Land costs cripple housing options

Low-income home-ownership advocates want developers to donate lots

Debi Ambrose joins a construction crew working on her Habitat for Humanity house at 1829 Atherton Court. Lawrence Habitat for Humanity has just three lots left on which to build new homes. With the cost of residential lots skyrocketing and the availability plummeting, groups that foster home ownership for low-income families are exploring options to find more land for additional homes. Among them: Asking the city to require developers to set aside land in new subdivisions for use by home-ownership programs approved by the U.S. Depart-ment of Housing and Urban Development.

With two young boys to support and a job as a hairstylist, there was no way Debi Ambrose could afford to build or buy a house of her own in Lawrence.

So Ambrose signed on as the 50th person to participate in Lawrence Habitat for Humanity.

Her house at 1829 Atherton Court is expected to be complete by late August.

“I’ve looked at some houses, and they were all too expensive for me,” she said.

“There was no chance for me to get a house on my own without this,” she added.

There soon may be no chance to add more low-income housing such as Ambrose’s in Lawrence. Both Habitat for Humanity and Tenants to Homeowners are running out of lots for new dwellings, and leaders say the relatively high land costs and a shortage of appropriate lots in the city are making it difficult to keep their programs going.

“We’re looking at the end of our lots by the first quarter of 2004,” said Clay Comfort, president of Lawrence Habitat for Humanity’s board of directors. “We’re in a crisis mode as far as looking for land. It’s beginning to look like mission impossible for single-family homes.”

But the groups have a solution: They want to require developers to donate land for their programs. It’s an idea that’s worked elsewhere, but one that could further increase Lawrence’s development and housing costs — and that is almost certain to face opposition.

No land

Habitat for Humanity has three lots left to build along Atherton Court, in East Lawrence. Tenants to Homeowners has one lot for a five-plex at 12th and Delaware streets.

Both groups are on the hunt for additional land. But the cost of lots — from $35,000 to more than $70,000 each — is making that difficult, even with grant money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Even expensive lots are hard to find.

“The major challenge in looking for land is finding the land,” said Alan Bowes, executive director of Tenants to Homeowners. “At the present time, it’s not available at any price. I’m talking about buildable land with the appropriate zoning.”

In the past, Bowes’ organization and Habitat for Humanity have paired with the city of Lawrence to purchase land. But the city doesn’t have any more land lined up for transfer to the groups.

Both groups are seeking donations of land or houses in need of renovation as a short-term solution to keep placing families such as Ambrose’s in their own homes.

Lots for residential development in Lawrence are skyrocketing in price, with costs starting around $35,000, making ownership increasingly difficult for first-time home buyers.Groups that help low-income families become homeowners are considering asking the city to require developers to set aside land in new subdivisions for their programs.Developers say such a proposal would only drive up the price of lots and increase costs for all home buyers.

“We’re concerned about ending up in a situation where we’re not under construction,” said Jean Lilley, who started in March as executive director for Habitat for Humanity. “It’s tough when it gets to the point that donors say, ‘Where’s my money going?'”

New requirements?

Both Habitat for Humanity and Tenants to Homeowners are eyeing a long-term solution to the land problem.

Comfort said Habitat for Humanity may request the City Commission consider a plan to require developers building in Lawrence to donate a percentage of their property to the city for HUD-sponsored programs such as Habitat or Tenants to Homeowners. Oklahoma City and Phoenix have similar programs, he said.

“It would be great to see a cooperative effort on the part of the city, Habitat for Humanity and Tenants to Homeowners,” Comfort said. “We’re looking at it as how we can put together a process to get the most bang for the donors’ buck — what process we can use to get the most kids living in a dump to move into good housing.”

But, Bowes said, the proposal could become enough of a hot-button political issue the chances for approval could be slim.

“The city has to be willing to put the squeeze on developers to do that,” he said. “They’re not going to say, ‘We’re going to give you a $50,000 lot’ on their own. I’m not holding my breath.”

Still, Mayor David Dunfield said he thought the idea could work.

“I think that’s an interesting concept — one that’s worth exploring,” he said.

Developer opposition

The plan almost certainly would face opposition from developers, many of whom also are feeling the squeeze of increasing property values. Already, developers donate land for parks and pay some other costs associated with development.

Many developers say they’re already stretching to make ends meet, and the cost of the donated land would have to be passed on to home buyers.

“If we’re going to give up more lots, it’s going to spread the cost to everyone,” said J Stewart, owner of Terravest Custom Homes. “If people think a $60,000 lot is too high today, what’s their reaction going to be when it’s $75,000? It’s going to cause resentment to these organizations.”

But for Ambrose and her boys — ages 2 and 3 — the donations would be worth the risk. She said Habitat for Humanity and Tenants to Homeowners gave families such as hers new hope.

“I think it would be great,” she said. “They’re out of land and it’s frustrating to them. They should require that in all new neighborhoods — they could stand to lose one or two lots and still make a lot of money.”