Bert Nash still isn’t considering downtown for new housing project for the homeless; city memo suggesting otherwise was in error

photo by: Nick Krug/Journal-World Photo

Downtown Lawrence is pictured in this aerial photo from December 2017.

For a few hours on Tuesday, it looked like a plan by Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center to build supportive housing for the homeless atop a downtown grocery store had reemerged.

And it looked like the idea was as controversial as ever among some downtown business owners and stakeholders.

The downtown project, though, has not reemerged. Rather, an editing error by the city gave the impression that it had. The Journal-World reported Monday afternoon that the City Commission is being asked to consider a recommendation to provide $900,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds to a Bert Nash project that would create 22 to 24 permanent supportive housing units above a commercial space designed to house a grocery store in the downtown Lawrence area.

When that article appeared in Tuesday’s print edition of the Journal-World, phone calls started happening around town among downtown stakeholders asking what the heck is going on, I was told. That’s because Bert Nash officials several weeks ago had announced that they were no longer considering downtown Lawrence for such a project. Bert Nash had backed away from the downtown idea after several businesses and stakeholders had expressed concern that Lawrence’s busy central business district was not the best place to locate a housing project for people experiencing homelessness.

Was Bert Nash now changing plans and considering downtown once again? No.

“We are not looking to develop the project in downtown at all,” Mathew Faulk, housing director for Bert Nash, told me Tuesday afternoon.

The confusion instead came from the city inadvertently posting an incorrect memo about the Bert Nash project and other projects that are being recommended for about $8.3 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding.

Assistant City Manager Diane Stoddard told me Tuesday afternoon that the city staff members had been doing a group edit of the memo ahead of the memo being posted as part of the City Commission’s weekly agenda. She said the memo that was intended to be posted had made changes to the wording of the memo to reflect that the project no longer was slated for the downtown area. However, those changes didn’t get saved, and the version of the memo with the downtown reference got posted. The city on Tuesday afternoon was updating the memo, Stoddard told me.

While the project isn’t slated for downtown, Bert Nash definitely is working to build a project elsewhere in the community to provide supportive housing for people who have been experiencing homelessness.

Faulk said the plan still is to provide about 24 housing units that will be supported by professionals who can provide needed services to people who are emerging from homelessness.

But, since the project won’t be in downtown, Faulk said the idea of having a grocery store on the ground floor of the new building isn’t likely. Instead, he said the ground floor space probably would be reserved for offices. He said it’s likely that those offices could house personnel connected to the supportive housing functions.

Where the project would be located isn’t yet known. Faulk said Bert Nash is looking at two to three city-owned sites outside of the downtown area that could be a possibility for the project. But he also said the number of sites the city has outside of downtown is fairly limited, and that Bert Nash has been looking at private properties for sale. He said it was premature to discuss any locations publicly.

By not having the project in downtown, the cost structure has changed, Faulk said. The ground floor space is less likely to provide rental income under the new plan, and it is possible that Bert Nash may have to pay $500,000 or more to acquire a site for the project.

Given all that, Faulk said Bert Nash was a “little disappointed” that the downtown idea didn’t gain enough support to move forward. But he said the organization has quickly moved on and shifted gears.

He said the project is likely to accomplish many goals that people in the community want to see as it relates to homelessness. He said currently people who are experiencing homelessness often deal with the challenges in public spaces — whether that be a downtown sidewalk or a city park or elsewhere. But with a supportive housing project, people experiencing homelessness would be more likely to deal with those challenges in a private space surrounded by trained professionals who can provide assistance.

“But that means building housing and putting it somewhere,” Faulk said. “As a community, we have to be willing to say we are going to build housing to get people off the street. Otherwise, it won’t go away and it will get worse. People aren’t just going to find their way out of the community.”

Look for early 2023 to be a key time period for determining whether this Bert Nash project will become a reality. Faulk said the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services is expected to accept applications for federal HOME grant dollars in the first half of 2023. Faulk is estimating that the envisioned project will cost about $6 million. Bert Nash has a preliminary commitment of about $1 million from Douglas County, and may ultimately get about that much from the city. That would leave the state grant and other fundraising to cover the rest of the costs.


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