City of Lawrence sees dozens of vacant houses as potential way to create more affordable housing

Jun 25, 2022 | News


As climbing prices intensify the City of Lawrence’s need for more affordable housing, city leaders are interested in looking to a new option: the dozens of houses sitting vacant in Lawrence neighborhoods.

City staff recently recommended the creation of a vacant structure ordinance to the Lawrence City Commission, among several other potential policy changes, and a few commissioners indicated Tuesday they were interested in further exploring the idea. The local nonprofit Tenants to Homeowners recently began piloting a program that seeks to repair and rent out vacant homes, and representatives said such an ordinance would be significant for affordable housing.

Housing Administrator Lea Roselyn later told the Journal-World that vacant structure ordinances are common tools that a lot of municipalities use, not only to benefit affordable housing but neighborhoods overall.

“The vacant structure ordinance really is to prevent blight and to ensure that we don’t lose any affordable housing stock in our community,” Roselyn said. “Recognizing that each structure, even if it’s naturally occurring housing, is an asset to our community that we can’t afford to lose.”

At this point, discussions about such an ordinance are preliminary. As part of the meeting on Tuesday, three commissioners, Brad Finkeldei, Amber Sellers and Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen indicated at least some interest in a vacant structure ordinance, and Finkeldei suggested the possibility of creating a vacant structure registry as a first step. Mayor Courtney Shipley said she didn’t disagree, but added that if not done well such ordinances could become predatory, and she would want to make sure the program was not displacing anyone.

While the city does not currently have a registry, Code Official Brian Jimenez later told the Journal-World he does track vacant homes when the city becomes aware of them. Jimenez said he’s currently identified 36 vacant homes — last year two vacant homes were demolished due to their condition — but he thought it was safe to say there are “many more” that the city is not aware of.

Roselyn said creating a registry would lay the groundwork for an ordinance, giving the city a better idea of how many vacant homes or apartments there are in the city. She said the next steps would involve discussions with the community and commissioners about how a vacant structure ordinance should look in Lawrence.

Typically, Roselyn said such ordinances require a landlord or property owner to register a property with the city when it is sitting vacant and pay a fee, which then goes into a fund that supports repairs. She said usually vacant properties — sometimes inherited, owned by multiple people and/or owned by someone out of state — have deferred maintenance, and the registration process typically includes the identification of necessary repairs. She said if property owners are not able to address the issues themselves, the city fund, potentially through nonprofit or other partners, could work with the owner to repair the property.

“And that really is it, to come up with solutions for those individual properties that benefit both the property owner and the community,” Roselyn said.

When asked what an ideal solution for such a property would be, Roselyn said it would be for the property owner to work with a local nonprofit, such as the program being piloted by Tenants to Homeowners, to get any repairs made so that the house or apartment can be rented or sold at an affordable price.

The Tenants to Homeowners pilot program, Affordable Rental Management (ARM), is being funded by a $100,000 grant from the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. The trust fund is funded by a special sales tax approved by Lawrence voters in 2017 that provides about $1 million annually toward affordable housing projects and services.

Nicholas Ward, outreach and development coordinator for Tenants to Homeowners, said the format being used by ARM starts with identifying a vacant house and getting in touch with the owners to see if they have any plans for it. Ward said he estimates the East Lawrence, Brook Creek, Pinkney and Barker neighborhoods all have more than a dozen vacant homes each.

“If they are not currently getting rent on it, and they have no plans to sell it and they are just paying property taxes on it while it sits there, it’s not really doing them any good,” Ward said.

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

A vacant house in the Barker Neighborhood is pictured on June 25, 2022.

For those interested in working with the program, ARM will pay to make repairs, and in return owners agree to rent the house at a lower rate for at least five years though the ARM program, which identifies income-eligible tenants and manages the rental for a percentage of the rent. At the end of the five years, Ward said owners could choose to continue in the program, but if they want to sell, he said the idea would be for the contract to give TTH the first right to purchase.

Ward said so far they’ve found rehabilitating a home will likely cost an average of about $25,000. In addition to creating an affordable unit, he said rehabilitating existing homes when possible and using infrastructure that’s already in place has a lot of benefits over building new.

“They are there, and it’s so expensive to build a brand new house right now,” Ward said. “And if we can be rehabbing existing homes, there are so many benefits. We’re reducing the carbon footprint of creating a new unit; we’re utilizing infill development.”

Ward said with the $100,000 grant, Tenants to Homeowners is in the process of rehabilitating a four-bedroom house in the Pinkney neighborhood and a 15-bedroom transitional housing building. He said the building was partially vacant due its very poor condition, and the house had long been unoccupied. He said the neighbors of the house, who had been mowing the grass for five years, have expressed support for the repairs and getting the house occupied.

The recommendation for a vacant structure ordinance was part of a larger update on the city’s strategic plan goals related to neighborhoods and housing. Other recommendations included the idea of an affordable housing overlay zone, the creation of new tax abatement or incentives, and a property acquisitions revolving loan fund.

Another of the policy recommendations from the neighborhood and housing report that received some support from commissioners was for the city to create a comprehensive plan, with coordinated goals and strategies, for meeting housing objectives. The city previously commissioned an analysis of the Lawrence housing market and the Affordable Housing Advisory Board has a “toolkit” of different strategies for addressing the issue.

Roselyn said a comprehensive plan would take those resources a step further to use that data and those strategies to implement a plan that involved the city and other community organizations.

“When all of us interested in moving the needle on affordable housing are in alignment with what the strategy is, what the timeline is, what the accountability is, and what the anticipated outcome is, then we can really be measuring success,” Roselyn said. “We can be reporting out progress to the community in a way with much more integrity — we will know if we’re actually reaching the goals that we need to be getting toward to address this housing crisis that we’re in.”