Lawrence City Commission candidates share thoughts on affordable housing and homelessness issues

photo by: Rochelle Valverde/Journal-World

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., is pictured on Jan. 31, 2023.

As the Nov. 7 general election approaches, the Journal-World asked the six candidates running for three seats on the Lawrence City Commission — incumbents Brad Finkeldei, Amber Sellers and Courtney Shipley, former commissioner Mike Dever, and newcomers Dustin Stumblingbear and Justine Burton — a series of questions related to affordable housing and homelessness issues.

The deadline to register to vote in the general election is Tuesday, Oct. 17, and advance voting by mail or in person at the Douglas County Elections Office, 711 W. 23rd St., begins the following day.

Do you think the city is doing enough to provide services for the houseless population, or do you see any gaps or missed opportunities on that front?

Dever said he thinks there’s “lots of money and lots of people” available to help the homeless, but he’s not sure those resources are being coordinated properly. He said he hasn’t been able to determine exactly how many full-time employees the city has dedicated to assisting the homeless population and people who have transitioned into emergency shelter or supportive housing.

“I think we are doing quite a bit, and there are lots of dedicated people that are serving this environment, but unfortunately, they don’t seem to communicate well between each other — at least from what I can tell,” Dever said.

Sellers said she believes local government “must build with, and not for, the community,” and it’s city leaders’ job to promote the coordination of services within the community and advocate for local needs at the state and federal levels. She also said she thinks the city should be seeing itself as a participant in a larger system designed to address the collective needs of homeless individuals.

Shipley said the work that the city’s been doing to provide services to the homeless population has been focused on identifying gaps and wasteful overlap. She said joint strategies with partners like Douglas County and Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center — which have never been done collaboratively before — are helping with efforts to identify and deliver those needed services.

Finkeldei also said there was a need for such partnerships. He said creating and implementing a coordinated homeless plan for the first time in the city’s history has helped city leaders learn a lot in a short time and identify gaps in the city’s current services that are being filled now.

Stumblingbear said he sees safety issues for homeless individuals, neighboring businesses and residents as a major missed opportunity. He said he hasn’t heard much discussion about serving homeless families in a way that keeps children safe from predators and near social services.

Burton said she spoke recently with a group of homeless individuals, all of whom told her about their own challenges with getting medications and protecting their limited belongings.

“Several cities and states are having problems with homelessness; there is no magic wand that will solve the issues facing the community,” Burton said.

What do you think the city is doing especially well when it comes to its affordable housing initiatives?

Stumblingbear said submitting the plan for how Lawrence would use $1.64 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s HOME Investment Partnership American Rescue Plan Program was a positive step toward more private-public partnerships within the community when providing affordable housing stock. Other developments he mentioned included the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority gaining the ability to purchase land for building long-term affordable housing, as well as changes to the city code.

“An update to our city’s land development code has begun in the hopes of making it more legible for all readers,” Stumblingbear said. “With a development code that is more legible and less rigid, individuals or groups might have the flexibility to create more housing within our community that comports with local aesthetics and optimizes use of our existing infrastructure.”

Sellers said the city has made “great strides” on housing issues through initiatives such as the ongoing review of the city’s land use codes and zoning regulations. She said that, hopefully, will help the city be better positioned to expand housing scale and speed of production.

Sellers also said she thinks the City Commission has done a good job of reviewing current public land and building an inventory to determine which sites might make good candidates for affordable housing and other projects, and of introducing housing policies that ensure tenants protections based on their source of income.

Finkeldei said that thanks to the city’s affordable housing sales tax and the decision to allocate American Rescue Plan Act funds toward affordable housing, Lawrence is now in a position to add 850 new units of affordable housing in the next several years.

“We will never be able to fix the homeless problem without affordable housing at multiple price points, and we have just begun building the first of those homes to offer the community,” Finkeldei said.

Finkeldei wasn’t the only one to note the number of affordable housing developments in the pipeline. Shipley said Lawrence is fortunate to have an established affordable housing trust, which the city and community partners are leveraging to build those hundreds of affordable housing units. She said that’s an accomplishment the community should be proud of, and one that many other municipalities would see as an “awe-inspiring accomplishment.”

Dever praised agencies like Tenants to Homeowners and the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority for doing good work to address the short-term needs stemming from a lack of affordable housing. He said they’re “in the weeds” and doing what is necessary to get housing constructed as quickly as possible. Dever added that he thinks there are other private and public initiatives the city could join that can do even more of that work without some of the administrative hurdles that come with leveraging federal and state funding.

