Attracting new affordable housing developers will be key to hitting the goal of adding 1,700 new units throughout Douglas County in the next 5 years

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Union at the Loop, 3250 Michigan St., is pictured Friday, Jan. 5, 2024.

Five years from now, there may be well over a thousand new affordable housing units constructed throughout Douglas County.

That idea is no secret in Lawrence. Lawrence City Commission candidates regularly highlighted the hundreds of affordable units currently in the development pipeline along the campaign trail in late 2023, and such projects have been an emphasis for local leaders when allocating American Rescue Plan Act funds and Affordable Housing Trust Fund dollars for the past several years.

But exactly how much new development might we begin to see in Lawrence in 2024, and not just years down the road? The Journal-World spoke with Lea Roselyn, the City of Lawrence’s affordable housing administrator, this past week to learn more.

Roselyn told the Journal-World that just in terms of projects funded through the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund in 2023 and 2024, there should be a little more than 550 new affordable housing units coming online in the next couple of years, plus a dozen or so new homeownership units and about 30 new supportive housing units. Of that group, the expectation is that about 250 units will be constructed this year, barring any unforeseen circumstances.

Some of those, like The Annex Group’s Union at the Loop apartments at 3250 Michigan St., are either already constructed or close to completion. The 400-plus-bedroom apartment complex bills itself as designed to provide housing to those with moderate incomes and requires applicants to meet certain qualifying income standards. People are already living in some of those units, Roselyn said, though there is still some construction to complete.

Other projects from the last two rounds of trust fund distribution are slated to break ground this year and finish construction no later than 2025. And even more new projects will join the list later this year, when the Affordable Housing Advisory Board once again doles out another round of trust fund dollars.

It’s all part of a goal to add 1,700 new affordable units across Douglas County in the next five years.

“Right now, we have about 550 coming online, so we’re looking to support, ideally, another thousand,” Roselyn said. “And I think that is absolutely doable.”

Land Development Code: ‘A major factor’

The path to achieving that goal runs through one strategy in particular: recruiting more developers willing to work on Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) projects. That’s important leverage for enabling larger projects — those involving 50 or more units — to be built, Roselyn said.

The federal LIHTC program awards tax credits to housing developers in exchange for agreeing to reserve a certain fraction of rent-restricted units for lower-income households. Examples in Lawrence include a trio of apartment buildings in the Warehouse Arts District — Flint Hills Holding Group’s Poehler Lofts, Penn St. Lofts and 9Del Lofts — and the New Hampshire Street Lofts project from the same developer that will add nearly 50 units of rent-controlled affordable housing in downtown Lawrence for seniors 55 and older once completed.

Ongoing work to revise the city’s Land Development Code — the rules for how Lawrence should grow — for the first time since 2006 will also play a key role in attracting more development, Roselyn said. Some developers, particularly smaller nonprofits, really have to scrutinize the current code to determine their development capacity, all the while recognizing that holding off for the updated code could allow double the development on the same type of lot.

“I don’t want to give the impression that anybody’s intentionally delaying construction, but that is a reality and something that is going to be a major factor in the city reaching our target number, what happens with the Land Development Code,” Roselyn said. “We’re anticipating it being friendly toward housing, being friendly toward density, helping to eliminate some of the costs for housing construction.”

One example of a larger project that has hit snags in part due to the current code is the Manhattan-based Prime Company’s Eastbrook Apartments project, a large-scale affordable housing development formerly slated for a 16-acre property at 2115 E. 15th St.

A rezoning application for the apartment complex, which would’ve added more than 500 new affordable housing units, was soundly rejected by the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission, and the company soon after withdrew its application for trust fund support. It was also deeply unpopular with neighbors, who voiced strong opposition to the project.

“We can have the funds and we can have the goal of affordable housing development, but in a situation like that, that was a really big affordable housing project that could’ve come to Lawrence,” Roselyn said. “Hopefully, that developer will come with another project, with that one that they’d proposed and planned for not moving forward.”

