Published August 21st, 2023 at 10:42 AM7 minute read
The tension runs high at Prairie Village City Hall these days.
Earlier this month, amid high-stakes debates over whether to squeeze more housing into the leafy Johnson County suburb, a group fighting against possible zoning changes took particular offense to cutting off public comment.
“Your time to speak is over,” the mayor said. “If you have another outburst, I’m going to ask you to have a conversation with one of our officers.”
The crowd booed. The council cringed at the attacks.
“My children are terrified of this group. I fear for my own safety,” Councilmember Inga Selders said during the meeting. “I’ve been threatened by members of this group while sitting right here on the dais.”
This conflict began over a year ago, when the City Council told its staff to explore possibilities for multi-family housing in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes.
To members of PV United, that threatened the very core of why Prairie Village is somewhat affectionately known as “Perfect Village” — nice houses, tree-lined residential streets and an exclusive community affordable mostly to middle- and upper-class families. Nearly a century after the racist housing covenants of the city’s architects, Prairie Village remains 92% white.
Now, the conflict in Perfect Village roils. PV United circulated three petitions garnering thousands of signatures that would not only prevent the city from finding a way to fit in more housing, the proposals could transform the form of city government — possibly shutting down City Hall.
“Cities like Overland Park and Lenexa are waiting to see what Prairie Village does,” said Lauren Martin, a founding member of Prairie Village for All, which opposes PV United. “Whatever we do with housing is going to impact how our entire county views housing.”
The Prairie Village rezoning issue first found some traction in 2021 when Prairie Village revamped its “Village Vision” for where to go for the next two decades.
The city drew comments from about 200 residents and other research to focus its Village Vision 2.0 on five priorities: quality public spaces, strong neighborhoods, viable commercial centers, sustainability and strategic economic development.
The City Council then created its Ad-Hoc Housing Committee to look for changes that would add housing without changing the character of its neighborhoods.
Among the ideas that emerged was allowing “granny flats,” smaller homes that share lots with bigger houses. They’re particularly attractive to older people looking to downsize.
But that would mean zoning changes to allow those accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, in single-family neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods zoned as R1 make up the vast majority of land in Prairie Village.
The recommendations also included allowing fourplexes and row houses where duplexes already exist (zoned as R2) and exploring the possibility of apartment complexes in R3-zoned neighborhoods. Small portions of Prairie Village are R2- and R3-zoned — mostly around retail centers.
In June 2022, the City Council gave its staff a go-ahead to look deeper into those ideas.
A few weeks later, flyers attacking those plans showed up on windshields around the annual Village Fest.
“Council wants to amend (change) the city’s zoning regulations to allow for multi-family housing next door to you in all wards, including apartments, 3- and 4-plex ‘multi-unit’ houses and row houses,” the flyers said.
Actually, apartments were never proposed in “all wards” like the flyers said — only in small portions of the city already zoned for multi-family housing.
Scores of residents showed up at a council meeting two weeks later. Nearly two dozen queued up to criticize zoning changes.
The council critics formed PV United and registered as a nonprofit in September 2022 to “oppose a rezoning of R1 to include multifamily housing in Prairie Village.” The group is also known as “Stop Prairie Village Neighborhood Rezoning.”
Since then, members of PV United have been regulars at City Council meetings in resistance to Village Vision 2.0 and its hint of changing the housing makeup of Prairie Village.
Prairie Village neighborhoods have been changing for over a decade.
Shotgun houses — small, narrow dwellings — that have helped define the city since the mid-20th century are being torn down and replaced with much larger and more modern homes. They’re affordable only to the wealthiest tier of homebuyers in the Kansas City area. More affordable houses are becoming more and more scarce.
The median home value in Prairie Village runs between $300,000 and $400,000. Nearly one in five households is considered “cost burdened,” meaning residents spend more than 30% of their income on housing. One in ten households is severely cost-burdened, where housing eats up more than 50% of the household’s income.
These homes tend to belong to empty nesters and retirees.
Jacob Wagner, a professor of urban planning and design at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said that Prairie Village faces housing challenges common to suburbs.
“One of the things that’s going on in a lot of what are called ‘first-ring suburbs’ like Prairie Village — these 1940s, 1950s suburban municipalities — is basically a neighborhood lifecycle change,” he said. “The housing has reached 50 years, and you’re either going to continue investing in an aging house, or … people can buy that home and tear it down.”
Those “first-ring suburbs” tend to be closer to the city in prime real estate locations because they were settled in the early days of urban sprawl.
So when prospective homebuyers in southern and eastern areas of the Kansas City area want to move closer to the city, single-family lots in Prairie Village can look pretty attractive. And instead of keeping an aging house, it can be lucrative to tear it down and replace it with a newer, larger house.
