Lawrence City Commission candidates share their views on affordable housing, homelessness and mental health

Lawrence City Commission candidates participate in a forum hosted by the Voter Education Coalition on Oct. 21, 2017, at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.

At a forum Saturday evening, Lawrence City Commission candidates answered questions such as whether the city has a plan for affordable housing and how the city should address the issue of homelessness.

The nonpartisan Voter Education Coalition hosted the forum at City Hall. The six candidates, vying for three spots on the commission, were asked questions from the VEC and members of the audience and had 60 seconds to respond.

Moderator Eric Holcomb, of KLWN radio, asked candidates whether they believe the city has a “clear vision” on affordable housing, and, if so, what it is. If not, candidates were asked what the vision should be.

Jennifer Ananda, an attorney and social worker, said affordable housing is a “muddy issue.” She said she believes the city has a definition of affordable housing and that local organizations are working to address the issue, but that her biggest concern is that there are gaps. She said she is delighted the city will be doing a housing market study to help identify those gaps.

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“I’m hopeful that our housing study will identify and help us to address (those gaps), so that we can provide effective and broad coverage, understanding and assistance with affordable housing in our community,” Ananda said.

Mike Anderson, an actor and former local talk show host, said the city does not have a clear vision for affordable housing and that funding for the study is money well spent. He said the city needs to look at various approaches, such as offering permanent housing, “unlocking” land, and looking at how the city’s building codes and other requirements affect construction costs.

“If we are serious about affordable housing, we need to understand how we can make this process smoother and easier for the people who are creating (housing),” Anderson said.

Bassem Chahine, a Lawrence business owner, also said he is glad a study is being done because he wants to get a concrete answer. He said it has been a problem for 10 years and that it is unreal that the city is just now having a study done. He said developers also need to play a role.

“Developers need to take and give when it comes to affordable housing,” Chahine said. “They need to know what they need to do as well.”

Incumbent Matthew Herbert, a high school teacher and owner of a property management company, said he thinks the city has a vision of where it wants to go but not a clear plan of action. He said a recently approved affordable housing unit, a 590-square-foot downtown condo for $95,000, has him questioning the city’s definition and direction of affordable housing.

“I think the reality is we need to be addressing affordable housing for those people in our community with the greatest need, and those are not going to be people buying $95,000 condos,” said Herbert, who voted against granting incentives to the downtown project.

Incumbent Lisa Larsen, a retired geologist, said she has sat in on the Affordable Housing Advisory Board’s meetings and she knows the city has a vision. Larsen said there is a large group of nonprofit organizations that have programs and plans that are “living that vision.” She said the problem is they are unable to provide the needed volume of affordable housing. She said affordable housing can “absolutely” be better defined and that the study will do that. She also said the city needs to address the broad range of people affected by the shortage.

“We’ve got to remember it’s a broad spectrum of need there and that we can’t focus on just one area, and that’s what we are doing at the nonprofit organization level,” Larsen said.

Dustin Stumblingbear, a retired veteran, agreed with Larsen that the problem is broad and that the city needs to have a broad response, including starter homes for young professionals, young families and large families. He said the city needs to have more funds available for the issue.

“We’re going to have to look at what we can provide across the spectrum for these people,” Stumblingbear said. “And that’s where we need that larger pot of money to be able to have dedicated (funding) to bring in those (Housing and Urban Development) funds.”

Candidates were asked whether they think homelessness is an important issue and what they think the city should do to address it.

Ananda said she thinks it’s important to acknowledge that the city can’t “legislate away” the problem of homelessness. She said the city has to address issues such as poverty, addiction and trauma. When it comes to addressing trauma, she said that also includes working to stop the perpetration of violence. She said the city should identify gaps and coordinate with the county to expand services.

Anderson said he thinks it is an economic issue. He said the city should work to provide more jobs that pay a living wage, and that the Dwayne Peaslee Technical Training Center is helping to provide the opportunities for those jobs and quality of life.

Chahine, who noted his family operates a business downtown, said he doesn’t see it as a “homeless problem” but a mental health crisis. He said the city needed to make better use of mental health care and mental health courts.

Herbert said the city should look at long-term solutions. He said those include counseling and other programming at the Lawrence Community Shelter, as well as the way the city is dealing with mental health. He said the city needs to get mental health care to the youngest members of society, which is why he advocated for funding the WRAP program, which places therapists in schools.

Larsen also said she believes homelessness is more of a mental health issue, and she believes the City Commission is taking steps to fill in areas that are lacking. She noted that the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and the new mental health positions within the police department have helped address mental health, but that she also sees affordable housing as part of the issue.

Stumblingbear also said homelessness is a mental health issue, and said the community needs to be cognizant of how long it takes individuals to overcome those issues. He said the city’s efforts would carry large costs for the long term, but that they will help those individuals to eventually contribute to society.

Other questions included what the candidates would do to make the city more environmentally sustainable, what discussions candidates have had or would like to have with the new police chief, and what policies they think would make Lawrence a better place to live. The full, two-hour forum can be viewed online on the city’s YouTube channel.