U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Marcia Fudge (third from left) visited Kansas City, Missouri, on May 26, 2021. Danielle Randle/The Beacon

During a May 26 visit to Kansas City, Missouri, the U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development promoted this idea: that housing is infrastructure. 

It was part of Secretary Marcia Fudge’s promotion of President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan, a $2.65 trillion piece of legislation meant to improve national infrastructure, from roads to bridges to broadband to housing. 

In her news conference at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in the 18th and Vine District, Fudge acknowledged the shortage of affordable housing in the U.S., a problem the American Jobs Plan seeks to remedy. 

“People’s lives change when they have opportunity,” Fudge said in response to a question asked by The Beacon. “People’s lives change when they are empowered, and they feel safe, and they feel secure. And they don’t have to worry about having a roof over their head, their lives change.” 

Fudge was joined by Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas and Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, who represents Missouri’s 5th Congressional District that includes Kansas City. Cleaver now serves as the chairman of the Housing, Community Development and Insurance Subcommittee in Congress, which works closely with HUD.

In his remarks, Cleaver said working on housing was the only issue he wanted to lead in Washington. 

“We’ve got to recognize the importance of housing,” Cleaver said. “We’ve got to recognize that it is a part of the human infrastructure, we cannot survive without housing.”

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, who represents Missouri’s 5th Congressional District, speaks at an event on May 26, 2021, supporting President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan. Cleaver now serves as the chairman of the Housing, Community Development and Insurance Subcommittee in Congress, which works closely with HUD. Danielle Randle/The Beacon

Mayor Lucas agreed, saying housing is foundational to economic development.

“You can’t just say you’re going to have jobs and everything else without thinking about where people live, where people start their day, where people are educated,” he said in response to a question asked by The Beacon. 

What does the American Jobs Plan propose for housing?

The American Jobs Plan would invest $213 billion to address and remedy the affordable housing crisis. This investment would be used to build new homes and preserve and rehab existing housing stock, with a goal of creating 2 million homes and commercial buildings. 

The plan intends to build and rehabilitate more than 500,000 homes for low- to middle-income buyers and extend the opportunity to own a home to more families. The overall goal: ensuring more Americans have access to affordable housing, particularly those who are part of underserved communities, including rural and tribal areas.  

The American Jobs Plan also targets exclusionary zoning laws and land-use policies that can become barriers in building more affordable housing. 

Here’s how some of the funding breaks down:

  • $500 million in grants and loans for renovating multifamily homes to make them more energy efficient and more resilient against extreme weather events. 
  • $40 billion to improve current public housing properties. Over the years, a lack of investment has left many of these buildings to fall into disrepair. However, the $40 billion falls short of the estimated $70 billion needed to address the backlog of repairs needed for public housing, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
  • $45 billion in the Housing Trust Fund, which serves households with incomes below 30% of the area median income. It is one of the few federal programs providing subsidies to help the most vulnerable households — 75% of the trust fund’s money must be directed toward families considered extremely low income.
  • $2 billion toward project-based rental assistance for private rental housing — it will be the first of its kind to be issued in more than 20 years. 
  • $55 billion toward Low-Income Housing Tax Credits to construct affordable apartments. Overall, the goal is to construct between 500,000 and 600,000 low-cost apartments over the next five years. A proposed $20 billion tax credit program would be used to cover the costs of purchasing and renovating homes in cities where the cost of doing so is higher than the home value.

These funds could impact Kansas City, where a Beacon investigation found condemned and dangerous structures that could be rehabilitated into livable homes are often left languishing on the dangerous buildings list. There are currently 360 properties on the dangerous buildings list, most of which are concentrated in neighborhoods east of Troost Avenue, where more people of color live and where incomes are disproportionately lower.  

What does affordable housing currently look like in Kansas City?

In Kansas City, rising rents and a shortage in housing stock has contributed to a lack of affordable housing, pricing out the city’s low-income residents. 

Recent reporting from The Kansas City Star found that the Housing Authority of Kansas City has a wait list of more than 6,000 people applying for public housing. Families who apply for public housing or the Section 8 voucher program often wait for years to receive assistance. 

The most recent data from the Kansas City Regional Association of Realtors found that Jackson County’s housing inventory is down 52.9% since April of last year. The average sales price of a home also increased from about $210,000 last year to nearly $250,000 this April. 

The housing stock shortage is even worse for low-income households looking for affordable options. 

According to data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there is a shortage of 44,042 affordable rental homes in Kansas for extremely low-income families. That number is higher in Missouri, where there is a shortage of 122,075 affordable rental homes. 

How do local developers and builders feel about the American Jobs Plan?

Secretary Fudge also visited the construction site of a single-family home at 133 N. Topping Ave. in Kansas City’s northeast district. The affordable one-story, wood-paneled home will have three bedrooms and was designed to be energy efficient by Kansas State University. 

The home is the product of a collaboration between the Mattie Rhodes Center, a community development organization, and Northeast Alliance Together, a community economic development corporation of the Mattie Rhodes Center. Mattie Rhodes received federal funds from Kansas City and got the property from the city’s Land Bank last year. 

The plan is to build four more homes just like it two blocks away.

Scott Wagner, director of Northeast Alliance Together, likes what the American Jobs Plan could do to increase affordable housing in Kansas City. He said the homes being built in the northeast are an example of what could be done with more investment in housing from the federal government. 

“It’s investments like these that allow people to see what can be done and what’s possible,” Wagner said.

Tate Williams is the owner of CoBuild, a local construction company that worked on the home at 133 N. Topping. As a builder committed to affordable housing, Williams said the gap is growing between those who can access quality housing and those who cannot. 

“I think it’s going to take federal investment to narrow that gap,” Williams said.

How does the proposed plan sit with local housing group KC Tenants? 

During her visit, Fudge also met with members of the tenant union from Gabriel Tower Apartments. The apartments are managed by Ohio-based Millennia Cos., which receives millions from HUD for voucher and rental-assistance programs. 

Since forming last summer, the tenant union has raised concerns about a lack of working air conditioning and unsafe living conditions due to pests and mold. Members of the tenant union and KC Tenants, a housing advocacy group, showed up at 18th and Vine to request a meeting with Fudge to ask that HUD cut ties with Millennia. 

Fudge committed to launching an investigation and to meeting again with the tenant union in a few weeks. 

Tara Raghuveer, director of KC Tenants, said she agrees with the idea of housing as infrastructure. KC Tenants is made up of residents and tenants, including those who are unhoused and those experiencing unstable housing.

“That idea requires us to think deeply about how we spend our public money, what investments we’re making in public housing, in truly public housing, in creating alternatives to the market housing that most poor and working-class tenants are forced to live in today,” she said.

Raghuveer thinks the American Jobs Plan could provide an opportunity for Kansas City.

“What we are eager to see is priorities that really center people over profits,” she said. “What we can’t allow is a massive wealth transfer of public money into private industry to subsidize, enrich (and) enlarge the private sector in providing our homes.”

What’s next for the American Jobs Plan?

The $2.65 trillion legislation is still in negotiations between Republicans and Democrats in Congress. 

On May 26, Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee agreed on a $300 billion highway reauthorization bill. And on May 27, Republicans announced their counteroffer to Biden’s jobs plan. The smaller $928 billion plan is specifically for roads, bridges and other public works and doesn’t include funding for housing programs. Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt joined a group of Republicans in introducing the offer.

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Celisa Calacal covers economics and civic engagement issues for The Beacon. Follow her on Twitter @celisa_mia or email her at celisa@thebeacon.media.