Conference seeks housing solutions

Committee asks public for policy suggestions

There’s no place like home.

That is, if you can afford one.

But many Lawrence residents teeter on the brink of losing the roof over their head or struggle nightly to find a place to stay.

The housing market – getting more expensive by the year – can be an even crueler place for those with disabilities or unforeseen expenses.

“Many are a paycheck away from being on the street,” Lawrence City Commissioner Boog Highberger said Saturday at a conference intended, in part, to help address short- and long-term solutions for those struggling to provide themselves and their families a home.

The Housing Needs Conference, organized by members of the Lawrence Joint Housing Committee, sought policy suggestions to help those who struggle most with obtaining and keeping a home.

Highberger organized the Housing Needs Task Force after a 2004 Kansas University report showed that more than 40 percent of Lawrence renters suffered a “housing cost hardship,” spending more than 35 percent of their total income for housing.

But now, he said, city officials need to take some kind of action to ensure that trend is reversed – something those at the conference hoped to accomplish.

“We have a lot of players in housing here,” task force member Carrie Lindsey said. “We do hope to assess a long-term vision.”

That vision could include better allocation of funds and services for those with few resources and high expenses, such as the disabled, single parents and seniors.

But Highberger said he hoped there could be some solutions that could be immediately implemented as well. As the city works to complete a budget for next year, he said, it was possible that policy stemming from the conference could find funding by 2007.

“We can still make some progress toward that this budget year,” he said.

To generate concrete policies, the conference addressed separate issues in panels, including ones on low-income renters, the homeless, first-time home buyers and others. A report will be prepared for Highberger and the task force later this month.

During the discussions, organizers asked those in attendance to address three questions:

¢ What are the greatest unmet housing needs, and how can city leaders meet them?

¢ What housing problems should be solved first?

¢ How can the city provide the best possible support to existing programs?

Highberger said he hoped the discussions would address how to better utilize local programs that put federal and state money to use to support those struggling in the housing market.

But organizers knew that the housing dilemma is the product of a fairly expensive housing market and wages that lag below the state average.

Highberger said that if Lawrence is going to thrive in the future, that gap needs to close.

“If our grandchildren are going to love this city, they’re going to have to be able to afford to live here,” he told a crowd of about 50 to open the conference.

Rod Bremby, secretary of Kansas Department of Health and Environment, told the crowd that some of that healing starts with a vision – a vision of neighbors working together to help those struggling in the community.

“We have to have the courage to make it happen,” Bremby said. “We can get this done.”