More Lawrence homes and apartments are sitting vacant, but rent rates in the city continue to be among the highest in the state, according to a new survey released Monday.
A new report from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey concluded that vacancy rates have increased significantly in Lawrence since they were last measured in 2000, and the number of people living in each home or apartment also has been declining since the turn of the decade.
But that has done nothing to lower rent prices. Average rent increased to $690 per month, up from $555 in 2000, according to the report. And among the six Kansas cities surveyed, Lawrence had the second-highest rates, trailing only Overland Park. It also was well above the Kansas average rent of $588.
The new study may shed light on why the U.S. Census Bureau believes the city's population is growing much slower than it has in the past.
"If these numbers are right, it tells us that our housing market has went downhill," said Xan Wedel, a researcher and Census expert at Kansas University's Institute for Policy and Social Research. "But there should be a big question about whether the numbers are right."
Wedel said she has concerns because this is the first year for this type of Census survey and it may be unwise to put too much stock in the numbers until three or four years of data have been collected.
But the Census numbers are important now. Hanging in the balance is whether Lawrence continues to be one of the state's few stars at adding new population, or whether the Census Bureau is correct in its assertion that Lawrence's growth is waning. Tied to the federal numbers is federal aid for a variety of programs.
Growing vacancy rate
According to the new survey, the vacancy rate in the city has increased to 6.9 percent, up from 4.2 percent when it was measured by the Census in 2000. The number of people living in each unit - an apartment or house - decreased from 2.30 in 2000 to 2.18 in 2005.
Both the vacancy rate and the average household size are key figures the city uses to create its own population projections. The city has been using the 2000 numbers to estimate that the city had a 2005 population of 88,541. Using the new Census numbers, though, the city's population would be 81,816.
That would mean that for the last five years the city has been growing at a rate less than half its historical average.
The population numbers have been in dispute ever since the Census Bureau in June released estimates that showed Lawrence's population from 2004 to 2005 declined by 26 people - the first recorded drop in a century.
Monday's report, however, is the first time the Census Bureau provided information why it has calculated the Lawrence population as declining. City commissioners in August agreed to challenge the Census' population estimate for Douglas County.
Some landlords said they had seen more vacancies, but they couldn't produce solid numbers. A formal vacancy rate study by apartment owners hasn't been done for several years.
Apartment managers said they had seen more significant signs that the number of people living in each unit had declined.
"We're starting to see a lot of people who want one-bedroom apartments," said Linda Maas, with Lawrence-based Midwest Property Management. "We sold out of the one bedrooms this year. It used to be a lot more common to get three or four people wanting to live together. I think people just want their privacy these days."
City planners, though, question the Census' latest findings. Amy Miller, a long-range planner in the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department, said she thought the survey the Census Bureau used to determine the new numbers was flawed.
"The margins of error on these survey results are really high," Miller said.
For example, the margin of error for the vacancy rate is about plus or minus 4 percentage points, meaning the vacancy rate could be as low as 3 percent or as high as 12 percent.
Ken Bryson, the senior program analyst for the American Community Survey Project, said the margins of error were high in some cases because the size survey was relatively small compared to previous Census efforts.
Throughout 2005, the Census surveyed 900 Douglas County addresses to come up with the results. For comparison purposes, the Census in 2000 surveyed about 6,500 Douglas County addresses to come up with its findings.
The new report examined other housing issues, too. Among the other findings:
¢ Lawrence's median home value is $161,700, which ranked it as the third highest among the state's largest cities.
¢ The average median monthly mortgage in Lawrence was $1,290, almost the exact average of the entire country.
¢ Fifty-seven percent of Lawrence homeowners had house payments less than 25 percent of their total monthly income, which is generally considered by economists to be a healthy level of home debt. Nationally, only 52 percent of homeowners were below the 25-percent threshold. In Kansas, 62 percent of homeowners were below the threshold.