Eco devo leaders campaigning to convince City Hall to spend more on new neighborhoods, cite $112K increase in home prices since 2017

New home construction is shown in this 2016 file photo.

When about a hundred local real estate agents gathered in a west Lawrence conference room on Thursday, they expected to hear an update on the massive building project underway at the Panasonic battery plant in De Soto.

They ended up hearing almost as much about another building project underway. This one, however, doesn’t involve any hammers and nails.

Twisting of arms, though, might be involved.

Local economic development leaders are building a campaign to convince Lawrence city commissioners to spend more public funds on constructing roads, sewers and other infrastructure for single-family neighborhoods. At the Thursday meeting of local Realtors, a leader with the Economic Development Corporation of Lawrence & Douglas County was urging members of the crowd to start calling commissioners directly. He also was urging members of the crowd to start asking their friends and neighbors to call commissioners about the topic.

The reason: rapidly rising Lawrence home prices and the belief that the only way to combat them is an influx of new single-family homes and neighborhoods.

Audience members even were given a sheet listing “talking points” to discuss with commissioners. Those included a spreadsheet showing home sale prices from 2000 through 2022. The data showed that four of the five largest increases in home sale prices during that period have occurred since 2018. The average home price is up $112,000 since the end of 2017, according to local real estate data.

In addition, the group is highlighting that Lawrence is continuing to build fewer new homes now than it did during the peak of the pandemic or during the height of the 2008-2009 recession.

“That says something in itself that something isn’t right,” said Rob Richardson, the Panasonic opportunities manager for the local economic development corporation. “That data right there says something is wrong.”

The housing and the Panasonic issues have become linked in Lawrence because the 4,000-job battery plant in nearby De Soto is expected to produce new residents for Lawrence. How many of the 4,000 employees ultimately will end up in Lawrence is an open question, but economic development leaders are making the point that the housing market already is stressed without that pressure, so it likely will become worse if new housing construction doesn’t increase.

The City Hall lobbying campaign comes as commissioners begin the budget process for 2024. That’s not coincidental. As part of the budget, commissioners will approve a five-year Capital Improvement Plan, which directs how much and when the city will spend on projects such as new streets, sewer lines and other infrastructure that is needed to support housing and the community in general.

Historically, the city’s CIP has focused on spending dollars to improve existing infrastructure. Richardson, who has become the lead spokesperson in this City Hall campaign, wants commissioners to consider the value of building new infrastructure for brand new areas of town.

A former planning director in Wyandotte County who is now a private consultant on development activity, Richardson said he understands the importance of maintaining existing infrastructure. But he said now may be a period where the community has to temporarily tilt the scale toward new development, if it wants to remain a diverse community.

“You very easily could become Boulder if you don’t allow any growth,” Richardson said of the Colorado community. “And Boulder is one of the most crazy expensive places …

“You don’t want to be that because then you become an elitist community. For a community that wants to do everything it can for the homeless population, to become elitist by accident would not be a very good thing. That looks to me, from an outsider point of view, what is happening.”

It is far from certain that city commissioners will be receptive to the idea of spending more public funds on new residential development. City Manager Craig Owens has long highlighted the importance of improving existing infrastructure, and Lawrence has had many debates about whether single-family residential development pays for itself. In recent years, city leaders have been crafting policies that try to direct more development toward “infill lots” that are already in the city limits and either are undeveloped or underdeveloped.

So, this will be a different approach for city officials to embrace, and it could involve shifting around millions of dollars worth of planned improvements in the city. If the city doesn’t plan on a big tax increase to fund the new infrastructure — which is an option but not one being touted much — the new spending likely would be accomplished by delaying other planned infrastructure improvements.

Another big component in this will be specifically what type of projects are developers asking the public to fund? There’s a sizable part of the Lawrence population who will balk at using public money to pay for the streets and sidewalks, for example, that run through a neighborhood. But Richardson said that is not what economic development leaders are seeking. Instead, the new city funding would be used to pay for major new city streets that open up new areas of town, such as land west of the South Lawrence Trafficway, north of Rock Chalk Park, or south of the U.S. Highway 59 and SLT intersection in south Lawrence. The same could be true of funding major new water and sewer lines for those areas.

In that scenario, developers would still be responsible for paying for the smaller residential streets that are in the neighborhood and also would be responsible for the smaller water and sewer lines that actually connect to the new homes.

Look for the lobbying issue to pick up steam as the month moves along. Commissioners are expected to start talking about budget and CIP issues next week.


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