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Wichitans found affordable rent by camping long-term at Lake Afton. Sedgwick County shut it down

Stan Henderson gives treats to his dog, Bandit, outside his camper at Lake Afton.
Nour Longi
/
KMUW
Stan Henderson gives treats to his dog, Bandit, outside his camper at Lake Afton.

Sedgwick County will no longer allow long-term camping at Lake Afton, out of concern that the park was turning into a residential instead of recreational setting.

Stan Henderson bought his home for just $5,000 three years ago: a two-bedroom, Rockwood camper that can be parked just about anywhere.

Henderson set up residence at Lake Afton in southwest Sedgwick County in June 2021. Since then, he’s only left for a few months out of each year.

“I retired, bought a camper and a motorcycle,” Henderson said. “I'm out here away from the city. And I got away from COVID. I got away from all the rat race.

“And it's actually a beautiful view in the morning when you're drinking coffee.”

His mornings at the lake will soon come to an end. In late May, Sedgwick County voted to reduce the number of days campers can stay at Lake Afton each year from 300 to 56. The county will also stop selling month-long camping permits, limiting patrons to staying for no more than two weeks at a time.

“We want to consider Lake Afton Park as more of a recreational park and less of a residential park,” assistant county manager Tania Cole said at the commission meeting.

The decision was a blow to long-term campers like Henderson, who have found refuge at Lake Afton as Wichita’s housing market grows more expensive. A month-long camping permit costs less than $400 a month, with electricity included. That’s far cheaper than current median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Wichita, which is close to $800.

Henderson lives off of less than $1,000 a month in Social Security. Lake Afton fit his budget.

“Rent went down when I moved out here,” Henderson said. “It's affordable on Social Security to do the things I want to do.”

In May, 56 people bought month-long camping permits at Lake Afton. By July 5, most of them will have to leave. Some have been there for years. And many aren’t sure where they’ll go.

Henderson was approved to move into a low-income senior housing unit in mid-June, after applying in the spring. But he’s worried about his fellow campers, many who have limited incomes or disabilities.

“There's a lot of people out here that close to being homeless. There really is,” Henderson said. “Where are they going to go?

“They're going to leave them with their butts hanging out in the wind.”

The county said long-term campers received a letter explaining the new rules on June 3, and that it has posted signs throughout the park about the change.

As long-term camping grows, county sees downside 

The popularity of long-term camping at Lake Afton spiked during COVID. The county sold about 200 more month-long camping permits in 2020 than it did 2019. Since then, sales have stayed above pre-COVID levels.

Winter sales, in particular, surged: The county sold more than four times as many month-long camping permits in 2023 as compared to 2013.

Some county commissioners grew concerned by the influx of residential campers.

“People were taking up residence, and they were putting tarps around the side of some of the shelters that we had out there,” said David Dennis, the commissioner whose district includes the park. “They were trashing the location. They were dumping stuff out there. And it was turning into a residential use rather than a recreational use.”

On top of the new rules about camping, the commission voted to increase fees and add fines for littering and dumping at the park.

Dennis said he voted in favor of the rules after hearing from lots of constituents frustrated with the quality of the park – deteriorating facilities, tents set up in public shelters and trash. He says he can’t attribute all of these concerns to long-term campers.

KMUW spoke with several nearby homeowners who did not want to be named. They said they avoid the park because it’s not a family-friendly environment, citing concerns about drug use and stray animals. But they did not know whether to attribute the problems to residential or recreational campers.

Full-time Lake Afton residents have plenty of frustrations with the park, too. But many long-term campers – and even some recreational visitors – attribute the poor conditions to weekend partiers and lack of county investment.

Brent Bradley camps at the lake on some weekends during the summer.

“There are problems with trash. But I also don't see employees cleaning it,” Bradley said.

“There are several of the bathrooms that they could stand to fix up, too. … Over on the island, my wife tells me that the women's bathroom – you're always wading through ankle-deep water.”

He added that cutting off monthly campers would likely decrease money available for park maintenance. The county brought in $188,787 from month-long camping permits in 2023.

Aaron Bailey, the county’s park superintendent, confirmed that the park’s revenue is likely to decrease a little as a result of the change.

“But we also expect it to pick back up as time passes,” Bailey said. “Revenue was not a primary concern. When these code changes were being considered, the accessibility of the park was the primary concern.”

Dennis said he doesn’t think the county puts enough money into maintaining the park’s facilities. But he said the county is facing a budget shortfall this year.

“Am I going to tell you that we're going to make huge renovations out of Lake Afton? I don't know that we can afford to do that,” Dennis said.

Low-income, senior campers unsure of next move 

Many Lake Afton residents’ primary concern right now is finding the next place to live.

Nikky Burress has lived with her husband and two kids at Lake Afton in a camper since February. The family moved in after struggling to keep up with rent and other bills.

Burress said the park lets her family pay week-to-week instead of monthly, which helps them stay afloat. They would like to move into a house but are limited by income.

“We want a house, don't get me wrong,” Burress said. “But like I said, it's hard enough to get into one. I mean, they want three to four times what you make, just to get in it. And then you have to pay application fees, and they’re anywhere from $25 to $50 per person. It’s hard.”

Burress and Lena McDonald, a five-year Lake Afton resident, are both considering a move to Winfield City Lake. For Burres, though, that’s almost an hour from Wichita, where her husband works.

“That's more gas. That's more money,” Burres said. “That's taking money out of whatever we need for the camper or for the kids.”

Patrick Steward is the city engineer and director of public improvements at the city of Winfield. He says it’s difficult to live at the Winfield City Lake long-term because of its location.

“It's not close to other conveniences as far as groceries, gas,” Steward said. “We don't have an open marina or restaurant, anything like that.”

Lena McDonald says she and her husband have stayed at a camper at Lake Afton for five years. She moved from Emporia to be closer to family after her husband retired.
Isabel Ordoñez
/
KMUW
Lena McDonald says she and her husband have stayed at a camper at Lake Afton for five years. She moved from Emporia to be closer to family after her husband retired.

Winfield City Lake doesn’t have limits on long-term camping, but it charges by the day. Thirty days there could cost hundreds of dollars more than Lake Afton, depending on what sort of amenities the campsite has.

McDonald is worried about the cost. She said that she and her husband live on Social Security, so the expense will significantly impact their budget. She’s frustrated with the county’s decision to get rid of long-term camping.

“They don't know what's really going on,” McDonald said. “These senior citizens living out here, because we can't afford the rent in town.

“Now we're going to have to move to Winfield, where we could pay $600 a month.”

Dennis, the county commissioner, acknowledged that Wichita has a housing and homelessness problem. And he said the county is looking at solutions: last year, it funded part of the emergency winter shelter and it participates in the mental health and substance abuse coalition.

But Lake Afton, he said, is not a part of that.

“Trying to create, turn, a park into a residential facility is not the solution,” Dennis said. “We have to have adequate housing for everyone.”

KMUW’s Nour Longi and Isabel Ordoñez contributed reporting to this story.

Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership Center’s The Journal. She is originally from Westwood, Kansas, but Wichita is her home now.