DE SOTO, Kan. — Panasonic’s planned battery plant in De Soto, Kansas is going to be the biggest private investment project in Kansas history, but the state can look west to get a glimpse at what could be coming.
A decade ago, Tesla picked Reno, Nevada to build a $5 billion Gigafactory that also created thousands of new jobs. Rising rent and rising home prices followed, sparking a trend that researchers there say continues today.
The same outcome isn’t guaranteed in De Soto or the greater Kansas City area, but Reno’s experience is giving Kansas leaders something to think about.
“The biggest effect will be on the lower-end homes that are right now, staring at $300,000, minimum,” said real estate agent Rob Lang.
The people Lang shows homes to already know they’re trying to buy in a tough market, but workers looking to move to Johnson County, Kansas once the plant is close to completion won’t help.
Even with Panasonic’s estimate that workers will make an average of $50,000 a year, Lang’s math says that worker’s price range for a home would be about $180,000 to $300,000, which doesn’t buy a lot of house right now.
“That’s kind of where the market starts so it could be a challenge to find houses in that sub-$300,000 range,” Lang said.
When prices shot up in Reno, leaders created incentive programs trying to build more houses as quickly as possible.
“We could approach this with the tact taht we need to build 4,000 homes and we need to cram them in wherever we possibly can, but I don’t think anyone would agree that’s the right approach,” said De Soto City Administrator Mike Brungardt.
He says there is plenty of land to build homes on and the infrastructure upgrades for the new plant will make it easier to put homes in places that were previously too far out of town. But he also says the city has already been talking to Johnson County, neighboring cities, and regional transit organizations about making it easier for people who work at the plant to live somewhere else.
“The entire Kansas City area is the labor shed [Panasonic was] looking for,” Brungardt said. “A lot of these people already live in this area that are going to work here.”
There’s some historical precedent for that. Brungardt points out that the remnants of a bus stop remain just inside the main gate of the old Sunflower Ammunition Plant where the U.S. Army used to drop off workers when the plant was operational. He said at its peak, there were about 20,000 people working around the plant, creating housing challenges nearly a century ago.
“The Census was pretty hard, I’m sure, because there were people living in tents and trailers and chicken coops,” Brungardt said. “There are stories from the 1940’s of the influx of workers and the stories of them being housed while the plant was being constructed.”
No one knows how many new workers will have to relocate to De Soto, but for the ones that do, the city is also talking about updating zoning laws, potentially relaxing regulations to make it easier to develop.
“There’s a significant amount of pent-up innovation with the homebuilding space,” said Homebuilders Association of Kansas City Executive Vice President Will Ruder.
He says rules and regulations sometimes prevent cheaper and more creative homes from being built, so a city that’s willing to allow more options has a chance to try to keep the prices of new homes low.
“Something on smaller lots, higher-density, single-family development, a mixture of multifamily, some mixed-use neighborhoods,” Ruder said.
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