Despite growing population, Lawrence is building homes at a slower rate than the national average; see how much slower

photo by: Journal-World

Home construction is shown underway in southern Lawrence in this 2016 file photo.

If you are looking for a new home in Lawrence, you had better be ready to drop what you are doing and go see any new house before it gets sold out from underneath you. (I used to advise people to always keep a full tank of gas, but of course, it is infeasible now to buy a house and a tank of gas.)

A new national report sheds some light on why Lawrence’s housing market is so tight: Despite being a growing community, the Lawrence metro area is building homes at a rate slower than the national average.

That’s not a particularly shocking revelation, given that the real estate community for several years has been saying Lawrence has a severe shortage of homes. But a new report from the real estate software firm Inspection Support Network sheds some light on how Lawrence’s pace of home construction compares with other metro areas across the country.

Lawrence is definitely building houses at a rate below the national average, but not dramatically so.

The report — which examined 2021 building permit data from the U.S. Census Bureau for every metro area in the U.S. — determined that the average metro area is adding 12.5 new housing units for every 1,000 existing housing units located in a community.

Lawrence, on the other hand, added homes at a rate of 10.1 new homes for every 1,000 existing homes. That means the Lawrence metro area — which includes all of Douglas County — issued building permits for 518 new homes in 2021. That does not mean all of those homes were single-family houses. For the purposes of this report, a duplex or an apartment unit is included in the total of new homes. We will come back to that in a moment.

Lawrence’s growth rate of 10.1 new homes per 1,000 existing homes ranked it No. 92 out of 202 small metro areas in the U.S. In other words, Lawrence was in the middle of the pack when it comes to housing growth rates.

But, it is worth remembering that not all metro areas have a growing population. If you aren’t a place people want to move to, there’s not a reason to build a lot of new homes. Lawrence, however, is a metro area that has a growing population, although it is not rapid population growth. Some argue that it would be more rapid if housing prices were more affordable. It would be interesting to see how Lawrence ranks in this survey when compared only with those metro areas that are growing in population. Alas, this report didn’t do that.

But I can share with you the home construction growth rates of several communities in the region, plus add some census data. I’ll show you the home construction growth rate, the total of new homes added, the 2021 population total of the metro and note whether the population grew or declined. Here’s a look:

• Greeley, Colorado: 49.7 new homes/1000, 5,268 new homes in a growing metro of 340,036.

• Lincoln, Nebraska: 18.6 new homes/1000, 2,607 new homes in a growing metro of 342,117.

• Iowa City: 15.6 new homes/1000, 1,167 new homes in a growing metro of 177,239.

• Joplin, Missouri: 12.9 new homes/1000, 991 new homes in a growing metro of 182,541.

• Kansas City: 12.3 new homes/1000, 11,254 new homes in a growing metro of 2,199,490.

• Columbia, Missouri: 11.4 new homes/1000, 1,029 new homes in a growing metro of 213,123.

• Lawrence: 10.1 new homes/1000, 518 new homes in a growing metro area of 119,363.

• Boulder, Colorado: 9.1 new homes/1000, 1,237 new homes in a declining metro of 329,543.

• Wichita: 8.7 new homes/1000, 2,384 new homes in a declining metro of 647,919.

• Ames, Iowa: 7.5 new homes/1000, 394 new homes in a growing metro of 126,195.

• Topeka: 6.8 new homes/1000, 717 new homes in a declining metro of 232,670.

• Manhattan: 4.9 new homes/1000, 278 new homes in a declining metro of 133,932.

• St. Joseph, Missouri: 2.0 new homes/1000, 108 new homes in a declining metro of 120,424.

Those numbers show that Lawrence has a below-average rate of housing construction nationally, but it is better than some other communities in the region. But, when it comes to communities that are growing in population, its rate of housing growth was fairly low. On this list, Ames was the only growing metro to be building homes at a slower pace than Lawrence. What does it mean that places like Iowa City and Columbia added 500 to 600 more homes in a year than Lawrence did?

How much difference would it make to Lawrence’s housing scene if Lawrence were building homes at the national average? I did some backward math (that means I took off my right shoe before my left shoe to do these calculations) to come up with a number. If the Lawrence metro built homes at the national average of 12.5 per 1,000, the metro would have added 653 homes instead of the 518 that it did. How much of a difference would those extra 135 homes have made in Lawrence’s housing market in the last year?

That could be a subject of debate, in part because it depends on what type of homes they would have been. New single-family home construction may impact Lawrence in ways different from new apartment construction.

Ask the Lawrence school district, if you don’t believe me. As we’ve reported, Lawrence is in the odd position of having overall population growth but declining public school enrollment growth. One theory why is that Lawrence, for some reason, isn’t attracting families with children. One theory on why that may be is that Lawrence’s housing stock is becoming dominated by apartments that aren’t exactly what families are looking to live in.

This report turned me on to a census database that made it pretty easy to see whether Lawrence really is building fewer single-family homes than other communities in the region. Here’s a look, using the same list from above. This shows the percentage of all homes that were built in 2021 that were single-family homes. Everything else was multifamily, which could be anything from a duplex to a big apartment building.

• Manhattan: 95% single family.

• St. Joseph, Missouri: 92% single family.

• Columbia, Missouri: 81% single family.

• Greeley, Colorado: 72% single family.

• Ames, Iowa: 70% single family.

• Joplin, Missouri: 67% single family.

• Wichita: 67% single family.

• Kansas City: 62% single family.

• Topeka: 58% single family.

• Iowa City: 56% single family.

• Lincoln, Nebraska: 52% single family.

• Lawrence: 50% single family.

• Boulder, Colorado: 27% single family.

It is worth noting that this is just a one-year snapshot. All of this data would be better if we had 10 years of it because the mix of single-family to multifamily construction can swing dramatically based on one or two big apartment projects. But I can tell you, it has been a long time since Lawrence has had 80% of its new housing units be single-family units, like Columbia did. This snapshot, while imperfect, shows not all college towns are developing in the same way Lawrence is.


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