Lawrence City Commission candidates share their ideas for addressing affordable housing
photo by: Contributed and file photos
Thousands of Lawrence residents are spending more than they can afford for their homes and apartments, and Lawrence City Commission candidates have no shortage of ideas for how to fix it.
The Journal-World asked the six candidates what locally controlled factors, policies or practices they thought were contributing to the housing shortage and what changes they would make to address those issues. Candidates also shared whether they thought anything was missing or misguided in the city’s current approach to affordable housing and what their priorities would be for spending the money generated from the city’s new affordable housing sales tax.
The city commissioned a housing market study, and issues identified included a shortage of 2,000 modestly priced homes, 3,000 renters who rate their housing condition as poor or fair, and 5,200 households whose rental rates leave them cost-burdened, or spending more than 30% of their income on rent and utilities. Lawrence voters approved a sales tax in 2017 that will provide about $1 million annually to the city’s affordable housing fund for the next 10 years, and funds from the sales tax started coming in this year.
• Stuart Boley
Boley said the city’s affordable housing shortage has two key aspects: the cost of land and housing, plus incomes, specifically the lack of primary jobs.
“The fact is that rents in Lawrence are higher than 30% of many people’s incomes,” Boley said. “So you can look at that as a problem in housing prices; you can also look at that as a problem in income levels.”
Boley said while the new manufacturing plant in VenturePark would bring some high-paying jobs, the city needed to do a better job of addressing incomes through economic development. To make the high cost of land less of a factor, Boley said the city should increase the density of how it uses land.
For instance, Boley said the city needed mixed-use projects with condos that working people could afford. He said the ongoing apartment project near 23rd Street and Naismith Drive offered an example of having commercial uses on the first level and living units above, but that the city should have a mechanism to encourage such projects to also include affordable living units.
“I think we have to say, how can we use our footprint more intensively and support affordable housing?” Boley said.
Boley said the city could do more toward its goal of creating permanent affordable housing throughout the city. He said he was interested in using the city’s affordable housing sales tax to create a version of Iowa City’s UniverCity program, in which the city purchases rental properties in select areas around campus and downtown using low-interest loans, renovates the properties, then sells them to homebuyers who meet income guidelines, according to the Iowa City website.
Beyond the affordable housing sales tax fund, Boley said the city should consider creating a community development financial institution that could pool city funding, philanthropic donations and private investment for specific projects.
• Ken Easthouse
When considering the city’s affordable housing issues, Easthouse said the city needed to consider everything from the cost of a house to the cost of staying in that house, including city property tax and utility rates.
To maintain or even lower the city’s property tax rate, Easthouse said the city should renegotiate some of the shared service agreements it has with Douglas County. He said Lawrence residents were essentially being taxed double for those services, as they pay both city and county taxes, and that the city needed to ensure that people in the rural parts of the county were paying a greater share.
“If we can rebalance those, it will open up quite a bit of funding within the city to allow us to even lower our overall property taxes in town while still being able to maintain those services at a high level,” Easthouse said.
Easthouse said he also thought the city’s prioritization of infill development had created undue pressure on property within the city limits, and the city needs to consider how such policies increase demand and land costs. He said annexation policies needed to take housing stock levels into account.
When it comes to how the city spends the proceeds from the affordable housing sales tax, Easthouse said the city should focus on the current market demand for homes under $250,000. However, he said the city must make adjustments as necessary and work to address all needs.
“It’s not just people who are living in poverty who need affordable homes,” Easthouse said. “It’s also the people who have just graduated college or are just starting families who would like to be able to purchase a home and set down roots in the community but can’t necessarily because of our hyperinflated housing market.”
In addition, Easthouse said the city should create public-private partnerships with investors for specific affordable housing projects. He said those investors could also take advantage of the federal tax incentives for projects built in the city’s opportunity zones, which are low-income areas.
• Brad Finkeldei
When it comes to local contributors to the city’s affordable housing issues, Finkeldei said the city’s traditional zoning codes limited housing options and that land costs and building regulations kept the cost of home building high.
Finkeldei said he thought the city could have the most impact on housing costs as zoning codes are updated to align with the new comprehensive plan, Plan 2040. He said other cities allow more density, more mixing of housing types and more flexibility with structure and neighborhood design. That could mean a neighborhood with a mix of single-family homes, duplexes and four-plexes or a neighborhood with a more compact design that allows for more homes.
“We need to be looking at codes that allow different housing types, different density types and maybe different infrastructure such that we can build houses more affordably,” Finkeldei said. For instance, he said that could be a mixed-use neighborhood with narrower streets and less right-of-way, creating a more compact and walkable area.
Regarding regulations, he said every building regulation was in place for a reason, but that some, such as sidewalk width, number of trees and some of the more technical regulations, could be looked at case by case to see if the cost was worth the benefit.