“Now people seeking housing are not just competing with other people seeking housing,” he said. “They’re competing with developers who want to buy a house and knock it down.”
As a landlocked suburb without any empty land to generate new kinds of housing, Prairie Village sits at a crossroads: Does it risk pricing out residents to keep Perfect Village a long-adored sense of perfect, or does it make room for more housing?
For instance, what to do with a lot after an aging house gets razed? Bring in duplexes and apartments that let empty nesters afford to stay in Prairie Village? Or allow only new single-family homes that might change the look of a street, but not its population density?
Diversifying the housing stock can sometimes counteract decades of racial discrimination in housing — particularly in a city like Prairie Village with a clear history of racist housing covenants that kept lower-income and Black families out of the city’s much-regarded schools.
Wagner, the urban housing professor, said decades of research shows that more welcoming suburbs can help break cycles of poverty in nearby urban areas.
”If you do not have a diverse housing stock, you do not have a diversity of options for all different kinds of people,” he said. “It’s not just in terms of race, it’s also in terms of income, in terms of where you are in your lifecycle.”
Public comments during council meetings tend to fall into one of two categories.
Some come from homeowners who are watching the character of Prairie Village neighborhoods shift as classic homes get replaced with luxury homes. Property taxes go up, leaving neighbors scared they’ll get priced out.
Others express disdain for renters and say they could bring crime and poverty from Kansas City into the suburbs. They worry next door renters would bring down home values and make the city a less exclusive and desirable place to live.
“For many years I owned hundreds of apartment units, and they were all affordable ($450 per month),” resident Marc Vianello said during the July 18 City Council meeting. “I can tell you that I don’t want any of the properties that I used to own in my neighborhood…That level of tenancy is not desirable. There are people who need to have that level of housing. It exists. But I can assure you we do not want it in Prairie Village.”
For tenants like Martin, with Prairie Village for All and who did political consulting for Mayor Eric Mikkelson, the opposition to zoning changes reads like the yanking away of a welcome mat.
Martin lives in an apartment building within walking distance of restaurants, the library and city parks. She would like to stay, but doesn’t think she could ever afford to buy property in town.
“Prairie Village is a great place,” she said. “But now we’re in a situation where we’re literally deciding that certain people do not deserve to live here because they cannot afford a half-a-million dollar home.”
And in lobbying the city, she feels outgunned by PV United and its wealthier membership — more able to make its presence felt at City Council meetings.
After months of showing up to City Council meetings to oppose changes to single-family neighborhoods, PV United has turned to petitions.
The county election officer has certified the signatures on the petitions. That leaves it to the City Council to decide if they should put them up for a public vote.
The three petitions include:
David Waters, the Prairie Village city attorney, wrote to the county on Aug. 7 arguing that the set of petitions wouldn’t withstand court challenges. The Prairie Village rezoning petition, he argued, could face challenges in Kansas Supreme Court.
The other two petitions were written in a way that — if one was approved but not the other — they could wipe out the current city council form of government without replacing it with a city manager system.
Waters argued in his letter that combining the two petitions would sidestep that potentially chaotic possibility.
PV United had already begun circulating its petitions in late April and rejected the worries raised by the city attorney later.
Lori Sharp, who is active in PV United, told The Beacon in an email that she expected the legal objections from the city attorney.
“It’s his job. Our attorney says differently,” she wrote. “Citizens’ petitions don’t have to be perfect. So we will see.”
She rejected opposition to the petitions.
“The other side is going to bring up small, minuscule points in an effort to delay the inevitable vote,” she wrote. “Is the City Council so afraid to hear from the people? To serve its citizens?!”
The people still running City Hall see dangerous flaws in the petitions.
At an emergency City Council meeting Wednesday, the council voted unanimously to authorize legal action that would bring the petitions to a judge to clarify whether they violate Kansas law.
Based on what happens through the legal process, the petitions may or may not be placed on a ballot. The deadline for these petitions to go on this year’s November ballot is Sept. 1 — otherwise, a special election would likely need to be called.
After Wednesday’s meeting, a group of PV United leaders followed council member Cole Robinson to his car, arguing about why the council won’t allow the petitions to go to a vote.
They talked about zoning, teardowns and PV United’s tactics. The council put conversations about single-family neighborhoods on a back burner.
Councilmember Dave Robinson (Cole’s father also serves on the council) lamented how the Prairie Village rezoning issue has torn at the fabric of the community.
“We’ve all been throwing rocks at each other for so damn long,” Dave told the group in the parking lot. “No one’s stepping back and trying to have a rational conversation.”