When Noah Rude first made plans to move out of the dorms and rent a space off campus with some friends, he said he was “disgusted” by some of the options he encountered. Some properties had obvious signs of repeated flooding, others were contaminated by animal feces.
“I’ve noticed [some] houses here aren’t really kept up very well,” Rude, a senior in architectural engineering who took a semester off, said. “It’s just sort of the bare minimum, as long as they’re standing kind of thing.”
He ultimately found a space to live that was relatively “decent,” he said, but other places he’s lived in since have had mold problems and repeated issues with ants.
April is National Fair Housing Month, which marks the anniversary of the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968. But beyond that, local advocacy organizations look to solve housing issues currently facing Manhattan residents in different ways.
For Renters Together MHK, a group made up of tenants and allies, advocacy wasn’t the original goal.
“We started the organization really just to allow people to share stories, and those stories began to kind of create an awareness of some key structural and institutional problems that were happening in our community,” Jessica Kerr, a member of Renters Together MHK, said. “We started to see … some patterns.”
The basis of the conversations centered primarily on issues with housing affordability and safety.
“A safe and affordable housing community is kind of all our work,” Kerr said.
From there, the group identified a few key areas it wanted to address, specifically honing in on one common problem: a lack of routine rental inspections. As it sits now, Manhattan requires landlords to register their rental properties with the city and property inspections can be requested if there is an issue, but they are not mandatory and do not occur on a regular basis.
“Without that regulation, we’re trusting just random people who own a house or own an apartment … to provide a safe space for people to live in,” Rude, a lead organizer with Renters Together MHK, said. “Unfortunately, not everybody can provide that.”
These inspections would help weed out unsafe properties and could also protect renters from potential health risks, like pest infestations and mold. Renters Together MHK spent the last couple of years lobbying city officials to legislate that change but to no avail.
But it’s not “rocket science,” Rude said. Other cities in Kansas with similar characteristics, like Lawrence, have mandatory, routine rental inspections.
There’s also been a recent push to establish a Housing Advisory Board connected to the city commission. This board’s primary function would be conducting a housing survey to “analyze the recent, past and present housing situation in Manhattan and surrounding communities,” according to a memo from the city written in December 2020.
“That will give us some real data, not just anecdotal stories,” city commissioner and executive director of the Manhattan Housing Authority Aaron Estabrook said. “Everybody has an opinion about housing, but we don’t have a universe of facts that we can agree to.”
A similar survey was conducted by the city in 2000, which created a five-year housing plan. The goals and needs outlined in that plan echo in the items Renters Together MHK and other groups are asking for today, like better access to affordable housing that is safe.
But progress on establishing a housing advisory board has “stagnated,” Kerr said.
“We need to take action, and without that pressure on our elected officials, I think that big things like this can kind of sit around,” Kerr said.
Part of the slowing is pandemic-related. According to the city memo, Manhattan had set in motion a plan to conduct a Housing Market Analysis and Policy Strategy study beginning in March 2020, but that was put on pause when COVID-19 hit.
Another group took matters into their own hands, however. With the help of a grant from the Kansas Health Foundation, a grassroots organization conducted a two-year housing study in Manhattan called Community Solutions to Affordable Housing.
“The city didn’t tell a group of us to do this,” Donna Schenck-Hamlin, an associate with the Center for Engagement and Community Development, said. “We took it on our own initiative after an informal group of people who regularly got together for coffee and conversation on the problem of affordable housing said, ‘Well, maybe we can find some grant money,’ and we found the grant.”
The findings from that study, presented to the city commission over a year ago, highlighted three key areas of improvement for housing at all levels, including renting and homeownership.
The first focus is neighborhood revitalization. The purpose of those initiatives would be to ensure that infrastructure in each neighborhood meets the direct needs of its residents. It’s about “looking at neighborhoods as a whole, and trying to collectively determine what would make for a safer, more welcoming, healthy neighborhood district-by-district,” Schenck-Hamlin said.
This looks like ensuring there is adequate aTa bus services where necessary or that there are sidewalks in areas near K-12 schools.
The second and third findings emphasize safe and affordable housing in different types of arrangements. Specifically, ingraining inspections into the rental process and increasing access to workforce housing or more moderately-sized family homes.
“[It’s] getting people into housing, who otherwise — despite the fact that they are working — are so stressed by a mismatch between their income and the market value,” Schenck-Hamlin said.
This goal of establishing more affordable housing in the community does align with a plan from the city of Manhattan. In November 2020, residents voted on and approved a sales tax increase. Some of the funds created from that increase will be allocated to establishing more workforce housing in Manhattan, but that increase won’t take effect until 2023.
“The taxpayers have said, ‘We want that money to go towards workforce housing,'” Estabrook said. “None of that would have been possible without those discussions that began with facilitations about safe and affordable housing.”
For Schenck-Hamlin, establishing safe and affordable housing in the community is a “moving target.” After all, the needs of the community and the people who live in it change over time.
“Part of the problem is in a person’s cycle of life, from childhood to old age, they have different kinds of needs for housing,” she said. “If there’s a decline in the student resident population, that’s going to have an impact on the whole array of housing alternatives here.”