Burton said she doesn’t know what the city was doing well at when it comes to affordable housing initiatives.

Do you think the current strategies being pursued to address the issue of homelessness are the correct course of action, or should those efforts be pivoted in another direction?

Finkeldei said he believes the community should stay the course. He expressed support for the plan the city, county and social service partners have developed and put into place; now, he said, the focus should be on implementing it and getting results.

Shipley also mentioned the community’s strategic plan for ending homelessness, which has been developed using input from community members and experts in the field, as a path the city should continue along.

“The only ‘pivot’ available is to return to a time when we not only did not work with community partners, we pitted them against each other for funding,” Shipley said. “Unlike most communities around us, we have a strong and thoughtful plan to move forward.”

For Sellers, it’s a question of access. She said the Pallet Shelter Village is “greatly needed” as an entry point into stable housing for people who’ve lacked it. That ties into the city’s “Built for Zero” framework, whose goal is to ensure that the number of people experiencing homelessness never exceeds the community’s capacity to move them into permanent housing.

Sellers also said “homelessness has many faces,” which means a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t what the city should be looking for. Instead, she said the city should continue developing spaces and policies that create rapid transitional housing for individuals and families who become homeless.

Dever said that the city-run support site for people experiencing homelessness in North Lawrence “is not being run very well.” He said there isn’t good control there, especially considering the presence of a second, unsanctioned camp located directly outside of the city-run site.

“Those kind of uncertainties breed a lot of contempt in the community, I think,” Dever said. “The majority of the community thought that was a good idea at the time, but (it) has been executed poorly, and we need to fix that and solve that problem.”

He added that the idea of creating types of housing like the support site or the Pallet Shelter Village isn’t a bad one, but the way it has been executed has not gone well, and that it should have had more community input. Dever said he wishes the city and county had worked together more on collaborating or seeking a private partnership for the Pallet Shelter Village site.

Stumblingbear said he views the Pallet Shelter Village as the transitional housing model that many in the community said was needed during previous public input sessions about the city and county’s joint strategic plan to address homelessness. He said he has “great hopes” for the success of the project, as long as the city and the site’s operators understand that an end date for operations “was and should remain part of the plan.”

Stumblingbear said the North Lawrence support site is a necessity at the moment as the focal point for identifying members of the homeless population in the community; it also allows partner agencies another common site within the city to help them build relationships with the people staying there. However, Stumblingbear said he hopes the city disbands the site and encourages its residents to use the shelters the community is funding as the Pallet Shelter Village is brought online.

Burton said there are a number of questions about the Pallet Shelter Village that need to be answered. She said that includes who will manage the property, who pays for maintenance and whether it will cause a tax increase.

The city’s 2024 budget, as adopted, will fund the creation of a new Homeless Programs Department separate from the city’s Planning and Development Services Department. What’s your vision for the work that department should be doing, and what kind of leader should the city be looking for to run it?

Shipley said that while she doesn’t want to be too involved in the city’s hiring processes, she thinks it’s safe to say the city should be looking for experience, expertise and enthusiasm.

Finkeldei said the department should work to implement the city’s portions of the joint homelessness plan, and it should coordinate with the county and social service providers to maximize its impact. That will require a leader with a background in emergency sheltering and services, he said, which is an area of expertise the city hasn’t previously had.

Stumblingbear said the department should act as a coordinator, working with providers throughout the county to deliver the services homeless people require. He said it should hire personnel with an understanding of how to draw down state and federal funding to support its work, and a leader who maintains regular communication with neighborhoods near current and future projects.

That leader would also need to be willing to hear some criticism, Stumblingbear said. 

“The homelessness issue has brought out intense feelings in the entire community,” he said. “The person who will lead the Homeless Programs Department will need a thick skin. I feel we need someone who has success stories of moving people from being unhoused to being permanently housed.”

Sellers said the new department can help the city be a better partner in addressing the “human infrastructure” aspects of the city’s strategic plan, which includes elements such as transportation and economic stability. She said the department can provide leadership and an advocacy platform for homeless individuals. Its leader should be someone with an understanding of how to deal with diverse and marginalized populations, a strong familiarity with social service organizations and care coordination, and experience in client advocacy or case management, she said.

Dever said he thinks creating the new department was a premature move, especially without evaluating what existing services are being provided by the city and other organizations in the community. He said the city should have first focused on creating something like a flow chart identifying providers’ duties to potential clients.

For that reason, Dever said it’s hard to tell what level of funding and what kinds of services will be needed from the department, which makes it hard to evaluate what sort of person should be leading it.

