New numbers show it really was the Decade of the Apartment in Lawrence; apartment construction up by more than 1,000

photo by: Nick Krug

The Bauer Farm Apartment complex, which rests along Bauer Farm Drive off of Sixth Street in West Lawrence, is pictured under construction in September 2016.

People are still trying to figure out what to call this decade that just ended. It wasn’t exactly the teens, it wasn’t exactly roaring and, if you take a couple of Twitter accounts out of the equation, it wasn’t exactly dirty. While not catchy, new numbers show there certainly is one title Lawrence could adopt for the time period: The Decade of the Apartment.

Your eyes did not deceive you. A lot of apartments were built in Lawrence over the last 10 years. But the number alone isn’t what’s so interesting. Many decades have seen lots of apartment construction. What’s more interesting is that apartments easily became the dominant type of new housing built in Lawrence.

How dominant? For every single-family home that was built last decade in Lawrence, more than 2.5 apartments were built. It hasn’t always been that way. Past building permit records show that in the decade of the 2000s and the 1990s, for instance, more single-family homes were built than apartments.

In that regard, this decade from 2010 to 2019 is significant. Every decade in Lawrence produces enough construction to change the look of Lawrence. This one, though, can be added to the list of decades that also changed the fabric of the community. It is the one where it became far more common for people to live in smaller spaces that they don’t own. Whether that is good, bad or neutral is for others to decide, but as apartment dwellers speed toward claiming majority status in Lawrence, it surely will have implications beyond just the roofs over their heads.

The numbers I’ve reviewed are from the City of Lawrence’s extensive records of building permits each year. The city recently released its 2019 report, meaning we now have a complete set of numbers for the past decade. Here’s what they showed, in general:

• 3,544 apartment living units were constructed in Lawrence during the decade compared with 1,347 single-family homes. That calculates out to 2.63 apartments for every single-family home built during the time period.

• Almost 100 more apartment units per year were built in the last decade than in the decade of the 2000s. In that decade 2,392 apartments were built, which is about 1,150 fewer apartments than in the just-concluded decade.

• Duplexes, which aren’t quite single-family homes but also not apartments, accounted for another 624 living units this decade. Including duplexes, the breakdown of newly constructed housing looked like this in the decade: 64.3% apartments, 24.4% single-family homes, 11.3% duplexes.

• The previous two decades in Lawrence looked much different on the apartment scene: From 2000 to 2009, apartments accounted for 38% of all newly constructed living units in Lawrence. In the roaring decade of the 1990s, they accounted for 35% of all new living units built in the city. Apartment construction started to pick up in 2007, when the economy was beginning to head toward the Great Recession. In the 12 years since 2007, apartment construction has outpaced single-family home construction in 11 of those years.

Two things have happened that have caused apartments to become the dominant type of new housing in Lawrence. Yes, a lot more apartments are being built. But just as important is that single-family housing construction is now on a 20-year decline in Lawrence. In fact, perhaps the big story here is that overall residential construction is on a 20-year decline in Lawrence.

In the decade of the 1990s, 7,883 living units were constructed in Lawrence. In the decade of the 2000s, that number had fallen to 6,272. In this just completed decade, the number dropped even further, to 5,515 living units.

In 20 years, the number of new places we build to live in Lawrence has declined by 30%. Yes, the rate at which Lawrence’s population is growing also has slowed compared with our heyday in the 1990s. But most of that slowdown happened from 2000 to 2009. In the just-completed decade, the growth rate picked up speed again, yet the number of new housing units built in the community took another decline.

Here’s a look in more detail at what I’m talking about. From the 1990 census to the 2000 census, Lawrence’s population grew by 22%. That’s the decade when more than 7,800 living units were built in the city. From the 2000 census to the 2010 census, the community still grew but at a much slower rate. It grew by 9.4%. The number of housing units built in the community also declined, checking in at about 6,200 versus the 7,800 built in the previous decade.

The story is shaping up to be much different in this most recent decade. Final numbers won’t be in until the census is complete, but census population estimates through 2018 show Lawrence’s growth has rebounded. From 2010 through 2018, the city’s population is up 11%. In other words, Lawrence’s population growth has accelerated in this last decade, but the rate at which the community builds new homes has slowed. The community built 12% fewer homes (meaning single family, apartments and duplexes) this decade than it did in the previous decade. It built 30% fewer homes than it did in the 1990s.

There is a lot to unpack there, but people who are concerned about affordable housing in Lawrence ought to spend more time with those numbers. Is supply too constrained in Lawrence, which pushes up the price of all housing, both newly constructed and existing? Has single-family home construction declined because apartment construction has become so dominant? Or, has apartment construction become so dominant because something has to be built to accommodate new residents?

The answer is probably a little bit of both. Whatever it is, though, there wasn’t much evidence that trend has started to reverse itself. In 2019, Lawrence added 188 apartment units — its third lowest total of the decade — but it added only 131 single-family homes. The 131 mark was the lowest total since 2014.

The most single-family homes built in the decade was 161 in 2015. To put in perspective how low that number is compared with the past, consider this: Lawrence built 300 or more single-family homes for 14 consecutive years from 1991 to 2004.

It seems clear that those days are gone. What they will be replaced with is still uncertain.


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