All that’s left of the original home at the ranch is a foundation underneath an apple tree. Eventually, after years of sitting vacant, it was deemed unsafe and summarily demolished. I never got to see the inside, but I remember badly wanting to walk through the door and explore the rooms my great grandparents had inhabited at one time.
I haven’t given the place much thought in the last 30 years, but it’s been on my mind lately as I sorted through the recently released Kansas Statewide Housing Needs Assessment, which is projected to be the first step in identifying how to address the needs and priorities for housing across the state.
While at one time that farmhouse at the ranch was a home, if it were still standing the number of people who would consider living there is vanishingly small. I know at some point it was retrofitted with running water and had electric service, but it also had a coal furnace, little insulation and none of the modern-day luxuries we take for granted.
If it were still standing, the house would be closer to a shelter than a home. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons it sat vacant for so long. It was outdated by the standards of the 1970s, and it would have been cost prohibitive to modernize it then.
This scenario has played out across the state, especially in rural areas for the past century. Individually, it doesn’t appear like a big deal. Collectively, however, the decaying housing stock has become a limiting factor in the state’s future.
One line in the report’s opening section stands out, “A lack of quality, affordable housing is widely recognized as one of the state’s biggest barriers to growth and development, particularly in rural and underserved communities.”
I agree with this wholeheartedly, even though “affordable” causes some queasiness. Far too often the decision to expand a business or take a job in rural America aren’t solely decided by the dollars and cents of those individual decisions. Rather it comes down to secondary factors like an available workforce or desirable housing options, with the latter often limiting the former.
The report also found that Kansas comes up short for housing across the income spectrum. Simply put, there’s a lack of housing at every price point, every size and every shape.
The challenge isn’t simply building new dwellings, it’s figuring out how to create homes attractive to working families who can unlock the potential awaiting discovery across Kansas. While Johnson City will never resemble anything close to Johnson County, writing it off as just another casualty of modern life isn’t acceptable.
I must confess I don’t have the solution for this problem, mainly because while the problem is singular and widespread, the options for fixing it is as diverse as it is local. The solution for Colby is likely far different than what will work for Colwich.
Assessing the problem is the easy part. Finding the correct mix of public and private partnerships isn’t going to be easy. But it’s the best way to build to a better future.
“Insight” is a weekly column published by Kansas Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farm organization whose mission is to strengthen agriculture and the lives of Kansans through advocacy, education and service. Greg Doering is a writer and photographer for Kansas Farm Bureau.