Lawrence City Commission candidates share their views on affordable housing, living wages

Six candidates are vying for Lawrence City Commission seats this fall. At top, from left: Lisa Larsen, Matthew Herbert and Dustin Stumblingbear. At bottom, from left: Jennifer Ananda, Mike Anderson and Bassem Chahine.

At a forum Thursday evening, Lawrence City Commission candidates discussed several issues affecting the community, including wages and affordable housing.

The Lawrence chapter of the NAACP hosted the forum, which was held at the United Way of Douglas County building, and chapter president Ursula Minor moderated. She asked the six candidates what they see as the commission’s role in promoting a living wage.

All the candidates stressed the importance of the Dwayne Peaslee Technical Training Center, but also offered other ideas. Candidate Jennifer Ananda said the city needs to start setting standards for its staff and contractors.

“I think we can start as city commissioners by leading by example and setting the standards for the other employers in town,” Ananda said. “I think that we can expand our living wage to the contractors and other employees that we contract with to do work for the city. That includes getting bids and requesting that bids provide a living wage, as well.”

Incumbent candidates Lisa Larsen and Matthew Herbert both pointed out that the city’s current economic incentives policy promotes developments that provide jobs. Larsen said it’s important that the city continue to promote that policy and work with community organizations to support Peaslee.

Herbert also said the city needs to support its partnership with the University of Kansas Bioscience and Technology Business Center to incubate small businesses and keep more university graduates in Lawrence.

“With things like BTBC, we find ways to incubate small business and retain that knowledge within the community, and keep them beyond the age of 22,” Herbert said. “And that’s vitally important.”

Candidate Bassem Chahine said the city needs to work more with the chamber of commerce and KU to bring in businesses. Candidates Mike Anderson and Dustin Stumblingbear said they supported providing tax incentives to businesses that pay a living wage, and Stumblingbear also said a long-term funding source for Peaslee Tech needs to be found.

Minor also asked whether the candidates think Lawrence has an affordable housing shortage and, if so, what should be done to address it. The candidates agreed a shortage exits.

Larsen said the city needs a dedicated funding source for local nonprofits that work to address affordable housing.

“We are pretty much just barely staying on top of it with the existing (funding),” Larsen said. “I think we need a dedicated funding source. What that is is going to be up to the voters.”

Herbert said the city needs to ensure affordable housing is scattered and located in all areas of town so as not to create “have and have-not schools.” He said the city’s incentives policy, which requires any incentivized residential development to designate a percentage of the units as affordable, is a way to do that.

Anderson said he would echo Herbert’s point about the importance of scattered sites and added that economic development and affordable housing are both required for well-managed growth.

“How can you be pro-affordable-housing and be anti-growth?” Anderson said. “To me, those don’t go together.”

Ananda said she thinks the issue is a lot more complex and isn’t a “singular issue that can be solved with a singular solution.” She said affordable housing shortages are a symptom of poverty, but also involve issues such as housing availability, jobs, substance abuse, and community support and resources.

Chahine agreed that the issue is complex and that developers should help provide scattered sites. On the topic of affordable housing, Stumblingbear joined Larsen in saying the city needs a dedicated pot of money to better address the problem.

Another topic was body cameras for the Lawrence Police Department. All candidates supported outfitting officers with body cameras and generally agreed that a policy for their use was key.