Lawrence City Commission approves density bonus that allows lots to be divided for affordable housing projects
photo by: Courtesy of Tenants to Homeowners
City leaders have approved a proposal that allows two houses to be built on one lot as long as both homes are affordable.
As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission voted unanimously to approve a text amendment to the city’s land development code that codifies the so-called density bonus. In response to concerns that the Brook Creek Neighborhood brought to the Lawrence-Douglas County Metropolitan Planning Commission in August, the amendment states that only lots of a certain size can be divided for such purposes and a permit will be required for the smallest lots.
However, at Tuesday’s meeting, the neighborhood said those restrictions still did not go far enough to discourage the concentration of affordable housing on the east side of Lawrence where lots are cheaper, and a neighborhood leader asked commissioners to consider a more restrictive version of the amendment.
Mayor Lisa Larsen said she thought the density bonus was a step forward for the city’s affordable housing efforts. Larsen said she thought the proposal supported the city’s goal of having affordable housing scattered throughout the city and that it was a pathway to getting such projects on the west side of town.
“Lots are much more expensive in west Lawrence — that’s just a fact,” Larsen said. “And in some way we’ve got to reduce those prices, and I think this is the best tool I’ve seen yet to do that.”
The density bonus is the city’s first land use rule to be directly connected to the affordability of homes. The nonprofit organization Tenants to Homeowners, which thus far has built almost all of its projects in eastern Lawrence, originally proposed the density bonus.
The amendment that the City Commission approved was the version recommended by the Planning Commission. It allows two affordable homes on one lot as long as each house’s lot is at least 3,000 square feet — which means that lots smaller than 6,000 square feet can’t be divided. In addition, those wishing to divide lots in the city’s RS5 zoning district — made up of lots of at least 5,000 square feet and common in older neighborhoods such as Brook Creek — will have to acquire a special-use permit. The density bonus is allowed by right on lots that are at least 7,000 square feet, or in the RS7, RS10 and RS20 zoning districts.
City staff had originally recommended a more restrictive proposal that only allowed the density bonus in the RS7, RS10, and RS20 zoning districts and always required a special-use permit. That proposal was the one that Brook Creek Neighborhood Association President Jesse Brinson urged the City Commission to adopt.
Vice Mayor Jennifer Ananda said she thought that the Planning Commission’s proposal was reasonable and appropriate. Ananda said she thought it presented an opportunity to impact affordable housing, and not just for Tenants to Homeowners. She added that affordable housing projects need to be better dispersed throughout the city.
“I think we’ve made it clear, the Planning Commission has made it clear, the (Affordable Housing Advisory Board) has made it clear, that the intention is to disperse these residential areas throughout Lawrence,” Ananda said. “And I do plan to see some intention around that as we move forward with this.”
Commissioner Matthew Herbert emphasized that houses built using the density bonus would still have to follow all other city code requirements, including maximum building heights, off-street parking requirements and requirements regarding how much open space each lot must have.
Commissioner Leslie Soden said she would be supportive of not allowing the density bonus in the RS5 district and also requiring a special-use permit for the RS7 district, but other commissioners did not agree, and Soden ultimately voted in favor of the proposal as written. And Commissioner Stuart Boley said the city needed tools like the density bonus for sustainability reasons and to support the efforts of those trying to bring affordable housing to the community.