Two homes, one lot and a possible way to make home ownership more in reach in Wichita

Wichita has seen a steep rise in the construction of duplexes marketed to homebuyers, suggesting that might make more new construction affordable as starter homes.

by Mark Wiebe

As Julie Moore and her elderly parents prepared to move from Oklahoma City to Wichita, they had some very specific needs. 

They wanted to be close to family and friends north of the city. And with Moore working from home, they needed enough space for her to do her medical coding and for her parents to have some room of their own.  

They also wanted a relatively new house with few maintenance issues. And, of course, they needed a place they could afford. 

But even in one of the country’s most affordable housing markets, the Moores still struggled for nearly a year to find the right size home at the right price and in the right part of Wichita. 

“The houses we were looking at were 30 years old and needed work,” Moore said. “We didn’t even bother looking at new single-family houses.” 

Then they heard about Chapel Landing, a development of duplexes under construction in Bel Aire. 

Yes, duplexes. For sale, not for rent. As inflation and supply-chain issues drive new housing prices ever higher, buyers like the Moores feel the effects of the affordable housing crisis. But they’re also discovering that, apart from a shared wall, a new duplex offers nearly all the trappings of a single-family home.

“This literally checked off every box” — price and floor plan — “we were looking for,” Moore said. “It worked out to be $95 per square foot, which was less than older construction.” 

The Moores are among hundreds of homebuyers turning to duplexes in lieu of pricier, single-family homes. 

Although statistics don’t distinguish between duplexes built for lease and those for sale, permits for “two-family” housing have tripled for Wichita area in the last six years —from 250 in 2018 to 754 in 2023, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  

Professor Stan Longhofer, director of Wichita State University’s Center for Real Estate, said the reason for this growth is simple: buyers want to save money and developers want to profit from their investments at a time when construction costs have increased 47% since the pandemic. 

Wess Galyon, president and CEO of the Wichita Area Builders Association, estimated that 10% of the new duplexes get sold to individuals and not, as still happens, to large investment firms that lease them by the hundreds. 

Developers, Galyon said, save on land and building costs when they construct duplexes. And homeowners save on their monthly payments. 

Between 2020 and 2022, the Urban Institute reports, the average monthly house payment in the United States (including principal, interest, taxes and insurance) jumped from 25.5% of a homeowner’s income to 30.2%. 

“We’re trying to keep costs down so people can buy a home and build equity,” Galyon said. 

‘New reality’ driving duplex construction

The Wichita area’s rapid increase of home prices, Longhofer said, “is a new reality we have to adapt to.”

The builders of new duplex developments — and their buyers — seem to be adapting. But will the broader community adapt along with them? A  stigma attached to duplexes still persists and some critics see them as a threat to nearby property values. Last year, for example, neighbors objected to a proposed duplex development in the western Wichita area. 

Longhofer said academic research doesn’t support those concerns.

“People feel like, ‘Oh, if you build a duplex, it’s going to bring down my property values,’” he said. “But the fears often outweigh the facts.”

For those who worry that duplexes can slip into disrepair over time, leaving blighted neighborhoods in their wake, developers and real estate agents have an answer: They’re creating homeowners associations to ensure standards and perform some basic maintenance. The one at Chapel Landing, for example, will provide lawn care and sprinkler maintenance and tend to the well.  

Kit Corby, owner of The Corby Group that markets the 80-unit development, teamed up a few years ago with JCT Holdings to sell duplexes and other multi-unit projects. Initially, Corby sold to investors, not single owners. 

Jeff Torkelson, left, an owner of JCT Holdings, and Kit Corby, owner of The Corby Group, teamed up to build and market multi-family housing developments. They concluded two and a half years ago that high-end duplexes, like these in Bel Aire, could provide some homeowners an affordable alternative to new single-family homes.

But individual buyers began to show interest, with some purchasing both sides of a duplex to live in one and lease the other. As the inventory of new single-family homes shrank, Corby and JCT Holdings saw a way to market whole developments of duplexes to individual buyers, whether they bought one unit or both. 

“We just tested the market,” she said. “We took a couple full buildings out and listed them as single units. Well, they flew off the shelf.” 

In the last two and a half years, The Corby Group has sold 266 units with 17 more sales pending. It plans to list 200 more in the coming months.

Corby said that most of the units she sells run between roughly 2,300 and 2,500 square feet, depending on whether they’re five-bedroom/three-bath floor plans, or four-bedroom/two-bath. They sell for between $225,000 and $250,000. The price for an equivalent new single-family home in Wichita would be about $75,000 to $100,000 more. 

The buyers include young families and retired couples. Colby sold one whole duplex to an extended family, with the aging parents and their children living on opposite sides. 

“That’s how we’re trying to meet the housing shortage here,” she said. “And other developers are beginning to do the same thing. Where we had kind of an edge on the market, we now have competition.”

Duplexes help, don’t fix, affordable housing problem

No one, including Corby, sees owner-occupied duplexes as a silver bullet for solving Wichita’s affordable housing crisis. The proposal for a $302 million dollar biomedical campus, for example, promises to bring 3,000 students and 200 professors downtown. Suburban duplexes, especially ones that are leased, could meet some of the housing demand the campus will create, but hardly all. 

And then there’s the ongoing need to build quality housing for low-income residents, especially in the city’s distressed neighborhoods populated disproportionately by communities of color. Organizations like Habitat for Humanity and Mennonite Housing have worked for decades to revitalize those neighborhoods and give people who’ve never owned a home a chance to build equity. 

Byron Adrian, Mennonite Housing’s president and CEO, said private developers simply cannot afford to build in those neighborhoods. The cost of constructing a single-family, three-bedroom home, for example, can outstrip the price it sells for by as much as $80,000. 

Mennonite Housing and other nonprofits rely on funding from the city of Wichita to help low-income residents purchase a home. To qualify, buyers must make less than 80% of the city’s median income, which is $51,280 for a single person. 

In the last 30 years, the organization has built and sold more than 300 single-family homes, most of them small, energy-efficient two- or three-bedroom ranches for families and retired people. That comes on top of the multi-unit developments it leases at below-market rents. 

Geraldine Hendrix, a 67-year-old retiree who supplements her Social Security check with a part-time job as a certified nurse’s assistant, recently bought her first home. Hendrix had been living with her granddaughter in a two-bedroom apartment where the rent had nearly doubled in three years. 

Geraldine Hendrix recently purchased a home in Wichita from Mennonite Housing, a nonprofit development corporation that builds and sells homes that are affordable to low-income residents. 

“When you have to have a roof over your head and your rent is so high,” she said, “sometimes you don’t eat because you gotta pay the bill.” 

In October, she was able to purchase a new 1,043-square-foot home that Mennonite Housing built in a neighborhood northeast of downtown. Though considerably smaller than the Moores’ duplex, the house has an Energy Star rating, an open floor plan and new appliances. The city helped Hendrix with a down payment that allowed her to qualify for a loan. Today, her monthly mortgage, insurance and taxes are nearly half of what she was paying in rent. 

“I was ecstatic,” she said of the day she moved in. “I got to walk around a beautiful place and realize it’s going to be mine!”

Of course, just as duplexes can only go so far toward meeting market demands, nonprofit developers can only do so much to make the dream of home ownership a reality for someone like Hendrix. And if the cost of building homes continues to grow, the challenges for both nonprofit and private developers will grow with them. 

Longhofer, for one, does not foresee those costs decreasing. 

“While the increase will slow,” he said, “we shouldn’t expect to see prices drop.”

This article was republished here with the permission of: The Beacon