Housing in communities is a sticky situation.
Those in the business of selling, renovating or constructing homes have different views than someone buying or looking at other aspects of the housing market.
Kirk McClure, a professor in the University of Kansas’ Department of Urban Planning, was the main speaker Friday at a forum addressing the housing situation in Ottawa. He said the Ottawa housing market is on the soft side with more vacancies than there should be. Realtors and builders said they thought that statement was not accurate.
“I would like to have some caution [in new construction],” McClure said. “If you add to a soft market, you further devalue the older stock.”
Betty Birzer, a ReeceNichols real estate agent for the past two decades in Ottawa, said houses are selling at a premium right now.
“People are buying them for more than list price,” she said. “We have a definite need. We are in a crisis right now. We don’t have enough houses.”
Jason Maxwell, owner of Wiseguys Construction, said this conversation needs to be happening.
“It was very enlightening having [McClure] come in,” Maxwell said. “It was great to hear his opinions. Everybody in here wants to make Ottawa grow and has Ottawa at heart. That is why we are here. With our proximity to Kansas City and with Proximity Park coming in, everybody wants a solution on how we can provide or what we hope will be a growth era coming in Ottawa.”
Maxwell said Ottawa is a seller’s market right now and rentals can’t keep up with the demand.
“There are zero rentals available,” he said. “The rental market is great. I have realtors call me wanting to sell my rental properties that are not for sale.”
Maxwell said Ottawa is not immune to a housing shortage as are other communities.
“In smaller towns, they don’t have a huge developer with a big pocket, so they can fork out that money upfront,” he said.
McClure warned small towns like Ottawa need to find the right combination of new housing, rentals and renovations.
“It is your job to figure out that sweet spot,” he said. “You don’t have to look very far to see the pain of overbuilding...with Lawrence and its multi-family [housing}.”
Jerry Thompson, who retired from a commercial construction career with Loyd Builders in 2012, gave a different perspective on how hard it is for home residential construction companies to stay in business. He went into home construction in 2013.
“Ottawa historically builds five, six or seven [new] houses a year in good times,” he said. “If you put in a sub-division of homes of 30, 40 or 50 homes, it takes you six or seven years to build out. The carrying costs on the infrastructure and taxes eat up everything you make. I can’t think of one residential builder in Ottawa that didn’t eventually go broke.”
Thompson said another deterrent is the amount of money people can receive for a home loan. Typically a lender wants the borrower to only have a third of their income as debt.
“I have young people look at my places and they can’t qualify,” Thompson said. “Either they don’t make enough money or they don’t have enough down payment. They are just getting started in life. They are paying on a car. Paying on a student loan. They don’t have $10,000 or $20,000...whatever the banks asking them to do [for a down payment]. We struggle with that.”
McClure added that is a problem everywhere.
“A banker always likes to make a loan, but bankers have rules,” he said. “You have to have a down payment to buy a home. That wealth absent the [credit] score...nothing a banker can do. That is why we think that filtering process halts. We have more than enough housing in the United States to house everybody. We have more bedrooms than people in the United States. The trick is to get the right level of reinvestment. You want the level of new investment to hit about the pace of growth and demand.”
McClure said on paper the filtering process should work as a person buys a house at the next level, leaving an empty one for the less prosperous at the bottom.
“We can’t crack that barrier of that lower third of the properties,” he said. “We have the difficulties of different amount of wealth. The way the filtering process works is imperfect. The bottom house will never come out of the market by itself. Communities need to invest in their older neighborhoods.”
McClure said Ottawa is in a good position for growth.
“There are a lot of components that make your community desirable,” he said. “You need to make sure you have good schools and good jobs. You guys have a good industrial base.”
Maxwell echoed those sentiments.
“It could be an exciting time coming up,” he said. “We are in commercial and residential [business]. We look at both sides of it. One feeds off the other. You bring in business, you bring in residents. We are in a good spot. We are so close to Kansas City and Lawrence.”