Regarding use of the affordable housing sales tax, Finkeldei said he’d like to see a change in the current method of distributing funding, in which the Affordable Housing Advisory Board receives applications for potential projects and then makes a recommendation to the commission. He said the city needed to proactively seek partners for projects that best addressed the affordable housing needs.
“I think the process that we have now of sitting back and letting developers give us proposals is not the way to have a maximum impact on affordable housing,” Finkeldei said. “The million dollars per year just doesn’t go far enough with the amount of work we have to have done.”
• Joey Hentzler
Hentzler said he thought many economic forces were contributing to the city’s affordable housing problems and that he was interested in restructuring the housing market by moving more housing from for-profit to nonprofit.
“You can see what happens when you delink housing from a for-profit motive and what it means for families who are first-time homeowners to gain access to that slice of the American dream that housing represents — to wealth building and financial stability,” Hentzler said.
Hentzler said the city’s affordable housing sales tax dollars could help accomplish that goal. He said the best tool was for the city to continue to fund projects that put land in trust through nonprofits such as Tenants to Homeowners. He said another method was for nonprofits to acquire old apartment buildings and renovate them into affordable condos. A third is to create agreements with seniors to eventually add their homes to the trust when they would otherwise be priced out of them.
Hentzler would also like to see the city begin charging a vacancy tax, or essentially assessing a fee to the owners of buildings or land within the city limits that remain vacant for an extended period of time.
“It is frankly unacceptable for wealthy individuals with vast amounts of property to sit on empty units or empty land and wait for prices to go up,” Hentzler said. “They are basically speculating on that land or on that empty apartment; meanwhile over 5,000 households in Lawrence are struggling with the high cost of housing, high rents.”
Hentzler also said the city needed to work to make its building application process as efficient as possible and strengthen its rental inspection program. About half of residents are renters, and Hentzler said landlords being unresponsive to maintenance needs was the No. 1 issue he had heard when knocking on doors as part of his campaign.
• Rob Sands
Sands said he thought a lack of supply in certain areas of the market was a core contributor to the city’s affordable housing problems. He said that included one-bedroom apartments and houses in the “missing middle” of the housing market, or homes between $100,000 and $250,000.
“The development industry is not being able to provide the houses in the size and the scale that they’re needed right now,” Sands said. “That’s causing people to pay more for ostensibly less or buy more than what they need.”
Sands said he thought the city’s property tax rate, development fees and the overall development process all played a role in the shortage of affordable homes. He said the city fees were too high and that he had talked to a lot of homebuilders and business owners who struggled with the process of moving an application through City Hall. He said city commissioners needed to listen to feedback from homebuilders to improve the process.
“City commissioners can have a real leadership role and listen with real curiosity and intent to those who are building the homes in our community,” Sands said.
Regarding the property tax rate, Sands said he hoped to create a taxation environment in which all taxing bodies — the city, Douglas County and the Lawrence school district — saw the amount they needed. He said the city could see the best gains by creating good relationships with the county and school district.
Regarding the city’s affordable housing sales tax money, Sands said he thought the city should continue to work with nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity, Family Promise and Tenants to Homeowners. He also said he was interested in supporting programs that helped seniors afford to stay in their homes.
• Courtney Shipley
Shipley said she thought one of the core contributors to the city’s affordable housing problems was the shortage of high-paying jobs. She said the high number of low-wage jobs created a big obstacle to creating housing that’s affordable in comparison with Lawrence incomes.
While attracting more high-paying primary jobs is one side of the equation, Shipley said the other was ensuring the city comprehensively addressed housing needs, from the homeless shelter to middle-range homes. She said she thought the city had overly focused its effort on providing housing to just one segment of the population and had neglected other areas.
“(The city needs) to remember that affordable housing isn’t just one specific issue,” Shipley said. “It’s a spectrum of different kinds of housing and people’s lives and whatever transition they are in.”
More specifically, Shipley said the city has focused funding on lower-end homes, when what people are demanding are homes in the $180,000 to $250,000 range. She said since developers have been overbuilding more expensive homes, the city may have to provide incentives to get those homes built.
“So what kind of incentive could we come up with to get developers or builders to build the housing we actually need instead of things we’ve already overbuilt, which is student housing, hotels and higher-end housing,” Shipley said.
Regarding the use of the city’s affordable housing sales tax, Shipley said the city needed to ensure that the affordable housing projects it helps fund are not just concentrated on the east side of town. She said she understood that lots tended to be less expensive on the east side but that the city needed to make a concerted effort to put affordable housing in all neighborhoods, even if that means spending more money to do so. In addition, she said she thought more effort should be made to rehabilitate properties as opposed to building new ones.
More coverage of the 2019 Lawrence City Commission election
Read up on all the candidates and issues in advance of the Nov. 5, 2019 election: ljworld.com/2019-election/