County approves plan for senior housing

Last summer, the Older Women’s League was in the conference room at the United Way building discussing a dream to create accessible homes for low- to moderate-income seniors.

“We have a number of older people who have outgrown homes that are not accessible to them any longer,” said Hilda Enoch, a member of the group.

Right down the hall from the conference room were the offices of Tenants to Homeowners, a nonprofit organization that builds affordable housing in Lawrence. So the group went to visit Rebecca Buford, its executive director, to see what could be done.

“That is a great dream, but the problem is none of the land in town is affordable for low-income people,” Buford told them.

And then the group had an idea.

“We looked out the window, and we saw this wonderful space that wasn’t being utilized at all,” Enoch said.

The land the group eyed was two acres of open space that sat behind the United Way building near 25th Street and Cedarwood Avenue. It had been purchased by the county in the 1960s when the county operated a nursing home in what is now the United Way building.

The land had been purchased to accommodate any expansions at the nursing home. And since the nursing home shut down, all sorts of plans have been proposed for the property, none of which materialized.

“So we asked Rebecca, ‘How about that space over there?’ This is a tremendous space. And she said we will have to go to the County Commission and convince them that this is a good idea. So here we are,” Enoch said Wednesday night to the commissioners and roomful of supporters.

Douglas County commissioners were convinced. At Wednesday’s meeting, they unanimously agreed to donate the land to the nonprofit organization on the condition that the plan is approved for development.

Tenants to Homeowners has proposed building eight two-bedroom and six one-bedroom homes and a common building that could be used for cooking, classes and senior services. The one-story homes would target seniors who have monthly incomes of between $1,500 and $2,500.

From the feedback the organization received from seniors, the organization decided to rent the homes instead of selling them.  

“They would have the ability to move out quickly if they needed to, and it wouldn’t be sitting there in an estate. It would be going back to the trust, and we could actually get another tenant in there,” Buford said.

The homes would have monthly rents below fair market value, which right now is $541 for a one-bedroom and $743 for a two-bedroom.

Not everyone was as smitten with the idea as Enoch. Nearby neighbors said the site had notorious drainage and sewer problems and worried that new development would only worsen the issues. The neighborhood also already had a high percentage of rental properties that had loud noises, parties and music.

And the development would mean a loss of what has been an informal park for decades.

“I hear kids out there playing all the time, especially in nice weather. And I hear kids out there sledding,” neighbor David Affalter said.

County commissioners assured neighbors the drainage and sewer problems would be addressed through the building approval process.

“If it is going to be developed eventually, I don’t think you will find a better neighbor to develop it,” commissioner Jim Flory said. “We hate to lose that little open space, but it is being lost to an excellent cause.”