Editorial: A plan must precede a tax

Affordable housing is a real concern in Lawrence, but leaders need to develop a strategy before asking residents for money.

The city of Lawrence is putting the cart before the horse in asking voters to support a sales tax for affordable housing without a clear plan on how the funds will be spent.

In November, voters will decide whether to repurpose a 0.05 percent special sales tax that will provide about $1 million annually to the city’s housing trust fund. The 0.05 percent tax is one of three sales taxes, totaling 0.55 percent, that will expire in 2019 unless voters choose to renew them. Currently, the 0.05 percent tax is dedicated to bus service expansion, but it would be repurposed for affordable housing projects if approved in November.

The problem is that the city doesn’t seem to have any idea what should be done with the sales tax funds. The city has commissioned a housing study that city officials said will provide the foundation for a plan, but the study will not be completed prior to the Nov. 7 election.

“I guess, on my part, there’s reluctance to say, ‘this is what we would do’ in advance of receiving the information that we’ll get from the housing study,” Vice Mayor Stuart Boley said. “I think that’s a very important piece, and unfortunately the timing doesn’t work for this.”

Boley’s right: The timing doesn’t come close to working.

That’s not to say that affordable housing isn’t a major issue in Lawrence. National health rankings have designated the shortage of such housing as severe in Douglas County. Significant portions of renters and homeowners in Lawrence spend more than 30 percent of their monthly incomes on housing, qualifying them as “cost burdened.” According to U.S. Census data, 13,000 Lawrence households are paying more than they can afford for their home.

Yet, despite those numbers, it is far from clear that the city needs $1 million per year in sales taxes to fund affordable housing projects. In fact, the city made $300,000 available for affordable housing projects earlier this summer, but the Affordable Housing Advisory Board received just two applications totaling $105,000.

With roughly one-third of the city’s households paying more for housing than they can afford, it’s understandable that city commissioners want do something about the issue. But asking voters to support a tax now — before the housing study has been completed and before a solid strategy has been developed — is a recipe for certain failure.