The Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority is studying a public-private partnership to build more than 100 rent-controlled apartments in eastern Lawrence as more than 400 families remain on waiting lists for public housing.
Shannon Oury, director of the Housing Authority, confirmed the agency is reviewing a proposal by Lawrence-based Southwind Capital to build 128 apartment units on about 8.5 acres west and south of the 23rd Street and O’Connell Road intersection.
“It would be for working families,” Oury said. “It wouldn’t be targeted toward the elderly. But it wouldn’t be a traditional public housing project.”
Oury said Southwind Capital, led by Lawrence businessman Bill Newsome, is proposing to use a state tax credit program that requires rents of the apartment units to be kept below market values and that the units be rented to households that meet certain income guidelines.
The Housing Authority would be expected to provide an as yet unspecified amount of funding for the project and would manage the complex.
Oury said the Housing Authority’s board, which is appointed by city and county commissioners, is just now beginning to evaluate the project, which would be built at 2101 Exchange Court.
“The board hasn’t made any decisions about whether to go forward or not,” Oury said.
Board members are holding a public meeting at 4 p.m. Thursday at the Housing Authority’s headquarters at 1600 Haskell Ave. to hear a presentation from Southwind officials.
Newsome said he expects the project would fit into the area well, especially given that the city is working to redevelop the former Farmland Industries site just north of the property into a business park.
“With what the city is doing across the street, there are going to be jobs out here,” Newsome said. “This is the type of development that will serve working class families.”
The Housing Authority currently has a waiting list of about a year for public housing and about 19 months for Section 8 housing that is provided in privately owned apartments. Currently, about 410 households are on the waiting lists.
The project would be the first public-private development undertaken by the Housing Authority. Oury said the project also could serve a broader demographic than what the authority’s traditional Section 8 or public housing programs have served.
The public housing projects, like the Edgewood Homes complex along Haskell Avenue, generally require households make no more than 30 percent of the area’s median income. The proposed project would allow households that make up to 60 percent of the median income to be eligible for housing assistance. Currently, the median income for the area is $71,500 for a family of four.
“We want to explore whether there is a whole other segment of need out there, given that we’re in a college town and working families often have to compete with college students for housing,” Oury said.
Oury said the latest Census data estimated the 2011 average rent rate in Lawrence was nearly $900 per month. The latest Census data also estimated 7.7 percent of all housing units in the city were vacant in 2011. Oury said the board will have to conduct significant due diligence before deciding whether the project makes sense.
The Housing Authority, which largely is funded through federal grants, does have reserve funds that would allow it to participate in the project, Oury said.
“The board wants to explore every opportunity to increase affordable housing in Lawrence,” Oury said. “But we still have to make sure it complies with our mission and is a good financial decision for the Housing Authority.”
The board also may have to answer questions from neighbors who may wonder how the low-income housing project would impact the existing neighborhoods near the site.
Oury said she has invited neighborhood groups to Thursday’s public meeting, and she expects to have several questions from area residents, if the process moves forward.
“We’re willing to answer any questions, and we want to do everything transparently,” Oury said. “We don’t want anyone feeling surprised by anything that may happen with this project.”