Affordable housing project seeks to add small homes to existing neighborhoods; that won’t be easy

This graphic is a representation of a project the nonprofit Lawrence Community Housing Trust has proposed to incorporate smaller lots and homes into existing neighborhoods. Shown are two 7,000-square-foot lots. The one at left has been divided and holds two 700-square-foot affordable homes; the other holds a single 2,000-square-foot house.

Those working to build more affordable homes in Lawrence say the city needs to think smaller.

The nonprofit Lawrence Community Housing Trust, formerly Tenants to Homeowners, is developing a project that would incorporate smaller lots and homes into existing neighborhoods. The project calls for lots about half the size of what’s typical, which is not currently allowed under city code, but housing trust Executive Director Rebecca Buford says that mindset needs to change.

“I think we’re in that weird phase where, we’re Kansas, and you are used to that big lot with a ranch house sitting on it,” said Buford, who is also a member of the city’s Affordable Housing Advisory Board. “And the reality is, in Lawrence, a lot of young families can’t afford that because the lot cost is $50 (thousand) to $60,000 of that.”

Specifically, Buford would like the city to consider allowing projects that would provide permanent, affordable housing to divide lots in existing neighborhoods to accommodate two smaller homes. Buford said an ordinance to allow such projects could be “done with a pen” instead of by providing incentives, but that the zoning code is stopping the project from moving forward.

Single-family uses

Director of Planning and Development Scott McCullough said putting two smaller homes on a residential single-family lot technically constitutes a multidwelling unit under city code and therefore is not allowed. Buford has discussed the project and the idea of an ordinance with the planning department, but McCullough said the city would need to do more research to determine if such a change is even legally allowed. He said a basic tenet of zoning is that code must be applied equitably and consistently.

“If we open the code up for that scenario for affordable housing, which we may be able to do, the challenge is do we have to do that for everybody?” McCullough said. “So then you’ve really eroded what an RS district is meant to serve, which are single-family uses.”

In addition to those challenges, the city is currently undergoing a housing market study. The study will identify the city’s housing needs and make recommendations about what action the city can take to help address its affordable housing shortage. A resident survey conducted as part of the study asked about multiple topics, including smaller lots, smaller homes and whether they were appropriate for Lawrence neighborhoods.

McCullough said the results of the study would help the city determine what its priorities should be, and that ultimately the city would take direction from the City Commission on what ideas to pursue. So far, there is at least some interest on behalf of commissioners regarding Buford’s suggestion, which was communicated to the commission in a letter earlier this year.

Small pockets of small houses

Commissioner Matthew Herbert, a high school teacher and owner of a property management company, said that he is open to Buford’s idea. He said he thought the concept of allowing small pockets of smaller affordable homes is a “creative solution” to the city’s long-standing affordable housing problems.

“We haven’t addressed this problem for decades,” Herbert said. “And so, if we’re trying to solve the problem using the exact same codes and methods we’ve allowed for decades when the problem hasn’t been solved, we’re clearly making a mistake.”

However, if such changes were made, Herbert said it would need to have limits and that the city would need to consider how much permeable surface each lot had so as not to create stormwater drainage issues. He said having a long-term plan to ensure the homes remained affordable in perpetuity and getting input from neighborhoods that would be affected by any changes, whether lot size or otherwise, would also be necessary.

“Whatever the conversation be, I fully expect the neighborhoods to show up and give their opinion,” Herbert said. “Most certainly, that’s something we have to take into consideration. Everywhere is somebody’s property.”

Buford said the housing trust has not yet selected potential sites for the small house project, but other details are known. The housing trust’s project calls for building two small homes on 7,000-square-foot, single-family lots, or in the city’s RS7 zoning district. The plan is to build six 700-square-foot, two-bedroom houses on three lots.

Buford said the lots would be scattered in existing neighborhoods, so as to create mixed-income neighborhoods and not concentrate affordable housing in one area. By using existing single-family lots and infrastructure, Buford estimates the housing trust could sell the houses to qualifying low-income residents for approximately $60,000, making for a monthly mortgage payment of about $500.

Existing options for small homes

Though the housing trust’s particular small house project is not allowed, the zoning code does not generally ban smaller lots or smaller homes. Currently, there is a 3,000-square-foot zoning designation, but McCullough said there are no properties in Lawrence zoned that way.

As is, McCullough said there are two options for stand-alone smaller homes. McCullough said 3,000-square-foot lots could be platted and the right infrastructure built in order to create a neighborhood of small houses, each house on its own lot. The other possible option, he said, is to request a special-use permit to build small houses on property zoned multifamily.

However, Buford said those options would be more expensive and would not scatter the affordable housing throughout the city as desired. Buford also noted that the Affordable Housing Advisory Board already conducted a review of city building codes and found only minimal changes to reduce construction costs. She said if the city wants more permanent affordable housing, density in small pockets will be key.

“In pockets, it would allow neighbors to see a cute, small little house and be less freaked out about density,” Buford said. “Because the reality is, if we can’t be comfortable with a little higher density in all of its forms, we are going to have a growing affordability problem.”