Affordable housing, development hurdles among concerns raised by Lawrence residents regarding development code

photo by: Douglas County GIS

This aerial photo from 2018 shows an area of East Lawrence along 12th Street, at middle, from Rhode Island Street, at left, to Delaware Street, at right.

Concerns expressed by the public in a meeting about the city’s update of its development code included both the city’s shortage of affordable housing and the difficulty in building housing at all. Consultants working on the code update said both are issues they want the update to address.

Consultants with Clarion Associates recently completed a four-month review of the city’s existing development code, which determines where and how Lawrence grows, and have drafted 80 recommended changes. Consultants sought input on the draft as part of a public meeting Thursday.

Meeting attendee Lacee Roe said she was excited that the recommendations sought to encourage more mixed-used zoning and diverse housing types, and wanted to know what barriers Lawrence has to developing affordable housing and which barriers can be removed through zoning revisions.

Elizabeth Garvin, of Clarion Associates, said that zoning for affordable housing was one of three special topics the code update sought to address (the others are equity and sustainability). Garvin said there are two components to the issue: the construction of housing that meets certain affordability standards, and encouraging the construction of more housing in the community. She said the latter included allowing for more mixed uses, identifying places to build residential where it is not currently allowed, and encouraging a larger range of housing types, such as condos, townhomes and accessory dwelling units (typically a smaller home or apartment built on an existing property), all of which would be addressed.

“We are going to look at the code to see what changes we can make, what levers we can pull to see more housing that the community wants to see,” Garvin said.

The code assessment states that during the initial public outreach process there were consistent comments and concerns about the creation of more affordable housing in Lawrence. The assessment lists several regulatory changes to encourage the creation of more housing that is affordable to most residents:

• Allowing the creation of single-family attached units (examples include townhomes or row houses) and multifamily units in a wider range of zone districts

• Allowing the creation of accessory dwelling units in a wider range of zone districts

• Rezoning more land in the community for small lot development, attached development and multifamily development

• Limiting options for redevelopment of naturally occurring affordable housing (typically smaller or older units)

• Allowing second story residential in mixed-use or commercial districts and either raising the maximum building height or establishing a density bonus program to encourage the creation of more housing

• Reducing minimum parking requirements

• Reducing or waiving development application fees and impact fees on affordable housing

• Creating a dedicated manufactured/mobile home park district to preserve and protect the city’s existing mobile home parks

Gabby Hart, also of Clarion, added that zoning is just one piece of puzzle when it comes to affordable housing, and that there are outside factors such as the cost of building materials, lending and other real estate forces. But she said zoning should not be getting in the way.

Another meeting attendee, Chris Nichols, spoke to how the process also deters the construction of more housing, saying that the complexity of the code and some of the requirements included deter development and make it more expensive. He said there wouldn’t be affordable housing until the code is simplified.

“If you don’t have developers willing to build anything in this town, then there’s never going to be any affordability,” he said. Nichols said that also included having a simple process when land is already zoned for the type of structure a developer seeks to build.

Garvin said that the consultants have heard that same comment “with great regularity,” and that there needed to be a shift in the balance. She said that if something is zoned for a certain type of use, there should be an expectation that a project that conforms to that use should be able to go forward.

In addition to those issues, another attendee, Nancy Muma, brought up the issue of “NIMBY” or “Not In My Backyard” attitudes, saying that in general people may say they want mixed-use developments, for example, but they don’t want them in their neighborhood. The code assessment speaks to that issue regarding affordable housing, stating that the impact of the zoning changes would also be limited if review and approval processes were used as a method to stop the creation of more housing.

Garvin said that if the community has a NIMBY mindset, it is going to price itself out of a healthy and affordable community. She said the conversation needed to be about setting certain standards and expectations for development, and trying to get to the root of the fear or negativity regarding development. For instance, she said to allow duplexes and ADUs to be more widely built, they would like to set standards that would help address concerns associated with allowing the structures in more neighborhoods. She said part of encouraging those and other infill and redevelopment projects is considering form instead of just use, and making sure what’s built fits in.

“We need to have standards that ensure the neighborhoods that you are going to have something that’s sensitive to what’s already in place,” she said. “Neighborhoods have form and they have character, and we need to reflect that.”

Garvin said part of the code update would be gathering input from neighborhoods about specific character-defining aspects. Other topics discussed during the feedback session included improving the process for redeveloping historic properties, preferred development patterns (such as grids over winding subdivisions), and reassessing parking requirements for historic and other properties, among other topics.

The draft discussed is one of multiple that will be released to the public, and Garvin said input would be sought throughout the process. The public may also add comments to the code assessment report and complete a survey on the project website, Input should be provided by Feb. 15.


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