Champions of Kansas bill say rural development tool key to addressing housing needs but skeptics remain

By: - March 2, 2021 3:44 pm
Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine, left, says differences of opinion about legalizing sports gambling in Kansas would have likely blocked completion of a bill in the 2020 session. Here the Emporia Republican chats during a special legislative session in June. (Nick Krug/Kansas Reflector)

Sen. Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, praised an expansion of the Rural Housing Incentive District program for potential benefits to Kansas main streets. (June 2020 photo by Nick Krug for Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas senators gave initial approval Tuesday to a bill that would expand a rural development program aimed at addressing housing needs and revitalizing downtowns.

The bill would allow renovations on the second floor or higher of buildings located in central business areas of Rural Housing Incentive Districts. RHIDs can be designated in any city or county with a population of less than 60,000.

The buildings must exceed 25 years of age, and the renovations must be done for residential purposes. The cost of these RHID projects would be covered by the incremental increase in property tax value.

Skeptics argued the program did not have enough foresight and may not be needed. However, Sen. Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, said this was an important rural development tool. He cited work in his district done using the program in support of the measure.

“This is a tool that has been used in our community very, very successfully in the rural housing development. Our first project was complete houses,” Longbine said. “This is a component that our main street organizations across the state are very, very interested in.”

The Senate has yet to take a final vote on the bill, one of about 20 pieces of legislation considered Tuesday on the floor.

The bill introduced in the Senate Commerce Committee was supported by representatives from the Kansas Department of Commerce, the League of Kansas Municipalities and the Kansas Association of Realtors. Proponents argued in committee testimony that RHIDs could revitalize downtowns while addressing housing needs.

Holland emphasized these claims in support of the bill. He said expanding housing in western Kansas communities was a must or risk furthering outward migration from these areas.

“When we talk about our slowly dying main streets, the ability of this bill to basically incentivize somebody to set up some residences on top of these old, fading away properties we have in main street, I think that’s significant,” Holland said. “Because once again, we are trying to revitalize these dying parts of our state.”

Holland said having programs like these is essential in attracting companies and developers to these counties and cities.

Sen. Larry Alley, R-Winfield, expressed concern that for 25 years the city or county could abate these property taxes and would not see any revenue from the new development. This would lead to issues paying other civic works expenses.

“The cities and the counties that these RHIDs are included, are they looking 10, 12, 14 years in the future when the roads may have to be replaced?” Alley said. “They will not get a dime of taxes from the local people that move into these new apartments and these new housings. They won’t get a dime of taxes to replace those roads, to fix the water lines for the area.”

Sen. Alicia Straub, R-Ellinwood, said she does not hear constituents in her district clamoring for downtown housing. She expressed concern this could increase costs down the road for local taxpayers and farmers and would not be beneficial to rural areas.

Sen. Robert Olson, R-Olathe, assured Straub the only costs would be the incremental property tax increase on that building, not the entire community.

The Senate also took final action to pass more than a dozen bills Tuesday, including a bill officially recognizing funeral processions in state statute and a measure designating public utility vehicles as authorized emergency vehicles.

A debated bill creating new crimes for damage of public or private infrastructure also passed 29-9. Opponents justified the increase by citing the need to deter radical protests, but proponents worried the definition of a radical protest may be taken loosely.

“Of course, we need to protect our critical infrastructure, but we also have an obligation to uphold our Constitution. This bill threatens First Amendment rights,” said Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa. “I have concerns about Kansans’ freedom of assembly of rights and the future litigation that will almost certainly arise from Kansas exercising their right to peacefully protest and assemble.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.