Prior to the pandemic, Faith Martin saw affordable housing largely discussed in the context of homelessness or the limited availability of Section 8 vouchers. 

Recently, though, she’s seen the issue balloon. Her friends who are long-term tenants had to move after a rent increase. As an advisory board member for her City Council district, she saw the need reflected in more zoning proposals for affordable housing solutions in the past year. 

“Even before the pandemic and the layoffs, people were already struggling,” Martin said. “… And then prices went up — rental prices, housing prices.”

Prepandemic, it cost about $170,000 to build an affordable family home that would then appraise for only $85,000 to $90,000, said Sally Stang, the city of Wichita’s housing director. 

With construction materials growing more expensive during the pandemic, the gap between the cost to build a house versus sell it is rising. Meanwhile, Wichita’s Habitat for Humanity homeownership program had already reached record participation levels in 2020.

That’s one reason Martin believes affordable housing should be prioritized as Wichita invests its American Rescue Plan Act funds. She is not alone.

In a June 22 social media town hall, the city asked community members to prioritize four potential areas to invest these federal pandemic recovery dollars — affordable housing, smart manufacturing and digital transformation, small business, or workforce development. Across three social media platforms with 193 responses, the majority ranked affordable housing first.

It ranks the highest because at the end of the day, if you don’t have a business or anything else, you definitely need somewhere to lay your head.

Tevin Smith, District 3 City Council candidate, at town hall

Of the city’s six district advisory boards, affordable housing rose to the top of the list in districts three and six. Meanwhile, a Sedgwick County survey about investing its ARPA funds showed similar trends: Out of 15 options, funding to address housing and homelessness issues was the second-most chosen.

City of Wichita’s ARPA spending plan for COVID money

The ARPA allocated $72.4 million to Wichita, with the first half of the funding delivered in June and the second half coming next year. The dollars are meant to mitigate the pandemic’s negative economic impact, among other goals, and can be spent through 2026.  

The city preliminarily split the money into two buckets: 

  • $52.4 million toward internal needs, including restoring city positions left vacant during the pandemic, investing in capital projects and filling future budget shortfalls.
  • $20 million toward the four community investment initiatives.

While the city initially proposed $5 million for each initiative, District 6 Council Member Cindy Claycomb said that could change based on community feedback. 

The city offered workforce development and smart manufacturing as options to build economic resiliency in Wichita. City Budget Officer Elizabeth Goltry Wadle said this has been a priority since the 2008 economic downturn.

Meanwhile, the city added small businesses as an initiative due to the hard hit many took in the pandemic.

Will Wichita officials listen on what to do with COVID money?

This year, the city focused community engagement on ARPA funds instead of the proposed budget. But in years past, residents could weigh in on the budget via social media town halls and a budget simulator

The degree to which the city considers community input is up for debate. City Manager Robert Layton recommended last Tuesday that City Council reconsider smart manufacturing as an ARPA initiative due to limited community interest. But others point to several ways last year’s budget did not reflect the results of the budget simulator, which let residents rank city services to trim. 

“I don’t think the city has a very good track record of living up to the suggestion that the social media town hall results are going to have a real impact on decision making,” said Chase Billingham, an associate professor of sociology at Wichita State University. The budget simulator results did not seem impactful, either, he added. 

Respondents recommended, on average, 4.79% less investment in police emergency response services. Yet the general fund dollars allocated to the police increased by about 6%. City officials wrote in an email that was because of several spending commitments that could not be cut.

Funding for libraries, recreational programming and Municipal Court ranked higher than police emergency response in the budget simulator. But all three programs experienced funding cuts last year.    

City spokesperson Megan Lovely wrote in an email that parks and library budgets were cut last year to balance the budget during the pandemic, adding that closed facilities reduced the parks budget.

The council prioritized parks and libraries in this year’s budget due to resident input, Lovely wrote. In addition to reinstating tree planting and purchasing new library materials, the proposed budget funds four library renovations and improvements to three parks.

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Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership...