To help create affordable housing downtown, some city leaders support redeveloping city parking lots

photo by: Mike Yoder

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., is pictured Thursday, July 7, 2016

Some Lawrence city commissioners say that in order to create affordable housing options downtown, the city might have to repurpose some of its parking lots and other properties.

The idea of redeveloping the city’s downtown properties — which include a few buildings and 17 parking lots — was one of several options discussed during a meeting of the Affordable Housing Advisory Board last week that included city commissioners. At the meeting, AHAB Chair Ron Gaches said that the city can’t just wait for the market to provide affordable housing downtown and instead needs to be more directly involved. Several commissioners indicated they agreed.

Mayor Jennifer Ananda later told the Journal-World that it’s important to have affordable housing throughout the community, including downtown. She said the ability to live downtown provides access to employers, resources and other benefits, and everyone should have that option.

“Just as we want everyone else to have the opportunity to live downtown should they choose to do so, that shouldn’t depend on your economic status,” Ananda said.

Ananda, Commissioner Lisa Larsen and Vice Mayor Brad Finkeldei all said they were interested in the city potentially using its downtown parking lots or other properties for the development of permanent affordable housing.

The city is in the process of creating a new Downtown Master Plan, and an analysis completed as part of that process found that the average monthly rent downtown is about $1,200 for a one-bedroom apartment, $1,650 for two bedrooms and more than $2,000 for three bedrooms. From 2015 to 2019, monthly rent rates have grown by 21%, to an average of $1.54 per square foot, according to the analysis. That increase in downtown rents is related to the addition of approximately 250 multifamily units on New Hampshire Street in the last 10 years.

The median per capita income in Lawrence is about $29,000 annually and the median household income about $50,000, according to the most recent U.S. Census figures, meaning that such apartments are not considered affordable for many residents. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says that families who spend more than 30% of their income on rent and utilities are “cost-burdened” and may have trouble affording food, medical care, transportation and other basic necessities as a result. A year of rent for a one-bedroom downtown apartment at the average monthly rate would be $14,400 — nearly 50% of Lawrence’s median per capita income.

Larsen said the city needed to look at every option, especially if it wanted to ensure there were affordable units available for lower-income residents. In addition to parking lots, she offered as an example the possibility that additional levels could be built on top of the city-owned Community Building downtown that provide affordable housing.

“Those are the type of ideas I think we need to start coming up with, is to look at some of these buildings that the city may own downtown and look to see if we can’t go up with it,” Larsen said. “If we can’t, then look at the other option of repurposing some parking lots.”

Finkeldei said that to make progress with affordable housing, both downtown and in the city as a whole, the city needed to be creative. He said the city could use excess or underutilized properties it owns to spur affordable housing projects.

“The biggest problem is land, and land is expensive,” Finkeldei said. “Well, if the city wants to be involved in affordable housing and we need land, does the city have any land that they could donate to the cause?”

In the case of downtown parking lots, Finkeldei said the city could provide the land for free if permanent affordable housing were to be developed, perhaps as part of a mixed-use building. He said such concepts could be options as the city develops the Downtown Master Plan. For example, he said the parking lot across from the Senior Resource Center at Eighth and Vermont streets is a corner lot near other taller buildings and could be a good candidate.

“I could certainly see the idea of a multilevel project being built on a city lot that could include some underground parking (and) could also include affordable housing,” Finkeldei said.

All three commissioners said they were also interested in creating policies that encourage affordable housing downtown and throughout the city. A recent example is the density bonus the commission approved last year. That policy, which was controversial in some neighborhoods, allows two houses to be built on one lot as long as both homes are affordable. Finkeldei said policies for downtown could include allowing variances in the density, parking or other codes if a project included permanent affordable housing, and Ananda and Larsen both voiced support for considering those options. Larsen said the city should also consider how other policies might be driving up the cost of housing.

“I’m in favor of constantly looking at our policies to see what we can do as the city to encourage developers to add affordable housing to any of their projects,” Larsen said. “But we need to do it so that we get the appropriate amount of value out of that.”

The city is in the process of developing a downtown master plan, which will cover downtown land use and development for the next 20 years. The plan was originally supposed to be completed in the spring but has been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ananda said that she wanted the city to remain open to new affordable housing ideas in the future, but that it should also start making progress soon on some of the ideas the Affordable Housing Advisory Board discussed.

“The city needs to assist with that, whether that’s thinking though policy or thinking through how we utilize our property effectively,” Ananda said. “I’m very excited for this, for us to start potentially moving in that direction.”

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