Editor’s note: This is the third in a weekly, four-part series about housing in Emporia. Each part will be printed in the Wednesday edition of The Emporia Gazette.
The City of Emporia, along with realtors and developers, have been grappling with ways to address local housing needs over the last few years.
With some homes being sold before they even hit the market, would-be homebuyers have been feeling the frustrations related to low housing supplies. In an effort to address some of those needs, the city began a grant-funded infill housing program. Infill housing programs are designed to address community needs by developing vacant or under-used lots within city limits.
“This program develops houses primarily on vacant lots in older, established neighborhoods throughout the city,” Jeff Lynch, community development coordinator for the City of Emporia, said. “It offers down payment assistance of approximately $20,000 per house to buyers that meet the state’s moderate income guidelines.”
Lynch said the program came out of the success of the city’s demolition program, which oversees the removal of dilapidated properties in an effort to clean up local neighborhoods. That, combined with the need for more single-family housing, inspired the infill program. Part of the program also provides down payment assistance to buyers who meet certain income requirements.
“A substantial down payment is offered to make the homes more affordable and offset the difference between costs and market value, if any,” Lynch said. “The down payment assistance is in the form of a ‘soft’ second mortgage, which is not due from the buyer unless they sell or move within 10 years. Even then, an incentive is still available if the next buyer is qualified.”
So far, infill homes have been priced between $150,000 - 250,000. Then-Mayor Danny Giefer told The Emporia Gazette in 2017 that the program was designed to meet the needs for “moderate-income housing.”
“One thing we noticed was our gaps in housing have been in the higher-end houses,” he said. “We have been addressing that through the Hidden Vistas Development this year. This particular grant program will fund moderate-income housing. There are some eligibility requirements for people to be able to qualify for this house. It’s a great program, and we will be able to help clean up the dilapidated houses in some of our neighborhoods.”
Jamie Sauder, a realtor with Coldwell Banker Emporia Real Estate, said infill developments, as well as other local programs, were good ways to improve neighborhood infrastructure, but it still does not keep up with local demand.
“The challenge is, we can’t get ahead of the problem by building one or two or three houses at a time,” he said. “We have to make bold strides even when the market may not call for it. According to [National Association of Realtors] reports, we can’t build enough new houses to alleviate the problem. We need ‘out of the box’ concepts that create more densely-packed housing areas where infrastructure is in place. Redeveloping areas where there is blight is one way, but it would have to be done in a way that is attractive to older homeowners who have lived in their houses for a log time, but are maybe looking to size down.”
Sauder said infill developments have the potential to create a “domino effect” by encouraging improvements in neighborhoods and creating more inventory. Still, “greenfield developments” — or the development of land not previously used for residential, commercial or industrial purposes — are still needed.
“Our new comprehensive plan is based on the notion of place-making, and is designed to grow our community without expanding the footprint,” Sauder said. “This is done so in an effort to keep property taxes down, as more infrastructure leads to more maintenance. If that infrastructure is added and our population doesn’t increase, then we are increasing our tax burden. ... We have to have proper planning, so that what we do add to the community is sustainable.”
Sauder said developers also need to be cognizant of the needs of the millennial generation, which is poised to be the largest generation of home ownership in the country. Millennials — also known as “Generation Y” — are those who were born between 1981 - 1996. Millennials tend to differ from the boomers in that they are willing to relocate.
“Millennials ... seek experience, community and meaning when they search for a job and a place to live,” he said. “The major trend NAR found with millennials is that they will choose where they want to live based on the community and the different aspects of a community before they find a job. If available places to live — whether it is to own or to rent — is vital to positioning our community when it comes to the recruitment of businesses and for the recruitment of people.”
Home buying challenges
Caitlin Flood, 26, has been searching for a house since February, although she started researching the market a little more than a year ago. Flood, a lifelong Emporian, said she wants to stay in the area but purchasing a home has been more difficult than she ever anticipated.
“Between myself and my mom, we didn’t think I’d have any problems,” she said. “I went and figured out everything that a first-time home buyer needs to do. I’ve been pre-approved at two separate banks for mortgages, I’ve found first-time home buyer grants to help out with down payments. I’ve saved up money on my own, but we’ve come to find out that the houses that are in my price range right now in Emporia, either they would need a lot of work or they are at the very top of my budget.”
Flood said she has been looking for a two-bedroom home in the $60,000 - $80,000 range. Although she could technically get approved for something a little more expensive, Flood said she wants to make sure she can keep on top of her other financial commitments.
“I found one house that was in my price range that needed some work, but I could do it,” she said. “I made an offer, but there was already another offer on the house. I didn’t end up getting it. It’s been really frustrating and disheartening.”
Flood said she would like to see more homes in good condition come onto the market. She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty, she said, but she also cannot afford to put another $20,000 into renovations at this time.
“I don’t need a whole lot,” she said. “I’m not asking for 1,500 square feet. I’m asking for a safe house in a good neighborhood. I’m asking that I don’t have to redo all of the wiring and the plumbing in the house.”
Lynch said, at this time, construction costs make it difficult for the infill program to price a new home under $100,000.
“Construction costs of new homes are coming in much higher than $100,000,” he said. “If we cut down too much on size or amenities, then we run the risk that the homes will not sell in our market. Habitat For Humanity may be able to offer new homes in the under $100,000 price range, and they are trying to increase the number of homes they are building. We may be able to find a good fit in the future for homes under $100,000, but it may require a pre-built purchase commitment be put in place.”