A young professional dreams of living downtown, but it’s tough to overcome high rents

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series looking at housing issues faced by people in Wichita. It is produced by members of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of 11 organizations, including KMUW.

KMUW | By Celia Hack

Published December 4, 2023 at 6:00 AM CST

Kyle Ritterbush is one of the young, entrepreneurial professionals Wichita politicians talk so much about wanting to keep.

At just 20 years old, he started his video production business last year after graduating high school. He wants to grow it – hiring someone part-time, taking on bigger projects – all while here in Wichita.

On the side, he pursues his dream of filmmaking through the city’s Tallgrass Film Festival. He’s currently working on a horror short film to submit next year.

But there’s an obstacle to launching his career and becoming a fully fledged adult: moving out of his family’s home.

“With kind of an early-on career, that … limits where I can live,” Ritterbush said. “It feels like I kind of have to choose between living in someplace that either might not be safe or up to standard, or living somewhere that might be more expensive than I should be paying for within my means.”

Due to inflation, increased home prices and a lack of new development in the past several years, rents in Wichita have grown steeply since the COVID pandemic. According to a 2023 report by NAI Martens, this past year alone saw an “aggressive increase” in rental rates: 10.2%, the highest in Wichita in the last decade.

For young professionals with low incomes, that’s made it difficult to leave the nest if they want to maintain financial stability.

Ritterbush thinks he’ll be making between $2,000 to $3,000 a month by next year, when he wants to move out. And he’s got a few requirements for any new apartment he moves into:

First, he doesn’t want to be cost-burdened by housing – i.e., spend more than 30% of his income on it.

Plus, he’s looking for a two-bedroom, so he has room to store his video equipment. And he’d ideally like to live downtown, so that he can be close to his video shoots and other businesses with which he works. Living downtown will also help him save money on gas, which he ultimately spends a lot on when he treks his video equipment around town.

Combine all those factors, and there are few options, Ritterbush said.

“What I was looking at downtown is — starting out for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,000 to $1,500,” Ritterbush said. “A two-bedroom apartment is usually starting out at around $1,500.

“I don’t need tons of amenities. I don’t need a pool. I don’t need a gym. But I just don’t want to be sleeping with bed bugs. I don’t want to be dealing with poor building quality. I don’t want to deal with broken AC.

“I just want the basics. And it feels like the only people who have the basics mostly down are if you’re paying almost $1,500 a month. And that’s something that’s not in my income right now.”

Citywide, the median rent currently stands at $746 for a one-bedroom apartment and $980 for a two-bedroom, according to ApartmentList.com. But downtown, rents on high quality apartment buildings are about 30% higher than new complexes in suburban areas, said Jeff Englert, senior vice president and managing partner with NAI Martens. Many of the apartment complexes listed on Downtown Wichita’s website rent two-bedroom apartments for more than $1,200.

Ritterbush said he’s found apartments in his price range outside the city center, which he is reluctantly considering. He’s also open to a roommate to lower the cost of living.

Despite the rising rents, Wichita frequently ranks high on lists of cheapest or most affordable places to live in the U.S. Ritterbush said this is one of the city’s biggest draws for young professionals.

But he said if rents keep rising, young people might as well look to bigger-name cities. That’s part of Ritterbush’s own calculations. He has dreams of becoming a filmmaker and sees big cities – Los Angeles, Atlanta, even Kansas City – as potential destinations to accomplish that.

“While it may be cheaper here in Wichita, … maybe some of the job opportunities aren’t as good as another city,” Ritterbush said.

“And so I think if Wichita focused on having the best housing in this region, you would attract a lot of young people to Wichita that would not only move here but possibly stay here.

“We have plenty of luxury options for people with higher incomes. That’s not the issue. It’s going to be the young people that we attract from other cities to come live here. And if they feel like they can’t get good value out of their housing, they’re going to be less likely to move here coming out of college.”

This article was republished here with the permission of: KMUW