sat on them for years,” he said. “We can create a strategy for growth that is right-sized to fit the community, but also doesn’t overwhelm us with unnecessary infrastructure cost.”
However, Gilligan also pointed out the importance of investing in housing to complement the investments the city has already made in economic growth, even with the potential for risk.
“I just feel like, for some reason, we’re overzealous here in [being] worried about a return, you know?” he said. “I’ll be honest, we made a decision as a commission just a [few] week[s] ago to invest $1 million dollars in property that we know we probably won’t see a return on in the next two decades. But we didn’t hesitate overall, a majority, to do that because you’ve got to invest in your community for growth.
“We have a broad audience of people telling us no growth can occur unless we invest in housing and, oddly enough, the investment we made [recently] has even less chance of being successful ever in the future without a housing investment in the current situation. So for me, I feel like we’re really getting in the weeds trying to find the perfect strategy to do it when really our goal should be, we want to build houses, start bringing us proposals inside the city limits and we’re going to start here. Then we’ll evaluate as we see out there.”
The city will continue to discuss this topic during its March 24 session.
Daphne Mertens of Healthier Lyon County also addressed the commission in regard to the Blue Cross Blue Shield Pathways to a Healthy Kansas Phase 2 grant the city received.
She explained that $50,000 had been allotted for creative place-making, which is the creative application of the arts, culture and social context to enhance economic development and community pride and to provide opportunities for people to be physically active.
One of the potential projects for this grant is the revitalization of Walnut Park. Martens said that a group of 60 or so local residents had formed a group called the Friends of Walnut Park with the goal of seeing improvements there.
Some of those proposed improvements include replacing the park sign, improving the swing set, fixing the kickball backstop and installing trash cans, dog waste receptacles and park benches. Those specific improvements have been priced at around $13,000.
Other potential projects the southwest Santa Fe Park skatepark, Quaker Park, downtown breezeways and the use of city-owned vacant lots.