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Lawrence City Commission interested in $4.6M housing project but holds off on decisions for ARPA funds

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Members of the City of Lawrence’s Housing Initiatives Division requested the city spend $8.29 million left from federal COVID-19 relief funds on housing solutions, but city commissioners stopped short of adopting that recommendation. 

Though commissioners showed an interest in plans to spend a little more than half of that total on a modular housing project, they are allowing other agencies to vie for some of the American Rescue Plan Act funds.

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“While I felt like a good portion of these funds should address our needs for affordable housing and … addressing issues of the unhoused, I did not anticipate us using all of that funding for that,” Commissioner Amber Sellers said. “I think there’s some opportunities to trim some things up from these other projects to be able to give us an opportunity to see if there (are) other projects in the community … that fit the tenets of our strategic plan as well.” 

Mayor Lisa Larsen said she was caught off guard by the request to exhaust the ARPA funding on one cause. 

“We’ve had this money for a couple of years and we’re being asked by staff to provide a go-ahead for some pretty, pretty large ticket items tonight, and I would ask the commission if we could potentially look on putting the brakes on just a little bit,” Larsen said. “Do we want to have the community to have an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, here’s some other things that we might want to put in the mixer?’ … It seems to me we need to have that interim step in there.”

In addition to giving other agencies in the community the opportunity to make a case for ARPA funds, city commissioners questioned some of the other eight projects in HID’s funding recommendations that mostly focus on the creation of supportive, transitional and affordable housing. HID also requested funding for education and community outreach. 

The biggest ticket item on the list is HID’s $4.65 million modular homes project. 

“This is not a not a vision of the tent cities that some people may be thinking of,” said Danelle Walters, housing initiatives manager. “It’s more of a model of a village type setting with small modular bedroom units that are climate controlled. They’re safe from the elements, they’re private and they’re secure. And it would also be in a community type setting where it would be monitored and operated 24/7.” 

Expressing general support, commissioners requested more details on that project. 

“Where that land is acquired, what those projects look like — those are all details that need to be worked out,” Commissioner Brad Finkeldei said. “But if staff is looking for a go-ahead to explore those and bring us back more information, I’m all for it.”

Walters said she would gather more data, but expressed concern about gaining approval to use the ARPA funds for the modular project soon. 

“There is a tremendous lead time if we’re ordering modular units,” Walters said. “So I just wanted you to keep in mind that’s very much in the forefront of our mind, is trying to understand how we proceed and, and how we best utilize that time between now and March 12.” 

That date is when the Winter Emergency Shelter will close. Members of HID are trying to build a more viable medium-term shelter option to service the approximately 200 people experiencing homelessness in Lawrence. 

The support site in North Lawrence, the WES and the Lawrence Community Shelter are the only city-sanctioned places for people to stay. There is currently no shelter serving families. 

With a more developed site, Walters said the city could utilize the “bigger-ticket items” from a previous campsite at Woody Park, such as the portable shower, restroom, and laundry trailers that it hasn’t been able to use since 2021. 

“There are some really strong, really exciting models nationwide of this type of project being extremely successful and impactful for those experiencing homelessness,” Walters said. “And this is something that our division really wants to facilitate to stand up and work with our community partners to operate.” 

Walters said she will return to the city with more details on the project in the coming weeks. 

Other projects

Rich Minder, executive director of the Success by 6 Coalition of Douglas County, requested that the city consider funding a community center the coalition would share with Doulas of Douglas County and Centro Hispano. 

The center would provide playgroups, breastfeeding support, and parenting classes for BIPOC, immigrant and Spanish-speaking families who are pregnant or parenting young children.

That project was separate from HID’s recommendations. Sellers and Larsen called the project “impactful” and “valuable,” respectively, and said other agencies in the community might also have ARPA-worthy projects. 

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Another suggested project on HID’s list, tagged at $255,000, would provide education on tenant rights, and connect people with legal counsel when necessary. Larsen challenged the need to allocate funds for tenant rights, identifying it as a service possibly being met by other services. 

“I’ve got concerns about allocating dollars to (tenant rights education) because we’ve got several other organizations within our county that are actually also putting money towards this and in developing actual programs for this,” Larsen said. 

She listed the Housing Authority, Housing Stabilization Collaborative, and Kansas Legal Services as agencies already dedicated to providing tenants education and counsel. 

“My concern is that it as we’ve committed to the built-for-zero housing first model, one of the tenants of that is that we work with our partners but we stay in our lane with where our strengths are, and I see us with this particular line kind of crossing into some of those other lanes,” Larsen said. “… Is this going to turn out to be another city program we’ve added that’s going to want funding in the long term? I don’t think this is a direction I would like to go with this particular money.” 

Finkeldei questioned HID’s request to spend $1.6 million on property acquisition and infrastructure. 

“I’d really be interested in funding the affordable units on land we have,” Finkeldei said. “I believe we put $1.2 million over the next couple of years into property acquisition in the CIP (Capital Improvement Plan).”

Land acquisition is necessary, Finkeldei said, but the city might meet its goals of providing affordable housing faster if it utilized land recently acquired by the county to build upon. 

Here’s the full agenda item from Tuesday’s meeting:

Agenda-Item-Report-22-895-Pdf

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Chansi Long (she/her), Lawrence life reporter, can be reached at clong (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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