They really were lampshades.
Ellie LeCompte remembers walking through a new fallen snow — in the middle of the night, of course — to inquire about all the noise coming from her neighbors.
When she arrived, she found a group of young men dancing and singing with lampshades on their heads.
Yes, they were drunk.
And, yes, this did happen in the Oread Neighborhood — the quintessential Animal House image for Lawrence’s quintessential student neighborhood.
That was in the mid-1980s, and after about two years of living in Oread, LeCompte decided to move on.
“I was an owner-occupant there, and it was a friggin zoo,” said LeCompte, who still has her office and rental property in Oread. “I would not condemn someone to live in that neighborhood.”
Twenty-five years later, the music still blares. Kyle Thompson and his wife hear the loud music every weekend.
“It is kind of hard to explain to people,” said Thompson of how he has adjusted. “My wife and I don’t go to bed early at night, so that helps. Most people though, would be driven crazy with what we put up with.”
But from his historic home in the 1000 block of Tennessee, Thompson has noticed a change.
“When we moved in 20 years ago, there were 10 owner-occupied houses on our block,” said Thompson, a board member of the Oread Neighborhood Association. “Now, there are only four.”
Many of his neighbors have gone the way of LeCompte. Soon, city commissioners will have to figure out whether that’s a bad thing.
A plan on paper
It is an important time for the Oread Neighborhood. City Hall planners are sketching out a new vision for what the neighborhood will be like for the next 20 to 30 years, and they are doing so at a time when pressure is increasing to convert many older Oread homes into boarding houses that can be rented out to large amounts of people.
Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commissioners approved a new document called the Oread Neighborhood Plan. City commissioners are expected to debate the plan next month.
Part of the plan works to get at a very fundamental question: Who will be living in this neighborhood?
The plan recognizes that the area already has become a haven for students. The plan even acknowledges that the area has been derisively labeled “The Student Ghetto,” because of its rates of crime and the neglect of some structures.
There’s broad agreement that the new plan needs to address a host of crime, behavior, parking and maintenance issues associated with the neighborhood. But there are questions about how to get there.
One strategy is for the city to continue to do what it has done: work to make the neighborhood attractive to everyone. Yes, the neighborhood will be dominated by rentals, the plan states, but the city should “encourage owner occupancy throughout the neighborhood.”
That’s the strategy the Oread Neighborhood Association — a group whose paid membership numbers about 25 as owner occupancy has declined — is supporting. At least it was. On Thursday, the neighborhood association underwent an upheaval as the majority of its longtime board members — mainly owner-occupants — were voted out of office. They were replaced largely by a mix of students and landlords.
“This still could be an idyllic neighborhood, given the ideas of urbanism and a walking city,” said Candice Davis, a 12-year owner-occupant of Oread who was voted off the board. “We know there will always be lots of students. But this doesn’t have to be just for students.”
Fighting the market
In most neighborhoods, the idea of encouraging owner-occupancy would never cause an eye to be batted. But in Oread, the goal is leading some to question whether it is the right approach.
“This is a college town, and you have a campus right next to this neighborhood,” said City Commissioner Lance Johnson. “I know we’re not starting from scratch, but we have a campus sitting right there. I’m saying intuitively that is where the student housing in this community ought to go.”
Johnson said he doesn’t want to do anything to discourage people from buying a house and moving into Oread. But that is different than saying the city ought to encourage it. For example, the proposed neighborhood plan calls for the city to investigate tax incentives to support owner occupancy throughout the neighborhood.
“I would be very concerned about that,” said Johnson, who was interviewed prior to Thursday night’s shake-up.
The main reason, Johnson said, is because it goes against the forces of the free market. Estimates vary but planners believe only about one in 10 homes in the Oread are owner occupied.
“What I hear people saying is that the property is too expensive to be owner occupied,” said Johnson. “The only way to reverse that direction is to impose restrictions and really do something that almost devalues the property.”
Johnson said such a strategy likely would lead to large-scale blight in the neighborhood because owners would have less incentive to improve their properties if they know there are city-imposed factors working to keep property values low.
Instead, Johnson said he wants to encourage more investment in the neighborhood. He thinks the people most likely to make that investment will be landlords. He said he would like City Hall to begin focusing on ways to deal with some of the behavioral issues that can come with rental properties. Those could include greater police presence in the neighborhood, changes in regulations that would mandate inspections of rentals or new requirements that rental properties have an on-call manager to deal with problems as they arise.
“I don’t know what the answer is yet,” Johnson said. “That’s what we’ve got to explore. But at some point, we have to get past the owner-occupied issue. I just don’t think you are ever going to be able to change that about this neighborhood.”
Tom Hoffman has lived in the Oread Neighborhood since the early 1990s, and he agrees that the increasing value of homes has made it difficult for many of them to be used as anything other than rentals.
But he’s not entirely convinced that it is just the free market at work. There also may be an unfair market at work.
“If you let landlords cheat and have more than four people live in a house, that will increase the value of a home so much that a family will never be able to afford to buy it,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman is convinced that is what has happened in Oread, and now believes the situation may become worse if city commissioners approve proposed regulations that would lessen parking standards for homes that want to become boarding houses.
Hoffman, who owns and leases six houses around his Oread home, said he’s one landlord who is in favor of creating a rental registration program for Oread. That program would check the property for basic codes issues, and determine whether more than four unrelated people are living in a house.
City code does not allow more than four unrelated people to live in a multi-family zoned house, unless the house is specially designated as a boarding house.
Hoffman said he thinks there are good reasons for the city to attempt to keep some homes as owner-occupied.
“If you have an area that is 100 percent students, it does get bananas because then you don’t have anybody to complain,” Hoffman said. “Somebody has to be able to say ‘guys, you can’t have a bonfire in the middle of the street.’’
Thompson, the 20-year resident of the neighborhood, thinks there’s also good reasons why single families will want to live in the neighborhood.
The neighborhood still has some great architecture that pays heed to Lawrence’s prosperous times following the Civil War. And it still is, Thompson said, one of the few neighborhoods within walking distance of both of Lawrence’s prime destinations — KU and downtown.
“At this point, I don’t see anything that is going to cause us to move from here,” Thompson said. “I always kid my wife that she is probably going to bury me in the backyard.”
Music, of course, will be provided.