By Taliyah Winn
Wichita housing prices have steeply increased in the past few years. As homeowners, renters and landlords alike struggle with affordable homeownership, Wichita’s mayoral candidates Brandon Whipple and Lily Wu spoke with over 160 Wichita residents on Wednesday night at a mayoral forum to address these challenges.
The Wichita State University Center for Real Estate released its Kansas Housing Markets Forecast, which projected a decline in home sales by 10.4% by the end of 2023, a 7.2% decrease in construction this year, and an expected 8.8% increase in 2024. Home prices are predicted to rise by 4.2% in 2023 and 3.4% in 2024. The Wichita Journalism Collaborative and Wichita Habitat for Humanity teamed up to host the forum due to these financial forecasts.
The candidates spoke on various aspects of affordable housing, including supply, housing quality, racial and ethnic gaps in home ownership, zoning, downtown rentals, homelessness, developers and more.
Each candidate had a minute to answer each question with no rebuttal. The first half of the forum consisted of submitted questions asked and moderated by Stefania Lugli, a reporter for the Kansas Leadership Center Journal. Then, the audience asked questions to the candidates (either by approaching the microphone or filling out an index card), moderated by Danielle Johnson, the executive director of Habitat for Humanity.
Candidates were allowed a minute for opening statements, setting the forum’s tone.
Wu began, sharing her story of immigrating to the United States from Guatemala at 8 years old. She shared her family’s experience growing up in Wichita and her goal of enticing people back to the city.
“One of the things that I’d love to do is really boomerang back a lot of our Wichitans. And my goal will be to try to boomerang back my brother and sister-in-law to home right here in Wichita,” Wu said.
Whipple described his experiences with homeownership and his life in Wichita, which began after serving in AmeriCorps at South High School. Whipple and his wife bought their first house in their 20s.
“We talked about boomerangs; I also think that we need to bring more people back, but I want to retain our young people,” Whipple said. “They don’t have to move to a coast. They can actually get their piece of the American dream right here in Wichita.”
Renting and barriers to homeownership
“The American Dream” was referenced throughout the debate. In a question from the audience about the racial and ethnic gaps in homeownership, it came up in both of the candidates’ answers.
As a second-generation immigrant, Wu looked at the lives of her parents and their achievement of the American Dream.
“I believe that the American Dream is still alive, that people want to own homes. But that’s not the only option. And we have to be realistic about that,” Wu said. “Renting is also a great option.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2020, 57.8% of occupied housing units in Wichita were in owner-occupied households, while 42.2% were in renter-occupied households. In Sedgwick County, rent has been up at least 8.5% since 2019.
“We have to provide the tools for people, empower them to be financially literate, help them achieve the dream that they have whether it’s ownership or renting,” Wu said.
In his remarks, Whipple recognized the history of redlining in Wichita and the non-discrimination ordinance that the city council passed in 2021.
“Home-ownership, I think, is so important. I don’t knock anyone who rents. My parents rent,” Whipple said. “However, what makes that American dream so possible when you have access to homeownership is that the house increases in value, which means that you’re building that intergenerational wealth that your kids get to inherit.”
An audience member also asked: “In what ways do you plan to support younger renters pursuing a college education who might not have the experience or ability to work full time?”
Wu said that basic financial literacy education should be the focus.
“When it comes to young professionals, college students, it’s about a lot of education. And I know that it sounds like a broken record, but it’s not,” Wu said. “A lot of our community does not get a lot of the basic financial literacy that we need to encourage young people to think more long term.”
Whipple said that his experience living in Wichita largely revolved around his ability to find roommates. He specified housing programs that catered to young people through independent leasing and encouraged similar policies to be applied around the city.
“We actually have housing in Wichita that is really geared towards young people – towards students – and demographic independent leases, where it’s not just two people sign a lease, each person has their own lease to their own room,” Whipple said.
Definitions of affordable housing
One of the pre-submitted questions asked the candidates to provide their definition of affordable housing.
Whipple answered first, not knowing the exact formula for affordable housing, but described what it meant to him.
“The reality is affordable housing is being able to not only afford where you live but also afford the necessities to live,” Whipple said. “Can you afford food? Can you afford clothing? Can you afford the extras that we would consider important when raising a family in our community?”
Wu said affordable housing is 30% of your income and explained that “housing affordability” and “affordable housing” are different.
“When you talk about affordability and housing, that’s really everyone in this room,” Wu said. “It affects all of us. Every single person here will be affected by housing affordability because right now, we don’t have enough supply for that housing affordability. “
A major issue both candidates highlighted throughout the debate was the lack of supply in Wichita’s housing market.
Wichita faces a shortage of up to 40,000 units, including approximately 20,000 rental units. On top of that, Wichita has a growing homeless population but a shrinking number of shelters.
In 2023, the Salvation Army’s shelter for unhoused women and children ceased operations. The operation of HumanKind’s emergency winter shelter’s future has been uncertain this month, but Friday, the non-profit released a statement that they plan to open at reduced capacity. It will provide 140 emergency beds and make safety upgrades to the building before it opens on Nov. 15.
Downtown Wichita and homelessness
During the Q&A segment, an audience member asked for an opinion on the downtown area’s focus on developing high-end apartments rather than affordable housing for young professionals.
Wu said that the Wichita Biomedical Campus will bring 3,000 students to the downtown area, and it would transform the demographics, in turn creating more housing. Her first concern is public safety downtown to attract young people, which will promote the market to respond to the demand for housing.
Whipple said Wichitans need a higher supply of housing at all levels and that there are federal funds that can be utilized to turn older buildings into affordable housing.
On the topic of homelessness, an attendee asked what can be done about those who face barriers when finding housing.
Wu applauded the work of nonprofits, highlighting HumanKind Ministries, for helping individuals get back on their feet.
“We need to keep supporting nonprofits, especially as community members that help with making sure that individuals get back on their feet and can get back on track,” Wu said.
A recording of the event can be found on KSN TV’s YouTube.
Taliyah Winn is a first-year reporter for The Sunflower. She is a sophomore at WSU double majoring in Political Science and Journalism.
This article was republished here with the permission of: The Sunflower