Affordable housing incentives proposed

Perhaps carrots are the answer to Lawrence’s affordable housing issues.

A program offering incentives – perhaps from waiving city fees to allowing new neighborhoods to be built more densely than normally allowed – could be offered to builders if they guarantee that a certain percentage of the homes would be part of an official affordable housing program.

That’s the tentative recommendation of the Housing Needs Task Force made Wednesday to city commissioners.

“My opinion is that this incentives-based approach will work,” said Bill Yanek, a task force member who lobbies for the Lawrence Board of Realtors. “In a sense, it is about us putting our money where our mouth is. If this doesn’t create new affordable housing, the housing industry will have to answer to that.”

The key point that task force members reached Wednesday, however, was that the program would be voluntary for developers to participate in, rather than mandatory. The task force previously had been discussing a zoning change that would have required developers of projects of a certain size to make available homes for an affordable housing program.

City Commissioner Boog Highberger, chairman of the task force, said he thought the incentives-based approach would be worth trying for a one-year period. If it did not produce results, he said discussions could begin to make the program mandatory.

Rebecca Buford, executive director of Lawrence’s Tenants to Homeowners, said she thought the incentives-based idea was a worthy one.

Gady Tene, of Omaha, Neb., left and his daughter, Shiri Tene, a student at Kansas University, look over an apartment in Lawrence as real estate agent Jean Collins stands by to answer questions. Gady Tene wants to buy a place both as an investment and for his daughter to live in while at KU.

“This might be a good trial run to see if it gets us the type of affordable housing that we want,” Buford said. “I’m realistic enough to know that it may not, but then we could start tweaking it. I would rather do something like this than just keep talking about the problem.”

Details of the program still need to be developed, such as what price a home is considered affordable. The task force has said that the goal should be for people who work in Lawrence to be able to afford to live in Lawrence. The percentage of lots that would be entered into the program also needs to be determined.

The incentives program, however, wouldn’t be the only strategy that the task force likely will recommend to commissioners. The group tentatively agreed that a permanent funding source should be found to generate at least $500,000 per year to fund a city housing trust fund. The trust fund would be able to invest in affordable housing projects in the city.

The group has expressed interest in getting legislative approval to increase the amount of mortgage registration tax that is charged in the county each time someone takes out a mortgage on a home. But the group also said it wanted to look for other funding sources that do not totally rely on homeowners.

The task force is scheduled to meet again at 8:30 a.m. Jan. 24 at City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets.

Any recommendations by the task force would have to be approved by the City Commission. Highberger said he hoped to have a formal report ready for City Commission review in either January or February.