Why One City Is Banning Residents from Renting Out Rooms

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  • Nearly 50% of Shawnee renters pay approximately a third of their monthly income on rent.
  • Shawnee City Council is in the difficult position of trying to protect neighborhoods while providing more low-cost housing options.

There are two sides to every story. The trick is finding a solution somewhere in the middle.

In Kansas, the Shawnee City Council recently drew national attention by banning the practice of co-living within Shawnee city limits. Specifically, the ordinance prohibits renting to four or more unrelated people. For example, four unrelated college students can no longer rent a home together. Four or more unrelated friends can no longer strike out on their own by pooling their money to rent a house in the city.

The ordinance applies to single-family homes, duplexes, and apartments. In a decidedly Big Brother move, the city will enforce the new rule by acting on complaints lodged by other Shawnee residents.

Shawnee, Kansas, is located in Johnson County, the wealthiest county in the state, where more than 55% of all residents hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. To put that in perspective, just shy of 34% of all Kansans have earned a bachelor’s degree. Nationwide, the percentage is 38%. Johnson County has long been the home of well-educated, upper-middle-class, white households.

As a quick disclaimer, I spent years living in Johnson County, Kansas. It’s where my youngest child was born and where my children began school. It’s even where my husband earned his undergraduate degree. Johnson County is full of top-notch schools, pristine parks, and plenty to brag about. It is also steeped in a history of blatant racism, which makes concerns that Shawnee’s new ordinance is designed to keep people of color out of the city a bit more credible.

But it’s not as simple as that.

A well-established reputation

The U.S. government enacted the Federal Housing Act (FHA) during the Great Depression. The act was intended to help Americans secure home mortgages. So everyone would be on the same page, banks and realtors got together to draw maps that graded specific neighborhoods.

If a person sought a mortgage for a home located in a "favorable" neighborhood, it would likely be approved. If the same person attempted to secure a mortgage for a home located in an "undesirable" area, it would be deemed uninsurable, and the mortgage would be denied. The practice was called redlining because bankers and realtors literally outlined neighborhoods they deemed to be undesirable in red.

Given the difficulty in obtaining a mortgage, fewer new people could move into redlined neighborhoods. Poor, predominantly Black families already living there could not afford to get out. As homes fell into disrepair, white families escaped to the suburban oasis of Johnson County.

For many, Johnson County needed to remain white. Neighborhood covenants prohibited Black people, Jewish people, and anyone else not considered "white enough" from buying or renting a Johnson County home.

A community developer named J.C. Nichols -- most famous for developing the iconic Country Club Plaza across the state line in Kansas City, Missouri -- was particularly famous for his efforts to keep neighborhoods white. In each wealthy neighborhood Nichols developed, he ensured it would remain white by using strict deed restrictions to bar anyone else from buying.

Given the history of Johnson County, it’s easy to understand why advocates across the nation wonder how much racism and elitism went into the Shawnee City Council’s decision.

On the other hand

Anyone who has recently tried to buy a home will attest to how impossible it can feel at times. They’re competing with families who’ve been transferred for work, millennials ready to raise a family in a home of their own, and investors looking to turn a profit. According to the Shawnee City Council, investors scooping up houses is one reason home prices are sky-high in the city.

As purchase and rental prices outpace the average income of many who would like to live in Shawnee, the council grapples with ways to put a lid on out-of-control home inflation. What they’ve found are investors buying homes in family neighborhoods, reconfiguring their layout, and renting out single rooms. What was once a single-family home becomes, in essence, an apartment building.

City council members are elected officials with constituents to answer to. And it’s fair to say that not everyone is happy when the house next door suddenly becomes an apartment building with a revolving cast of new tenants. The number of cars four or more roommates (and their friends) bring to a quiet street adds to the overall frustration.

It’s a catch-22

As much ridicule as city council members have taken for their decision, the truth is, they are in a tough spot. They can continue to allow investors to chop up the interior of homes to create apartments, but that will only drive purchase prices higher in Shawnee. Investors might be happy, but regular homeowners are likely to feel duped as the structure of their neighborhood is transformed.

Like other cities across the country, Shawnee leaders struggle to find a way to provide low-cost housing while maintaining the character of existing neighborhoods. What they are finding out is that it's impossible to make everyone happy in the process.

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