Justice Matters asks Lawrence, Douglas County leaders to commit on affordable housing, criminal justice review
City and county leaders expressed support — but didn’t make specific commitments — on what was asked of them in front of almost 2,000 people at an annual Justice Matters assembly Wednesday.
The consortium of 22 local religious congregations asked city and county leaders at its Nehemiah Action Assembly to invest into the affordable housing trust fund and hire an independent consulting firm to help in a review of the criminal justice system, among other issues.
Mayor Mike Amyx and Vice Mayor Leslie Soden were asked whether they’d agree to: the city investing $15 million over the next five years for affordable housing; allotting funding to affordable housing through the city’s capital improvement plan; allocating $1.5 million to affordable housing for 2017; and prioritizing the elimination of the affordable housing wait list by Jan. 1, 2019.
The Rev. Randy Weinkauf likened the city’s affordable housing efforts in 2015 to a “shovel full of dirt” that attempted “to fill an enormous hole.”
So far this year the city has spent $100,000 toward a three-home affordable housing complex in East Lawrence and another $100,000 for a new transitional housing program operated by the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority.
“We need to think bigger,” Weinkauf said. “Can we find the will to put in more than just a shovel of dirt?”
Both Soden and Amyx prefaced their answers by saying they were limited in how they could respond. City Attorney Toni Wheeler had told them at their City Commission meeting on Tuesday to not make commitments before the budgeting process for 2017 began.
“I campaigned on not subsidizing luxury housing, and affordable housing has been my priority,” Soden said.
About the $1.5 million request for affordable housing in 2017, Soden said she would “love to put as much in there as we possibly can” but that she “can’t say a dollar amount” and “we have a lot of other issues we have to deal with, as well.”
Soden agreed at last year’s assembly to commit to eliminating the affordable housing waiting list by 2019, and she agreed again Wednesday.
Amyx said simply, “I will work as hard as I possibly can on the need for affordable homes.”
“At this point I do have to say one thing, as I look at this $15 million, it may take a longer period of time, but I want everybody to understand it has become a priority to the city,” he said.
Amyx went on to say new City Manager Tom Markus would help lead the city’s efforts on affordable housing.
In recent meetings, Markus has suggested including affordable housing as a requirement for residential projects receiving city subsidies. Markus has also said he’d recommend a gradual increase in funding for affordable housing, and that he had told Justice Matters coordinators that their previous request for $3 million in 2017 would be too much with which to start.
A couple of organizers, including the Rev. Verdell Taylor, noted the absence of county commissioners from the meeting.
“At this time we would normally call on decision-makers to step forward; we would ask the county commissioners to step forward,” Taylor said.
Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug was in attendance, and he was asked about the process of reviewing the county’s criminal justice system during an ongoing process by the County Commission to appraise the need to expand the Douglas County jail and construct a mental health crisis intervention center.
The crowd applauded when they found out the County Commission agreed earlier Wednesday that the goal of placing a ballot question about the jail expansion and crisis intervention center in November was not realistic. One of Justice Matters’ requests was to delay a vote until there had been a review of “safe and effective alternatives” to incarceration.
Though a warning about possible tension and discomfort preceded the meeting, there was only one outburst from the audience. When asked to ensure a voting member of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council was a specialist on race issues who could address whether a disproportionate number of African Americans were incarcerated in Douglas County, Weinaug said at least one member of the council was appointed because of his focus on how race issues play into the criminal justice system.
An audience member yelled out, “So, the answer is no?” to which Weinaug said, “The answer is, I think we’ve done that.”
Also on Wednesday, representatives from the Douglas County Child Development Association, KU School of Public Research and Partnership, Head Start of Lawrence and the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department agreed to support Justice Matters’ request for childhood trauma and resilience training to be provided to at least 100 professionals. Weinkauf said the training would cost about $100,000, some of which has already been donated.
Attendees of Wednesday’s assembly also spent time applauding the achievements of the past year. At the first Nehemiah Action Assembly in 2015, the group had asked for the creation of an affordable housing trust fund and advisory board — both of which have since been established.
Lawrence Police Chief Tarik Khatib also agreed last year that all Lawrence police officers and relevant staff would receive Crisis Intervention Training by 2018. CIT training started last year and is expected to be held twice per year in 2016 and 2017.