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Renters, Homebuyers Grapple with Rising Cost of Housing Chasing the American Dream

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Above image credit: A row of homes in the Santa Fe neighborhood is typical of the original construction of the historic area. (Mary Sanchez | Flatland)
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6 minute read

The cost of housing, for both renters and buyers, continues to rise in the heart of the heartland.  

In December, a report from Rent.com found the Kansas City area saw the third largest year-over-year change in rents in the United States, at a 9.71% increase.  

Both Kansas and Missouri saw some of the largest statewide year-over-year changes in rents nationally. Kansas saw an 11.27% increase and Missouri saw a 7.43% increase. 

According to the report, the median rent in the Kansas City metropolitan area was $1,622 in November 2023.  

As of 2024, the minimum wage in Missouri was increased to $12.30 an hour. At that rate, someone working 40 hours a week would make about $1,968 a month before taxes.  

Using Rent.com’s median rent for Kansas City — $1,622 — if they were to split rent with another person and pay $811 each month, a minimum wage worker would still be spending nearly half of their monthly income on rent alone.  

This income-rent equation causes a “cost burden,” which occurs when more than 30% of income is spent on housing.  

According to data from the Census Bureau and the Greater Kansas City Region Housing Data Hub, about 27% of all households in Jackson County were either “cost-burdened” or “severely cost-burdened,” which means they spend more than 50% of their income on housing.  

The numbers change slightly for Clay County, where about 33% of renters are cost-burdened, while about 21% of them are severely cost-burdened.  

Bridget Hughes, a resident of Kansas City, is among the cost burdened. Hughes lives with her husband and children in Parvin Estates and is a member of the Parvin Estates tenant union.  

“We bring in $1,800 a month — that’s the income between my husband and my son’s Social Security that we bring in a month. That’s after taxes, so that’s our take home pay,” Hughes said. “I’m paying $914 for rent. My (electric) bill is consistently over $400 because they refuse to weatherize our windows. My furnace is decades old. My hot water heater is decades old. I have a washer and dryer so obviously that pulls you know electricity.” 

In addition, Hughes said she must factor in costs such as internet, gas and medical bills. 

“The math just doesn’t add up,” Hughes said. “But they call this affordable.” 

Hughes was diagnosed with cervical cancer three years ago, and said she has had gaps in her treatment because she was not able to afford her copay. When she started chemo, her cancer was stage two. 

“Of this past year of me missing chemo treatments or simply not being able to go because of finances, I’ve progressed into stage three,” Hughes said. “So now we’re getting to the point where okay, this is more dangerous like I could die from this if I continue on the path I’m going.” 

Hughes said that while the tenant union has made progress in ensuring quality housing, it has hit a roadblock when it comes to ensuring affordable housing.  

“We are going to continue to fight, and I do believe that eventually we will win it,” Hughes said. “It’s going to take time, but that’s like the only solution that I see because they’re not just going to wake up one day and say, ‘Oh, let’s make housing affordable for tenants.’” 

Hughes also posed the question about what affordability really means. 

“Is it affordable for the middle-class person that’s working a job bringing home $100,000 a year or is it affordable for the single mom that’s working two jobs trying to support her kids?” Hughes said. 

Chanee Brownlee, another resident of Kansas City, also has experienced rent hikes that have caused stress. Brownlee said she has lived at Parvin Estates for 10 years and is also a member of the Parvin Estates Tenant Union. 

“When I very first moved in … the rent was $549, which for being my first place, I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s you know, perfect.’” Brownlee said. “Well, then, not even a year later, it jumped to $675… And then, I had stopped working because my son — my youngest baby — he was born with five different heart defects. So, he had to have open heart surgery. During that time, they literally increased my rent to $749.” 

Brownlee said she saw an increase all the way up to $929 at one point. For a long period of time, Brownlee had to ask for assistance to pay rent.  

