Editorial: Lawrence’s big gamble that could increase the price of every home

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

For heaven’s sake, think about the home-grown tomatoes.

When Lawrence city commissioners met last Tuesday to consider a unique affordable housing project, they were met with a variant of that argument. Commissioners were being asked to approve a zoning category that would allow for homes to be built on lots as small as 3,000 square feet.

The 13-home development is slated for the Brook Creek Neighborhood in eastern Lawrence. The Brook Creek Neighborhood Association mounted vigorous opposition to the project, including arguing that the small lots wouldn’t leave enough room for home gardens.

Welcome to the joy of trying to build something in an existing neighborhood in Lawrence. Not only do you need to think about streets, sidewalks, drainage, and parking, but don’t forget about the maters and taters either.

City commissioners, to their credit, did approve the zoning and the housing project. The smaller home concept is an innovative attempt to address affordable housing by the local Tenants to Homeowners organization, and it has a strong partnership with a local developer who is putting significant funds into the effort.

But the debate serves as a good reminder of what city commissioners may be getting themselves into. Plan 2040, the proposed comprehensive plan for the city and county, aims to limit new development on the outskirts of the city and instead force new projects to look at building on vacant lots in existing neighborhoods.

The idea sounds wonderful — until you try to do it. Infill projects often come off the rails as neighbors start expressing concerns about how it will change their neighborhoods. The lack of garden space argument is an example of the silliness that can pervade such debates. But make no mistake, neighborhoods also have valid concerns. The Brook Creek neighborhood presented valid concerns about this development. Concerns about increased stormwater runoff and congested parking on neighborhood streets aren’t silly at all.

Plus, it is understandable why neighbors oppose some of these projects. Very few people are naturally excited about being a guinea pig for new concepts, especially when it is next to your home, which may be your largest investment. Developers often ask for public incentives because they want to limit risk. Neighborhoods often ask for development denials for the same reason. If they can limit change in their neighborhood, they feel like they can limit their risks.

The risks city commissioners should be most concerned about are the systemic kind that could face Lawrence if their zeal for infill development manifests itself in the wrong way. It could easily go wrong if future commissioners find it politically difficult to upset neighbors. If so, very few projects will get approved. The result will be predictable. The supply of building lots will decrease and the price will increase. Prices won’t just increase for new homes, but rather every home in the city.

Our efforts to improve the affordable housing situation will verge towards meaningless. Projects like the Brook Creek one, while positive, always have been a raindrop in the ocean. The key to improving affordable housing is not building dozens of homes a year, but rather it is working to keep the thousands of existing homes affordable. Most often that doesn’t have anything to do with housing but rather has to do with improving incomes.

The good news is perhaps Plan 2040 and its infill strategy are up for debate. The infill push is guided by a belief that other types of growth don’t pay for themselves. But in a recent Journal-World article, Mayor Lisa Larsen acknowledged that she hasn’t seen enough data to know whether that assumption is true.

Until the community gets that solid data, leaders have no business in approving the Plan 2040 document. The stakes are simply too high. Lawrence will risk becoming less affordable and more stagnant. To make such important decisions based on a premise that is unclear would be one of the more irresponsible actions our government could take.

If our government leaders get this wrong, we should hope that our future gardens grow money trees. Lawrence’s economy will need all the help it can get.


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