Your Turn: Prioritizing infill development may look good on paper, but it’s politically difficult and adding to local housing woes

photo by: Submitted photo

Marilyn Heck

Several years ago the city embarked on a project to update our comprehensive plan, Horizon 2020. The new plan, Plan 2040, is our community plan for guiding growth for the next two decades. Crafting the plan was a labor-intensive endeavor by city staff and steering committee volunteers. The premise of the new plan is to prioritize infill development to take advantage of existing infrastructure. The expectations of the plan may never materialize as envisioned. Infill development — which is a type of development that generally happens on vacant lots already surrounded by the city — is more challenging and costly than new development on the edge of a community. And, as we have recently seen, infill development is politically less popular than the plan anticipated.

Dating back to the beginnings of subdivision development, when a subdivision was developed, builders would take advantage of every square foot of land available for that project. If there was still a vacant lot left after the subdivision was completed, it was left vacant for a reason. It was either not buildable due to topography, rock, utilities, drainage or some other challenge. Or, in the case of a dear friend who lives just west of Iowa Street, 40 years ago her family and their neighbors bought the remaining vacant lot on their street and converted it to a neighborhood playground for their children. Regardless of whether it would be buildable, it will never be for sale.

Even when a developer proposes an infill project, and ensures the project meets all the stated criteria and successfully addresses the issues and concerns raised by staff, there is often significant neighborhood opposition. In addition to concerns about drainage, traffic and changing the “character” of the neighborhood, many neighbors are also concerned about the “gentrification” of their neighborhood and how the high cost of the new infill homes will impact their own valuations and taxes the following year. By the time it gets through the planning process, the political reality of neighborhood protest often causes the application for an infill project to be denied by the planning and city commissions. We have seen two examples of that within the last six months.

Plan 2040 dictates Lawrence will prioritize growth via infill before expanding through annexation. With myriad physical challenges, the cost of infill development already runs between 6% and 8% higher than developing a lot in a new subdivision, several projects have shown. Infill projects often generate neighborhood opposition and thus continue to be denied even when projects meet the criteria outlined in Plan 2040. The financial risk along with repeated denials by the city make infill projects just too difficult and builders won’t continue to try any kind of meaningful development on infill sites. Builders and developers are leaving our community en masse for our neighboring communities where they are welcomed, vacant buildable lots are plentiful, the approval process is smooth and easy, and they are even offered financial incentives to provide new housing.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that infill simply won’t happen on any scale where supply could ever possibly meet demand. Where does that leave us? It leaves us in gridlock. Renters can’t purchase their first “starter” home. The city’s own 2018 housing study indicated more than 2,000 renters would purchase a starter home if we had any inventory at affordable prices. People in “starter” homes can’t move up to the next price range of home, which means people in those homes can’t move up to their ultimate “dream” home. What little inventory we have continues to skyrocket in price. Which provides new “comps” that will bump up the valuations of the entire block. Which by the following year will show up on our tax assessments.

We are already experiencing a housing crisis that is partially responsible for our school closings. Declining enrollment impacts all neighborhoods; even where schools are not closing, classes will be larger or have grades combined, and electives will become more limited. We need housing across all price points if we want to encourage families to live here and enroll their kids in our schools. Infill alone will not solve this crisis. If we want to add viable housing stock at reasonable prices, let alone “affordable housing,” without triggering massive tax increases, we must support new annexations. For that to happen we must extend infrastructure. The city has not been inclined to do that. We need leaders in our community who will be willing to step up to the plate and make proactive “yes” decisions that are so vital to the future of our community.

— Marilyn Heck is a longtime Douglas County commercial real estate broker who has worked on multiple land deals to expand housing in the area.