After Adrian Moore and his son got priced out of their last apartment two years ago, their housing choices grew slim. Moore says he was lucky when he stumbled across a two-bedroom unit, in a four-plex just east of Prospect.
Moore has lived in this neighborhood for three decades, and works as a cook at Loews Kansas City Hotel downtown.
“It’s important for me to be in this area because of the bus routes, and close to the downtown areas in case my car breaks down,” Moore says.
After a serendipitous meeting with the landlord, Moore and his son landed in the 98-year-old building, with a rent of $750 a month.
Moore calls it his “1980s throwback” apartment, but it’s got a fresh coat of white paint, thick carpeting and new appliances.
Anywhere else in the city, Moore says this same kind of place would cost at least $900 — and even that’s becoming harder to find.
“There’s no property really left in the inner city, like in-between the areas of 27th Street and down to like 44th Street,” he says.
A recent study from the University of Missouri-Kansas City confirms Moore’s observations. Small apartment complexes — those with fewer than 20 units, like the one Moore lives in — are disappearing from the housing market in Kansas City.
In the recent Small Apartment Study 2021, Erin Royals and Jacob Wagner at UMKC’s Center for Neighborhoods took a close look at the Central City Economic Development sales tax district (CCED), an area that stretches from 9th Street to Gregory Boulevard between Prospect and Indiana.
Royals says they found that 407 small apartment units in this district were demolished in the last 20 years.
“When you demolish those, you’re demolishing affordable housing,” Royals says.
Many of Kansas City’s small apartment buildings are between 50 years and a century old, and need upgrades — potentially costing tens of thousands of dollars.
The UMKC study found that the landlords of these buildings are often local, mom-and-pop type owners. When their zip codes fall in low-income neighborhoods, though, Royals says it becomes even more challenging to secure loans for big restoration projects.
“It kind of puts it on people to be able to self finance,” she says. “And that’s a tall task regardless of where you’re trying to do the rehab.”
Ward Katz operates DRS Management, which oversees a number of properties in the Kansas City Metro. He says this business thrives on economies of scale — especially when it comes to maintenance.
Unlike at large apartment complexes, Katz says small buildings usually lack an on-site maintenance person or team, making upkeep more difficult and expensive.
“It is not easy to manage single family homes or smaller buildings,” Katz says. “You need to have a critical mass of them to support maintenance personnel.”
Without the funds to fix them up, these apartments increasingly fall into disrepair. When that happens, the owners often decide it’s cheaper to simply tear the whole thing down.
No silver bullet
When these affordable apartments disappear, new ones aren’t being built to replace them. The UMKC study found no building permits for small apartments were issued between 2010-2017.
On the whole, Kansas City’s real estate market is trending toward much larger apartment complexes — and focusing on the suburbs, rather than the city center.
Royals says that losing this small apartment stock leads to higher demand and higher rents. But there’s something more Kansas City loses: Housing diversity.
Royals found that when these smaller buildings disappear, it becomes nearly impossible to maintain neighborhoods that are socially and economically inclusive.
”We know that here in Kansas City, but also like more broadly nationally, small apartments are kind of the core of our affordable housing stock,” Royals says.
Jennifer Tidwell, the interim director of Kansas City’s Housing and Community Development Department, says the city requested the UMKC study to better understand how to preserve “naturally affordable housing.”
“It allows us to know what’s out there,” Tidwell says, “so that we’re able to begin to think about, ‘How does the city help in bringing dollars to preserve what we already have?’”
Tidwell says that the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit is one way investors or potential housing providers can find financial support to repair and remodel aging buildings — specifically those targeted to lower-income households. And she says Kansas City is now exploring other options to incentivize restoration over the wrecking ball.
Royals says it’s clear there’s no quick fix to the problem of disappearing housing.
“It’s complicated and it’s a lot to navigate,” Royals says. ”There’s a whole set of challenges that come along with trying to do preservation.”
Reclaiming the city’s vibrancy
Jessica Brown owns the four-plex on Montgall Avenue, where Adrian Moore lives. She grew up in Kansas City, and still lives nearby.
Brown bought the building earlier this year as her first foray into multi-family properties. It has good bones, she says — it just needed some cosmetic repairs.
But she was skeptical about approaching a bank for funding.
“I’m small,” Brown says. “I’m a little bitty crumb than what they loan to.”
So far, all the maintenance costs have come out of her pocket. She’s raised rents, but only a little — all her units still go for less than $800 a month.
Brown says she wants to purchase and rehab more buildings like this one, but keep them affordable. For her, the goal is to help reclaim the vibrancy of this neighborhood.
“Some of us are not buying it to get rich,” Brown says. “We just want to provide, make enough to cover the costs and provide that brings up the whole inner city.”
Without some help, though, a lot more of these small buildings will wind up slated for demolition — instead of occupied by families who need them.
This story is part of a series on housing issues in the Kansas City region produced by the KC Media Collective, an initiative designed to support and enhance local journalism. Members of the KC Media Collective include KCUR 89.3, American Public Square, Kansas City PBS/Flatland, Missouri Business Alert, Startland News and The Kansas City Beacon.