Local leaders question process as city prepares to devote $1M to affordable housing

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., Thursday, July 7, 2016

As the City of Lawrence prepares to dole out $1 million in taxpayer dollars annually to affordable housing, very few members of the public could have a direct say.

Of the 12 seats on the city’s Affordable Housing Advisory Board, only one is open to a member of the general public. In addition, several seats on the board are held by representatives of organizations that routinely seek affordable housing money from the city. That creates a situation in which those board members have to recuse themselves from some votes on the board, and also raises questions about whether those organizations have an inside track to city funding.

Some city commissioners think the makeup of the board needs to change, perhaps drastically. Others, though, think continuing to fill board seats with those who build, sell or subsidize housing provides needed expertise for decision-making.

Commissioner Matthew Herbert said he thinks the board needs to be reformed with a majority of seats reserved for the community at large. He said after money has been allocated and policies made to address affordable housing, equal steps need to be taken to advocate for the process.

“Because a failing in the process is going to be what kills momentum going forth,” Herbert said. “Years from now when this commission gets replaced with a different commission, the question that decides whether or not this is something the community is still addressing in 10 years is going to be, ‘Was the process effective?'”

Lawrence taxpayers approved a new sales tax that is projected to provide $10.5 million to the city’s affordable housing trust from 2019 to 2029, more than tripling the dollars currently spent. Though the advisory board only makes spending recommendations to the City Commission, the commission has approved those recommendations with minimal deliberation since re-establishing funding for affordable housing two years ago.

The 12 seats on the board are filled mostly by representatives of specific organizations related to the housing industry or housing assistance. Those include nonprofits that provide subsidized housing, such as Tenants to Homeowners, Habitat for Humanity and Family Promise, as well as representations from the Lawrence Home Builders Association and the faith-based advocacy group Justice Matters. When the board was formed, the idea was that ensuring specific organizations were represented would provide the board expertise.

However, there have been some snags in that formula. Board members representing organizations such as Tenants to Homeowners and Habitat for Humanity have had to recuse themselves from voting on spending recommendations because those organizations have applied for funds from the affordable housing trust the board helps oversee. Both organizations ultimately have been awarded grants to fund affordable housing projects.

Herbert said he thinks, in hindsight, the role established for those from the housing and affordable housing sector was too strong. In addition to a majority of public seats, Herbert said he’d like do away with the specific seats for certain organizations and instead have two or three seats reserved in general for that purpose. Herbert said he doesn’t think the board as it is presents an ethical problem, but he wants to make sure those stakeholders don’t represent a majority vote.

“We really don’t have any community representation on that board, aside from people who have a vested interest in seeking money,” said Herbert, noting that Mayor Stuart Boley’s recent resignation from the board created the one public seat. “The only person on that board that doesn’t have a direct financial stake in this is the one seat reserved for someone who lives in community housing, and that’s the only one.”

Board Chair Matt Sturtevant, a pastor at First Baptist Church, represents Justice Matters on the advisory board. Sturtevant said he does not think the makeup of the board is problematic — rather that the knowledge of those members familiar with local housing issues has helped the board.

“These are folks that know the business and know the industry and know the ins and outs of it,” Sturtevant said. “And I think that wisdom and that knowledge has been helpful and will be helpful down the road.”

Still, Sturtevant said he sees the perspective of adding more members of the public to the board, but was more hesitant regarding Herbert’s idea of reforming the board with a majority of public members. He said the public may not know all the in-depth details regarding how housing works, and that the board has worked well and established a group dynamic.

“We’ve kind of built the pattern of how we do things,” Sturtevant said. “And just knowing how groups work, to add a lot at once could disrupt that.”

Sturtevant noted the “group rapport” when asked by the City Commission at its most recent meeting about adding more public members to the board. At that meeting, the commission ultimately voted to go with the board’s recommendation of adding three more seats to the board for certain organizations: the Board of Realtors, the University of Kansas and the chamber of commerce. One of the reasons cited for the additions to the already nine-member board was the fact that the recusals have brought the number of voting members down significantly, sometimes leaving the board without a quorum.

Boley, who until recently served on the board, originally suggested the idea of adding more members of the public. He made the suggestion at the board’s meeting last month but got little vocal support from his fellow board members.

Boley brought up the idea again at the meeting when commissioners were discussing the board’s three new members, suggesting that two additional members of the public be added as well. Boley later told the Journal-World that the recent sales tax vote presses the issue, and he wants the commission to decide how to move forward.

“After having the support of the voters on the sales tax, it seems that the citizens who voted need to be represented as well,” Boley said. “I think it’s important to hear from regular citizens in these situations to the extent that they are willing to participate.”

However, Boley is not suggesting the board be completely reformed. Like Sturtevant, Boley said he’s found the knowledge of the current members helpful, but that he thinks the board should have a broader public representation and staggered terms.

The City Commission has directed city staff to review the makeup of the Affordable Housing Advisory Board, and the commission will likely discuss the topic again at an upcoming meeting.