By BECKY KISER
Housing costs in Hays, and the percentage of income Hays residents pay for housing, are the highest in western Kansas.
Those are among the findings of a housing needs study conducted in June by the Fort Hays State University Docking Institute of Public Affairs for the city of Hays.
The study was commissioned by the city following a request in February by the Overland Property Group to build a multi-family housing project on East 5th Street. Their development model includes the use of tax credits and a Rural Housing Incentive District (RHID). In order to create an RHID a housing assessment must be completed.
Assistant City Manager Jacob Wood presented the study highlights during Thursday night’s city commission work session.
The Docking Institute relied heavily on the methodology outlined in the Kansas Rural Housing Incentive District Act. The study analyzed Hays’ current and future supply of and demand for housing, any inadequacies in the supply of housing that may exist, and the importance of quality housing for the economic growth of the city.
An overview of the results include:
• Hays has a high proportion (43%) of older housing units built prior to 1970.
• A low proportion (0.1%) of housing units one year old or less exist, suggesting that relatively few new housing units are being built.
• Hays has high housing costs relative to the comparison communities in western Kansas, especially for lower-income households.
• U.S. Census population trends project continued population growth in Ellis County through 2060, while all eight (8) of its contiguous counties will experience declines in population, suggesting heavy migration into Hays and a high demand for additional housing.
• Even a moderate annual population growth rate of 0.25% would require more housing than what is currently being constructed.
• Housing costs in Hays, and the percentage of income Hays residents pay for housing, is the highest in western Kansas.
Most of the data is from the 2015 U.S. Census Bureau, which was a concern to the three commissioners at the work session. Vice-Mayor James Meier and Commissioner Lance Jones were absent.
Other information for the study came from state and federal agencies and public records from the city of Hays. Comparisons cities were Dodge City, Garden City, Great Bend, and Liberal in western Kansas and the university towns of Emporia, Pittsburg and Kearney, Nebraska.
“Our vacancy rate in 2015 of owner-occupied housing, 2.9%, and rental units, 5.3%, is low,” Wood told commissioners.
Mayor Shaun Musil and Commissioner Henry Schwaller, who owns rental property in Hays, immediately took issue with that finding.
“This summer there were a lot of vacancies,” Musil interjected. “There are right now,” Schwaller added, “more than 150 vacant rentals. This study is a snapshot in time and unfortunately, we’ve lost a lot of weight since 2015, so the snapshot is not accurate.”
Commissioner Sandy Jacobs pointed out the study was tied to the RHID Act specifically for the Overland group. “They needed that if they got their tax credits from the state,” she said.
Following Wood’s review, Schwaller presented findings of his own research from public records and from Wichita State University’s Center for Real Estate.
He first pointed out the price of oil, a major industry in Ellis County, dropped from $100 a barrel in 2015 to less than $40 a barrel, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. “The housing market in Hays slowed down dramatically after 2015,” Schwaller said.
Schwaller, a business professor at Fort Hays State University, also noted FHSU has built new student housing, with a net gain of 102 units since 2015.
As of Sept. 21, there were also 149 single family homes for sale in Hays. The WSU data indicates the average price of a house in Hays is $180,418, higher than the average in Garden City ($163,559), Salina ($145,379), Dodge City ($129,305) and Great Bend ($105,911).
“I think we need to spend a lot more time looking at this,” said Jacob. “I think the study is good for what it was; it did what it was supposed to do. But it didn’t really give me anything as a commissioner for what we need to do in our community for what’s happened since 2015.
“I think increasing the size of the Neighborhood Revitalization District (NRD) was brilliant, a great way to incentivize some changes in those properties,” she added as Schwaller and Musil nodded in agreement. “But I’m not sure what else we can do from an incentive standpoint for stuff like this. I’m listening, but I don’t know what it is today. I’m not criticizing the document. I think it needs to be expanded and other areas need to be looked at with current data as best as we can gather it.”
“I think for us to do anything more than the NRD is crazy,” Musil said, “It’s working. We need to give it time. Look around town now. A lot of new apartments are being built. I talked to a young lady who is going to school here and lives in the new apartments on 11th Street. She said they’re affordable and she really enjoyed it.”
The commission talked about the need for affordable housing based on the expectation of two retail businesses seriously considering opening in Hays. “Those are jobs that pay $10 or $11 an hour. It’s hard to live in these decent apartments on that wage,” Musil added.
Schwaller is also eager to expand on the housing study.
“Two weeks ago, the vice-mayor and I talked about primary employment. If we do want to get a firm that requires high-skill, high-wage labor, we would actually have a problem,” he said. “We do not have enough houses. In fact, there’s a lot of expensive houses just sitting there.
“I think working with the Hays realtors, who have an amazing data base, and Wichita State, I think we’re going to learn a lot more, with real numbers, about what’s going on with housing in Hays,” Schwaller concluded.
A link to the housing study by the Docking Institute is available on the city of Hays website.