Attracting new development

The city’s existing development partners broadly fall into two categories: nonprofits constructing smaller projects and homeownership units and private partners working to incorporate rent-controlled units and higher-density structures.

The list of nonprofits includes some of the usual players, like Tenants to Homeowners and Habitat for Humanity, but Roselyn said recently some new faces have been entering the housing development space. Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, for example, is currently working on a 24-unit supportive housing complex slated for north-central Lawrence. DCCCA is also planning for a supportive housing development, and the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority is looking at building and holding its own housing units.

The city’s biggest private development partners, meanwhile, include the aforementioned Flint Hills Holding Group and Gardner’s Wheatland Investments Group, which was recently granted $1.3 million in affordable housing trust funds for a 121-unit affordable rental housing community on the southeast corner of Kansas Highway 10 and Bob Billings Parkway.

Roselyn said the city’s role in this work goes beyond just defining what qualifies as affordable housing. The Housing Initiatives Division also is focused on building relationships with developers and providing education about how to make affordable housing projects “pencil out” for them.

Connecting with regional developers who may not have worked in Lawrence before is also a goal, Roselyn said, as is making Lawrence an attractive place for them to come to develop projects.

Selling developers on that vision could come in the form of introducing new policies, which Roselyn said are already in the works to some degree. For example, the city is currently exploring initiatives like tax incentives for new affordable housing development or rehabilitation projects and, potentially, incentives for workforce housing.

She said the city is also considering what it might look like to establish a land bank — a public or community-owned entity created to acquire, manage, maintain and repurpose vacant, abandoned and foreclosed properties and return them to productive use. That could go hand in hand with a city ordinance related to managing dilapidated or vacant structures.

“Honestly, when I talk to developers, they want to know — ‘Where does the city have land that will work … and what kind of incentives are you providing?'” Roselyn said. “I think that’s something where we have a lot of growth and opportunity as a city.”

Striking a balance

Another part of the equation is finding the space for new development to begin with. Roselyn said that’s a challenge that, for some, can be solved through more infill development — construction on previously unused or underutilized land located within an existing urban or developed area.

But it can’t be the only solution. More developers are interested in coming into Lawrence and see it as a market that needs more affordable units, Roselyn said, but there are some barriers in terms of land availability that can slow down projects.

“The city, for sustainability or otherwise, there’s a prioritization for infill development and greater density, which is great but we know that the need for new affordable housing units far exceeds what we can do through infill development alone, where maybe you’re getting a few units at a time,” Roselyn said. “That’s not going to meet our goals.”

Roselyn said that’s a dynamic that reveals “competing priorities” — the need for larger pieces of land for more substantial multi-family development and the need for those projects to be located close to existing amenities.

But the tendency for neighbors to oppose nearby affordable housing development — whether it be on a larger scale like with the Eastbrook project or even just a couple of infill units — is a challenge when it comes to locating next to existing amenities in the first place.

“There’s a general resistance to change,” Roselyn said. “I think there’s an expectation that if you’re in a neighborhood, your neighborhood is going to stay like that indefinitely. We hear a lot of ‘I support affordable housing, but it doesn’t make sense next to my house,’ and then a long, standard list of reasons that neighbors will provide.”

Roselyn said the reality is if Lawrence wants to solve its homelessness problem and grow its economy, that does mean there’s a need for greater density — and for different types of housing than the community may be used to, not just single-family housing. And by extension, she said that will take a willingness in the community to support projects in all types of neighborhoods.

That’ll move the needle on an issue that affects everyone, Roselyn said, not just people living on very low incomes — rising housing costs.

“For households, for example, on a fixed income, a $200-a-month increase in rent can be and has been the tipping point for a household to fall into homelessness,” Roselyn said. “And I think that’s something that community members can so easily see because it is impacting so many of us.”


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