Affordable price points, yet simple and durable construction. Those are the qualities envisioned for a 122-unit housing development on Lawrence’s west side, according to the executive director of Tenants to Homeowners.
Rebecca Buford leads the nonprofit community land trust, which develops and manages permanently affordable homes, including rentals. In June, the Lawrence City Commission approved a donation of almost 5 acres of land for the project at Kansas Highway 10 and Bob Billings Parkway.
Combined with a previous private donation, the nearly 15-acre project will not only help the nonprofit double its affordable housing offerings but also extend its reach to the outskirts of Lawrence’s west side — something Buford said was crucial.
“The donation of this has allowed us to get to that side of town, and there’s such a need. You still have people that work at fast-food restaurants and baristas in coffee shops, and all of the people that have jobs like that, that still would like to live close to where they work on the west side of town.”
Buford said the nonprofit has endured past criticism because the majority of its existing Lawrence properties dot the east side of town.
Currently, TTH stewards 122 rental units with 12 single-site units west of Iowa Street, according to Nicholas Ward, director of program innovation and community collaboration; of 99 ownership homes in trust, only six lie west of Iowa.
Development patterns and high land costs have made it difficult to develop smaller infill projects on the west side, she said.
“I’m really excited about this opportunity to make sure we’re spreading into all neighborhoods,” Buford said. “The reality is that the strength of our neighborhoods is really about mixtures and ways that neighborhoods can support different types of housing and different types of families with different needs and different incomes so that we have a good mixture.”
Buford said numerous studies show the best neighborhoods contain a variety of incomes and individuals.
“I think we really appreciate that in Lawrence. We look at ourselves as a diverse and eclectic group of people,” she said. “But the reality is, if we continue down the path of high-end development, without affordable housing mixed in, we’re going to be like San Francisco, where people have to commute from Oakland if they have fast-food jobs.”
That trend, Buford said, “pushes out” many people earning low to moderate incomes, ensuring that only high-income earners can afford to inhabit a community.
“And that’s going to change the dynamic of Lawrence,” Buford said. “We support art and culture, students, social workers, teachers, all of the things we pride ourselves on — a lot of those occupations don’t make a lot of money. And if we don’t have affordable high-quality housing options, we’re going to lose what we consider is intrinsically the mixture of Lawrence.”
On top of a shortage of affordable housing options, addressing the stigma remains a challenge, Buford said. She owns a stack of cards with various scenarios that spark conversation about workforce housing — a term referring to affordable housing available in proximity to where a low- to middle-income wage earner works.
“She can teach your children, but can she be your neighbor?” Buford reads from a card. “I have one that says, ‘He can make your coffee, but can he be your neighbor?’ And I really think that gets at the home of what we’re talking about.”
Buford said the development also would benefit seniors and people with disabilities. A 2018 Lawrence housing market study found one in four disabled residents lived in housing that didn’t meet their accessibility needs. In order to afford housing, 29% of seniors said they avoided medical treatment and 24% cut back on their medication.
The cost of the project is estimated between $8-12 million. Much of the final tally depends on how construction costs and supply chain issues pan out during the lengthy development process. Dirt work is planned for 2023 with infrastructure and construction scheduled for 2024-2025.
Although the final results could vary slightly, TTH hopes to build 122 units — 110 for rental and 12 for ownership — totaling 236 bedrooms. Home ownership remains a goal for many, Buford said, but renting best matches the needs of some residents. One might infer there’s a goal of ownership within the name Tenants to Homeowners, but that’s not necessarily the case.
“We serve a whole housing spectrum of tenants to homeowners. Of course, if you have enough income, homeownership and building wealth is the goal. But the reality is, for some people with very low income, having a good landlord that does the maintenance is absolutely a better situation for them than ownership.“
The project also includes commercial space, a playground and a park. Residents will live within walking distance of Langston Hughes Elementary and have easy access to the Lawrence Loop. Buford said stakeholders would advocate for smart transportation, including access to Lawrence Transit routes as the area develops.
In the meantime, TTH will move through the planning process, seek grants and work with the project’s for-profit developer — Gardner-based Wheatland Investments Group — in securing low-income housing tax credits to fully fund the development.
“Every bit of extra funding goes to lower the cost of the housing to the people we serve,” Buford said.
A news release from the city estimates the land donation at $374,430 based on appraisal. During its June 7 meeting, the city commission voted unanimously to approve the land transfer and received no public feedback.
Commissioner Bart Littlejohn praised the project before the vote.
“I totally dig it. It’s hitting my strike zone. That’s what I’ve been looking for, is that type of mixed development, so I was very pleased to see this plan,” he said.
For more information about Tenants to Homeowners’ programs, requirements and income guidelines, visit the TTH website at this link.