Draft affordable housing plan includes new ideas, including buy-back program for certain old rentals

photo by: Mike Yoder

Houses in a neighborhood just west of downtown Lawrence are shown in this file photo from November 2011.

Many older homes in Lawrence’s core neighborhoods have long since been converted to rental properties, with some physically divided into apartments. Now, the city could consider a program that would undo some of those changes.

The city’s Affordable Housing Advisory Board is reviewing the first draft of a plan to address specific deficiencies identified by a recent housing market study. The approximately 50-page draft plan, called the Lawrence Housing Toolkit, includes various options the board will consider to address the city’s housing issues, including zoning changes, funding assistance and a program to purchase and renovate certain rental properties and convert them back to owner-occupied, single-family homes.

AHAB Chair Shannon Oury said that once it’s complete, the Housing Toolkit will recommend specific actions the city can take to address various issues identified in the housing market study. Oury said the plan does a good job of encompassing all the elements that affect housing into one document, whether they fall in the realm of economic incentives or development code.

“The great thing is it lists all these things in one place,” Oury said. “Because it has been a hard thing to get your hands around, all the different issues that the need for affordable housing touches.”

Issues identified by the housing market study included a shortage of 2,000 modestly priced homes, 3,000 renters who rate their housing condition as poor or fair, and 5,200 households whose rental rates leave them cost-burdened, or spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities.

Planning and Development Services Director Scott McCullough said city staff created the draft toolkit after researching what other cities are doing to address affordable housing shortages. He said the toolkit is meant to outline all of the possible programs, policies and code changes that affect housing, and that board members will be assessing all the options and identifying which ones they think are worth pursuing.

“Not every one of the tools might be implemented or explored, but we’ve started with what are the possibilities,” McCullough said.

The idea for a potential buy-back and renovation program came from Iowa City’s UniverCity Neighborhood Partnership program. As part of the program, Iowa City purchases homes in select areas around campus and downtown using low-interest loans, renovates the homes, then sells them to homebuyers who meet income guidelines, according to the Iowa City website.

Mayor Stuart Boley suggested the board look into a buy-back program and encouraged board members to discuss it with City Manager Tom Markus, who came to Lawrence from Iowa City, before he leaves his position in the spring, according to AHAB meeting minutes.

Oury said that while the plan includes lots of broad ideas and the board has yet to decide which ones it will recommend, she thinks the buy-back program is something the board should explore. Oury said such a program tries to deal with housing issues common in university towns and works to maintain the city’s inventory for first-time homebuyers in the city’s core.

“Cities with big universities have that issue where people are taking single-family homes and making them into multi-family,” Oury said. “And usually it’s the older neighborhoods that could be more affordable.”

The draft plan also includes options for how the city can allocate its new affordable housing funding. Lawrence voters approved a sales tax last year that will provide about $1 million annually to the city’s affordable housing trust for the next 10 years. The plan includes ideas to use the housing trust to expand current programs or to create new programs, including the renovation program.

Another new program included is a land banking program where the city would purchase and reserve land for affordable housing. Other ideas include potential incentives for certain types of housing developments, changes to the city’s land development code and opportunities for small or tiny homes. The full draft of the Lawrence Housing Toolkit is available on the city’s website, lawrenceks.org.

McCullough said the board has tentatively scheduled an extended meeting on Jan. 14 to go through the plan. Once the board makes its recommendations, they will be sent to the City Commission for consideration.

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