City leaders allocate more than $8M of pandemic relief aid, including $4.5M for modular homes for those experiencing homelessness
photo by: City of Lawrence
City leaders have approved spending $4.5 million to create a site with modular homes for people experiencing homelessness as part of a larger plan to spend more than $8 million in pandemic relief aid.
As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission received an updated recommendation from city staff that allocated $8.485 million of the city’s roughly $10 million in remaining American Rescue Plan Act funds. The commission voted unanimously to modify one of the recommendations and decided not to fund another, ultimately allocating $8.41 million of the funds. The modular homes were the largest of the allocations, and commissioners agreed that they were needed.
“We need to do this now,” Commissioner Amber Sellers said. “No more camps, no more ground, no more tents. We need to get something going, and that’s our way of doing it.”
The tiny, modular homes can be an alternative to tents for those experiencing homelessness, and “provide a dignified and scalable shelter option,” according to the city’s project description. As part of the site, the city anticipates building up to 75 one- and two-person units, community meeting room(s), office units for service providers, and bathroom units (including the city’s existing bathroom trailers). The units take about 30 minutes each to construct, and are insulated, contain heat and air conditioning, beds with mattress pads, electrical outlets, USB charging ports and lockable front doors. The site would be monitored 24/7, with staffing provided by a nonprofit organization. The location of the project is not yet identified, but there will need to be sewer, water, electricity, and fire suppression.
Mayor Lisa Larsen asked legal staff if the new modular site would mean that the city would no longer allow camping downtown, and Deputy City Attorney Randy Larkin said it would be the commission’s discretion as to whether it wanted to make changes to the camping ordinance. Currently, the ordinance allows camping downtown when there are no available shelter beds.
Commissioners made two changes to staff’s recommendation. Staff recommended $2.16 million go toward five affordable housing projects. The recommendation called for the city to fully fund three affordable housing projects that received partial awards from the city’s affordable housing trust fund and two projects from the nonprofit Tenants to Homeowners.
Commissioners voted to fund only two of the three projects that received partial trust fund awards with additional ARPA dollars, eliminating $350,000 in additional funding for the Union at the Loop by The Annex Group. The commission approved the project’s $400,000 award from the trust fund as part of a separate vote. The commission instead allocated the $350,000 toward a project by Centro Hispano and Doulas of Douglas County. The other projects that will receive ARPA funding (in addition to trust fund awards) are The Estates of Lawrence and the New Hampshire Street Lofts.
The commission voted to hold off on providing $75,000 for an updated housing needs assessment and market analysis to identify current housing needs after changes in market conditions during the pandemic.
Bonnie Lowe, president and CEO of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, asked the commission to consider broader use of the ARPA funds to help address the housing crisis in Lawrence. Lowe spoke to the need for more housing with the coming Panasonic battery plant in nearby De Soto, and asked that the commission consider using a portion of the funding, roughly $3 million, to extend infrastructure west of the South Lawrence Trafficway to support development in that area. Alternatively, Lowe suggested the city not allocate all of the funds, so that more discussion could occur. Bobbie Flory, executive director of the Lawrence Homebuilders Association, and Danielle Davey, governmental affairs director for the Lawrence Board of Realtors, also both spoke in support of the Chamber’s request. Commissioners noted that there were some funds allocated toward that infrastructure in the future capital improvement plans and that there were other mechanisms to fund that work.
A listing of the projects approved for funding is as follows:
• Modular homes project/service campus for unsheltered homeless (land acquisition/lease, site preparation, modular homes): $4.5 million.
• Fully funding two affordable housing projects that received partial awards from the city’s affordable housing trust fund and providing funding for two Tenants to Homeowners projects: $1.81 million.
• Funding toward a project by Centro Hispano and Doulas of Douglas County: $350,000.
• DCCCA transitional housing for women recovering from substance abuse and their children: up to $600,000.
• Bert Nash supported and rehabilitative permanent housing for people with serious mental illness who are experiencing homelessness: $900,000.
• Two employees for city’s Housing Initiatives Division, one to provide homeless outreach and the other to manage public engagement: $200,000 ($100,000 for each position).
• Part-time staffing for Winter Emergency Shelter and WES overflow: $50,000.
In other business, the commission:
•Voted 5-0 to adopt an ordinance to set the equivalent residential unit (ERU) for storm water drainage at $7.38, which is a $0.32 or 4.5% increase from the 2022 rate of $7.06. Average charges for storm water will increase from about $7.08 to about $7.42 per month. The commission previously approved rate increases for water/sewer and solid waste, and taken together, the three utility rate increases will bring the average utility bill to $122 per month.
•Voted 5-0 to adopt a resolution to temporarily suspend enforcement of the city’s requirement that downtown businesses derive no more than 45% of their sales from alcohol. The suspension only applies to businesses smaller than 3,000 square feet and will be in effect until the city completes its ongoing rewrite of its land development code, or until Dec. 31, 2024, whichever is sooner.