“And it’s just been hectic just like, living day to day, trying to make sure, ‘Am I going to be able to keep the house? Will they work with me?’” Brownlee said. “Will they take $100 here because they raised it so high that like even when I did start working, $749 is a lot to come out of a check?” 

Brownlee said that her dream is to own a home one day, but rising rents and the cost of homes are limiting that opportunity. 

“I have settled with the fact that I’ll be renting for a few extra years than I actually wanted to,” Brownlee said. “But with these rent increases that I’m seeing it’s definitely putting a hole in my budget.” 

Along with an increase in rents, there has been an increase in evictions filed in the area.  

Blaine Proctor, the Kansas City housing director, said his department is focusing on keeping people in their housing.  

“We’re finding ways through various funding sources to create and preserve affordable housing,” Proctor said. “The Affordable Housing Trust Fund is one of those funding sources. We also have, for instance, the Central City Economic Development Fund, a sales tax that funds affordable housing in defined areas on the East Side of Kansas City.” 

Proctor highlighted the tenant’s right to counsel and the office of tenant advocacy as two initiatives that focus on keeping tenants housed.  

KC Tenants works with tenant unions around the city, such as the Parvin Estates Tenant Union, to advocate for affordable and safe housing. 

“We all (Parvin Estates Tenant Union) come together as a collective every Tuesday to say: ‘Hey, this is what we’ve seen. This is what we heard. This is what we’ve done. This is what we want to do. How do you guys feel about it?’” Brownlee said.  

Home Prices Soar 

Renters aren’t the only group in Kansas City affected by rising prices. Prospective homebuyers are also experiencing a similar hike.  

The median sale price for all homes continues to rise in the Kansas City area. In November 2023, the median sale price was $314,000, up from $289,000 a year before. 

The median sale price for homes also varies within the metro. In Leawood, homes sold for an average of $674,000. In Independence, the average sale was $200,000. 

Additionally, a 2023 report from Redfin found that first-time homebuyers in the U.S. needed to make 13% more than they did in 2022 to afford a starter home.  

This trend is reflected in Kansas City, where first-time homebuyers needed an income of $43,731 in 2023 to buy a starter home, a 13.7% increase from the year before. In 2023, the average starter home sold for a median price of $165,000. 

In 2022, the per capita income in Kansas City was $38,681, while the median household income totaled $62,175, according to data from the Census Bureau.  

Max Jones, a Realtor and team leader at Mojo Real Estate, said the current trends in the housing market can be traced back to the 2008 market collapse. 

“I think what we’re experiencing now, or you know, right up until COVID, was kind of like making up for lost ground from 2009,” Jones said. 

Jones said when COVID-19 hit, there was a lot of uncertainty about whether the contracts they had pending would close. The government, Jones said, began to pump stimulus into the economy. 

“And the opposite of what we feared would happen actually happened where house prices went up 15-20% in those years,” Jones said. “And so, it’s more than outpaced the recovery from the Great Recession. It’s definitely gone up more than your average of 5% year over year.” 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Jones said they were getting multiple offers from buyers offering anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000 over the asking price within 24 hours of the listing being put up.  

“It was tough for them (first-time homebuyers) to compete in an environment where people were paying $20,000, $30,000, $40,000 over asking price,” Jones said. “So, 2019, 2020, 2021, they couldn’t even compete and buy a house, not because of the price necessarily, but because of the multiple offer environment.”  

That environment has cooled down recently, Jones said. 

“So now we’re selling a lot of our listings to FHA buyers, to VA buyers,” Jones said. “They’re not getting as much house as they could have pre-pandemic for the same monthly payment, but they are able to buy a house. It’s definitely taken up a bigger percentage of their annual income for the same house. So, a lot of them are buying smaller homes than they necessarily would have pre-pandemic.” 

Jones said his advice for first-time homebuyers is to work with a buyer’s agent, to talk with trusted people and to get a home inspection.  

“Just having as many as many people that you can trust involved in helping you in the process is definitely something that I would recommend,” Jones said.  

Julie Freijat is a masters student at the University of Missouri and a Flatland contributor.

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