I wrote in previous columns that the population of every county in southeastern Kansas declined between the 2010 and 2020 census; It was the first decade in which Crawford County joined with its regional neighbors to release the bad news unanimously. Besides the population decline, there has been a sharp decline in the number of housing units in Bourbon County from the peak in 1980; This is a real problem. It stands to reason that we cannot attract new business, or even major business expansions by our existing employers, if we do not have high-quality, affordable housing to welcome the new workers.
How bad is the problem? The 1970s seemed to be the golden decade for housing in Bourbon County, with 1,980 residents 15,969 living at an all-time high of 7,194 housing units. By the 2020 census, the number was 14,360 people which is a decrease of 10.1%. Housing also declined, dropping to 6,770 units, with a loss of 424. Most of this decline occurred between 2010 and 2020. Demolition crews must have been occupied during the decade.
Other southeastern Kansas counties have seen similar pressures in their housing markets. The exception is Crawford County, which has been adding housing stock every decade since 1990. Lane County experienced strong growth in the county’s home count every decade until it peaked at 5,446 in 2010, when its population was 9,656. In the following ten years, They lost only 65 people, but nearly 400 homes.
The most telling stats for Bourbon County are the housing shortages that started in recent years and current rental data. In the four years beginning in 2017, Bourbon County issued 11 building permits with a total value of $1.16 million. During the same period, Allen County, which has a total population in 2020 of 1,834 fewer than Bourbon County, issued 49 building permits totaling $7.12 million; Not a slight difference. To continue the comparison, Allen County and Bourbon County each have about 29% of their condominiums for rent. Over the past five years, our vacancy rate has been 15.1%; Allen County at 12.5%. Due to the huge demand for quality rental properties, we must have many non-rentable units that need attention. We need to explore why rental vacancy rates are high while rental demand appears to be high.
The typical southeastern Kansas county in the housing area is Lane County. In the four-year period previously discussed, the county issued 205 building permits worth $23.04 million. Our rental vacancy is half our 8.5% vacancy. They are clearly doing something right. My intuition tells me that they are making efficient use of their water utilities.
We need to swallow our pride and take a closer look at why southeastern Kansas counties, including Allen, Anderson, Cherokee, Crawford, Lynn, Newsho, and even small Woodson County, are so capable of attracting new housing that we just can’t seem to get the job done. We also need to understand why we have the highest rental vacancy rate in the area. Then we need to work together to solve the problems.