In response to concerns, Lawrence affordable housing board recommends increasing number of public seats

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., is pictured on May 3, 2016.

Following concerns from city leaders regarding its makeup, the city’s Affordable Housing Advisory Board has taken a step toward increasing its public representation.

At its meeting Monday, the board voted unanimously to recommend adding a second member of the general public to the 12-member board. Several seats on the board are held by representatives of organizations that routinely seek affordable housing funding from the city, and some board members said that the public perception should be considered.

Shannon Oury, who represents the Lawrence Douglas County Housing Authority on the board, said that though she doesn’t think the makeup of the board presents a conflict of interest, that the board could be more balanced.

“I am of the mindset that one more community member is probably a good idea,” Oury said. “One, to address the concern that the board is over-weighted by the people who are advocates for this issue, because I think that undercuts our credibility.”

The board’s discussion is in response to one earlier this year, in which city leaders suggested even more dramatic changes to the makeup of the board. Mayor Stuart Boley and Commissioner Matthew Herbert both said that they think there should be more public representation on the board. Boley, who previously served on the board, suggested that the board have three public seats, and Herbert suggested the majority of the board’s seats be public.

Nancy Thellman, who represents the Douglas County Commission on the board, also spoke in favor Monday of adding another public seat to the board. Thellman said she thinks the new board member could also be a chance to diversify the board and bring in perspectives that are currently lacking. Thellman said the new member should be added as soon as possible, so that person can take part in the housing study that is now underway.

Concerns about the composition of the board come as the city prepares to roughly triple funding for the city’s affordable housing trust fund, which the board helps oversee. In November, 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.

Both Boley and Herbert have said the makeup of the board is especially important following the approval of the new sales tax. 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 discussion about the board’s composition stemmed from the recent expansion of the board, from nine to 12 seats. When the board was formed, the idea was that ensuring specific organizations were represented would provide the board expertise, but because those agencies often apply for funding from the city, multiple members have had to recuse themselves from voting on funding recommendations. In January, the City Commission approved adding the three seats to the board for additional organizations, in part as a way to make sure the board has enough voting members for funding recommendations.

The board’s recommendation that one additional public seat be added will be sent to the City Commission for consideration at an upcoming meeting. Ultimately, the commission will decide on what changes to make.