Burton said she doesn’t see the need for a new department in the first place, and instead thinks that the money in the budget should go toward working with the Lawrence Community Shelter to expand and develop programs. She added that whoever leads the department should be working in a hands-on role related to the homeless population and find out their needs and how to address them.

In recent years, the city and Douglas County have invested significant funding through the annual budget process and via federal pandemic aid allocations toward bolstering the city’s affordable housing stock. In your view, where does Lawrence most need to see this new housing go, and what demographics should it serve?

Burton said she thinks all land in Lawrence should be used to develop affordable housing, and all demographics should be on the table for service.

“The way the world is today, anyone (at) any given time could find themselves in a homeless situation,” Burton said. “Therefore, any demographic should be available for services.”

The housing stock that partner agencies are preparing to develop is located across the city, Finkeldei said. That includes sites at 15th Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway, at 31st Street and Kasold Drive, in two locations near 23rd and Iowa streets, and in downtown Lawrence. He said the eligibility process should be based on income but should also be free from bias based on ethnicity, age or gender.

Dever said there are a number of types of housing that he sees a need for in Lawrence — affordable senior living, workforce housing, supportive service housing and entry-level homes. He said he’s especially interested in seeing more mixed-use projects like the housing that’s been developed in the Warehouse Arts District by developer Tony Krsnich in recent years, projects that have been subsidized by an influx of federal and state dollars. Dever said he’s also interested in seeing the city consider adopting less restrictive rules that could allow for something like a complex of tiny homes.

Dever also said that as long as it doesn’t cause an unreasonable impact on neighbors, affordable housing could go anywhere. He said there’s no reason to fear higher-density housing, as long as it’s executed properly, and added that infill development on industrial or commercial pieces of land is an important way to accomplish that.

Sellers said a number of peer-reviewed studies show that affordable housing projects “that are a function of infill and new development projects” have a positive or net-zero effect on property values and yield better quality-of-life outcomes, and those and other successful affordable housing projects thrive in mixed-income neighborhoods.

But Sellers said the city’s most pressing need would be moderate low-income housing — at 50% to 80% of the area’s median income — located alongside market-rate housing.

“This level of housing requires collaboration between the public and private sectors, leveraged with state-level funding support,” Sellers said.

Shipley said the city has long known that affordable housing options should be spread evenly throughout the community, and there’s also a “demonstrable need” to house people who are retired and living on a fixed income, families, single-parent homes and kids exiting foster care.

Stumblingbear said there’s a need for affordable housing stock throughout the entire city, and that in addition to infill development, expanding the city’s boundaries might also be required.

As for demographics, Stumblingbear said the city’s future housing “must consider all family sizes and ages.” For example, he said the community could benefit from recognizing that “single-person families” — like recent high school graduates trying to strike out on their own or recently separated elderly people — are legitimate family units.

Lawrence’s Affordable Housing Advisory Board will soon be deciding which affordable housing project proposals it will recommend to the Lawrence City Commission in November. What kinds of projects would you be inclined to vote in favor of granting final approval?

Sellers said she thinks the city’s affordable housing administrator, Lea Roselyn, does an “incredible job” of navigating difficult conversations with the board to recommend projects that address the community’s low-income housing needs. But Sellers said the city still lacks a diverse housing stock to meet the needs of individuals and families with income levels ranging from $45,000 to $75,000. Projects of that nature require funding levels that far exceed what’s available in the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, Sellers said, and would benefit from strong public-private partnerships.

On top of supporting the construction of the hundreds of affordable housing units that are currently in various stages of development, Finkeldei said he’d be in favor of granting final approval to any projects that can leverage state and federal dollars the most.

Like with the Homeless Programs Department hiring process, Shipley said she thinks it would be inappropriate for her to give an answer that could influence the processes of one of the city’s advisory boards. But she did say she hopes citizens think about a number of questions when the city spends their affordable housing dollars, such as whether the AHAB’s membership should be reorganized to have fewer conflicts, whether nonprofit projects deliver more than projects coming from for-profit developers, and whether wraparound or social services should be paid for using these funds.

Stumblingbear said whatever sort of proposals he considers from the board would first need to be able to withstand public scrutiny. After that, he said there’s a possibility for the City Commission to prioritize creative projects using the current development code that can increase density and thereby help with housing affordability.

Dever said he thinks the Affordable Housing Advisory Board’s strategies and desired outcomes — such as incentivizing housing built using public or private funds — are long-term approaches he agrees with, but he added that he thinks there’s a need for some additional push to address the community’s lack of affordable homes.

Burton said she’d like to see affordable housing projects prioritized outside of the downtown area.


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