Neighborhood activists and city officials alike are hoping the growing number of apartments in the city will eventually benefit Lawrence neighborhoods.
A dramatic increase in the number of apartments in Lawrence has the potential to change the character of the city's older neighborhoods.
The homes there, long rented by both students and families, are suddenly less attractive.
Such houses now face the potential of going one of two ways, said Linda Finger, city planning director.
Some of the buildings can look forward to being fixed up to be rented or sold.
Others might be allowed to deteriorate and eventually to be bulldozed.
"Demolition by neglect," Finger called it.
Residents of the neighborhoods that have a number of rental homes hope it will be the former.
"I think it would be wonderful if that's what happens," said K.T. Walsh, a member of the East Lawrence Improvement Assn.
The new apartments, 1,200 of them since 1996, have already had an impact on the city's rental property.
Bob Ebey, vice president of Landlords of Lawrence, Inc., estimated that between 10 percent and 15 percent of the city's rental properties are vacant.
That's well above the usual average of 5 percent or 6 percent, he said.
"I do know some landlords that have rentals that are empty that haven't had that before," Ebey said.
It has caused some landlords to take the unprecedented step of lowering their rents, he said.
Others are selling off some of the properties, particularly the owners of small houses, which don't offer the same profit opportunities as the larger ones, Ebey said.
But Ebey does not anticipate long-term changes in the Lawrence real estate market.
"Within a matter of three or four years, unless there is massive construction again, the rental market is going to be back where it was," Ebey said. "Basically, what it's doing is forcing the people with the older rentals to remodel them."
And that may add fuel to a fire of initiative that has been burning in this city, pushing paint sales, creating lines at local hardware stores and boosting business for local contractors.
Scott Dold has seen it in his Oread neighborhood, where even the rental homes are getting attention.
"You are seeing the landlords being more responsible," he said. "They simply can't rent these things unless they are being taken care of."
Russ and Carol Beeson have seen it in their Pickney neighborhood as well, including the work they've done on their own house.
"If you had a picture of what this house looked like before, you would hardly recognize it," Russ Beeson said.
And Walsh has seen it in her East Lawrence neighborhood.
"There's just been a whole lot of people moving in and fixing up," Walsh said. "To me, it's sort of self-evident. There's a lot more yards with toys in them. People are painting. ... People are rebuilding front porches."
The trend builds on itself.
"You get one person on the block showing a lot of care for a building, and it has kind of a ripple effect," Walsh said. "I guess it's just kind of an adult form of peer pressure."
The momentum prompted a strengthening of the city inspection codes earlier this year.
"This particular city commission is very serious about not messing around anymore with unsafe or unhealthy conditions," Walsh said.
Armed with the new rules, the city may be able to avoid a repeat of the late 1970s, when many older homes, particularly those close to campus, were knocked down to be replaced by small apartment buildings, Finger said.
Some homes are now being sold to people who plan to live in them. That was the case with Dold and the Beesons, who bought homes that had been rentals and have since invested in them.
Lynn Goodell, director of the city's housing and neighborhood development program, said others have been doing the same.
"I absolutely think it's good for neighborhoods," Goodell said. "You get a little bit more invested in your home and neighborhood."
But owners who are willing to take on such a challenge are not common.
"It really takes a dedicated homeowner," said Michael Morley, a builder who did much of the work on Dold's house.
Other rental properties are simply trading out landlords.
"What makes a difference between a good rental situation and a bad rental situation is the responsibility the landlord takes for the property," said Carrie Lindsey, who is active in her East Lawrence neighborhood. "We have some great landlords in Lawrence, and we have some bad landlords in Lawrence."
It is that bad landlord who worries Alan Bowes, director of Tenants to Homeowners.
"A lot of the landlords are selling off their worst rentals," Bowes said. "New potential slumlords are buying them."
Without a lot of work, the properties get to a point where they become too expensive to repair, Bowes said.
"There is very little you can do with a (property) like that," he said. "Usually they end up being depreciated out. It gets to the point where they can't be sold again."
That's when the bulldozers are brought in to give the property value again.
"Lots are at a real premium now," Bowes said. "A lot anywhere in town is a hot item."
What might be built on those lots concerns Lindsey. Such infill development comes with risks, she said.
"If you drive through Oread you'll see appropriate infill development and inappropriate infill development," Lindsey said.
Lindsey said inappropriate development hurts a neighborhood and, by extension, the people who live in it.
Appropriate development, on the other hand, can help protect the character of a neighborhood, she said.
"We want to try to maintain our historic perspective but still have development," she said.
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