Don't be blinded by the Lights: Luxury living drives everyday people out of downtown
I used to dream of the thriving downtown we have today — a streetcar, a walkable community and a happily hipster hodgepodge of people and places.
But in all my downtown dreaming, I never imagined the part that wouldn't include me. From the moment Cordish's glittering One Light high-rise apartments opened at the end of 2015, the heart of the city lusted for luxury. Two Light soon followed. Three and Four are on the way.
Now we’re losing the young artists and professionals and the forward thinkers who knew downtown had promise even before the transformation, back when downtown looked like a zombie wasteland. We weren’t rich. We weren’t poor. We were somewhere on that sliding scale in the middle that is being pushed out in the name of wealth and splendor.
My old apartment, a one-bedroom with a bay window in Quality Hill, rented for $680 in 2006. Now it’s around $1,100.
The River Market, where I live now, always felt a little rebellious — quirky yet inclusive. Except it's starting to trade in its hippie vibe for uppity homogeneity with a splash of frat-boy party life.
Luxury living is raising the rent in the cute condos, lofts and apartments all over downtown.
Meanwhile, the fight is on to pour $17.5 million in city dollars into another garage for a Cordish property, this one for Three Light, planned for Truman Road and Main Street. Because it makes perfect sense to keep paying Cordish to make Kansas City elite.
Some City Council members pushed for Cordish to set aside 15 percent of all of its apartments for affordable housing, but the company this week said it would offer only 10 percent of Four Light, if and when it's built.
We didn't ask for low-income housing, just affordable housing for everyday working folk making the median income. A city report puts that at $44,880 to $74,800 for a four-person household.
A 593-square-foot studio apartment at One Light starts at around $1,400 a month. Cordish claims these joints were designed to be affordable for renters who make about $48,000 a year. But that would be 35 percent of their income, way too much, according to federal guidelines. And already, a city report says, 44 percent of KC renters are breaking the bank.
This tone-deaf dedication to opulence is infecting all of downtown. You either make too much money to get into an income-restricted unit or you don’t make enough to live comfortably.
Sara Bonner, a 29-year-old art teacher, loved the river view from her Market Station two-bedroom apartment. When she moved in four years ago, the rent was $1,200 a month. She couldn’t afford it. She was straight out of grad school. Her parents offered to carry the weight with the caveat that they could enjoy the second bedroom when in town.
“I was lucky enough to have help,” she says. “But it doesn’t feel good to be in your late 20s and need help to live where you work, where you meet your friends, where you spend your life.”
She eventually took over her lease in 2016. And spent half of her income on rent. By the time she moved out last year, rent for a one-bedroom was almost as high as what she once paid for a two-bedroom.
“I would have stayed downtown, but it gets to a point where you are thinking, ‘Do I have a life or do I have a place to live?’”
She and her fiancé ditched their individual places and bought a house in the Blue Hills neighborhood on the East Side.
“Our mortgage is what I was paying in rent,” she says. “It’s sad. Luxury living speaks to a certain demographic.”
Ask Keyaire Beard, and that demographic is mostly rich and white. The 34-year-old city worker says his Waltower Lofts apartment at Eighth and Walnut was once affordable, convenient and diverse. But over two years, his rent went up a couple hundred dollars a month.
To him, that was not simply a rent increase, it was an exclusionary move. The higher the rents, the less likely an inclusive environment. Kansas City is the fifth most economically segregated city in the country, and economic disparity correlates with racial disparity.
“Mixed-income housing cuts down on the B.S.,” says Keyaire, who has since moved to 18th and Vine. “When all kinds of people can live together, you cut back on discrimination and stereotypes. Because you get to know people. You get to see all white people aren’t racists. They are cool. They get to see black people aren’t what they thought. You build a community different from what you knew. We had each other's back regardless of what you look like.”
We are building a downtown for the upper class with the exception of a few low-income housing units. And now, thanks to cuts pushed by Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, 1,140 of those low-income units may no longer be available within five years, according to the city. That's a 41 percent decline.
Cheyenne Squire used to live in an income-restricted unit at Cold Storage Lofts in the River Market. She and a roommate shared a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment for $800 a month two years ago. But when she wanted to move out on her own, she was told she made too much as a waitress and literacy tutor. If you make over $31,740 as a single person, you can’t get in.
“I wasn’t so poor that I was eligible for restricted income but I’m not making enough to live in a regular downtown apartment,” says Cheyenne, 22. She eventually found a new home in a Midtown studio. “I loved living in the River Market, the nature and being able to walk and get my groceries. I don’t have a car. I have to plan for everything now.”
What she loves about Midtown is the neighborly vibe.
"People who can’t afford to live downtown are moving to Midtown, and it’s becoming more diverse," she says. “I have neighbors from India and Slovakia. Inclusivity is important because you don’t have that feeling of alienation where you live.”
You want to know why so many college graduates are leaving the city? Segregation and a lack of affordable options. So what do we do?
We start with a solid housing policy that requires every new housing development to offer some affordable units. The city is supposed to deliver a report in August.
“That sort of housing isn’t going to build itself,” says Brandon Weiss, a UMKC associate law professor specializing in housing laws. “We are at an important tipping point. We are where downtown Los Angeles was 10 years ago when it saw a massive wave of gentrification. Private investment is a good thing, but we need strong public policies if we want to ensure those interests are good for the people in the city rather than displacing them.”
Economic versatility doesn't just help the people. It's good business. Look at Union Hill just south of Crown Center. Its 16 blocks are busy with retail, restaurants and over 600 housing units.
“There are folks right out of college, starting their first job or students at UMKC who want to live downtown,” says developer Bob Frye. “At Union Hill, we offer four different properties with four different price points to create a broad appeal.”
Cordish seems to think it would lose money by offering affordable housing. Union Hill has seen growth.
“What we find is a lot of times as people work their way up the economic cycle they want to stay in the neighborhood," Frye says. "They move to one of our other properties and stay with us as they move up in life.”
It makes business sense to cater to all kinds of people. As far as city sense, we can’t allow our tax dollars to pay for the lives of the rich.
We have to rethink the way we subsidize and why we subsidize, says Doug Shafer, a Kansas City real estate agent and activist with MORE2, an organization for racial and economic equity.
“God forbid we give money to the poor for housing,” says Shafer, 66. “We give money to the rich to be landlords to the poor. A city should not subsidize for the rich to live downtown. We need to take an equity lens to every public policy.”
If we don’t tackle inequity, we risk repeating history.
In the '60s, Boston put its money into luxury housing and a parking lot, and hundreds of people were displaced, giving birth to Tent City.
Protesters occupied that parking lot for four days in 1968, initiating a 20-year battle for fair housing. Is that what it’s going to take, Kansas City?
Councilwomen Alissia Canady and Katheryn Shields are working hard to take Cordish to task and renegotiate the deal that has the city and taxpayers subsidizing garages for its luxury towers.
“We need to be realistic about who we are trying to attract,” says Canady. “We want to attract young people to energize our city? Downtown is just out of the reach if the least expensive unit is $1,200. We have to think about workforce housing for young professionals and middle management. Providing parking lots to house cars and not people sends the wrong message.”
It tells us the city doesn't care about us.
Downtown Kansas City has been so busy trying to move on up, it's forcing the people who make the city to move on out.