Only about 10% of Lawrence landlords participate in housing voucher programs, and right now, 51 households with vouchers in hand are actively searching and struggling to find housing.
Gabby Boyle, prevention specialist at the Sexual Trauma and Abuse Care Center, and Mariel Ferreiro, landlord liaison for the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority, shared those statistics and context alongside other local housing experts Thursday evening during a panel at the Lawrence Public Library.
Ferreiro explained that the housing authority administers transitional vouchers, which allow people to build rental history and acclimate from experiencing homelessness, and housing choice vouchers. Those subsidies provide landlords guaranteed monthly rent payments — but fewer and fewer landlords are accepting them.
Lawrence’s Human Resources Commission recently advanced proposed changes to city ordinances that include creating a protected class based on source of income. If passed, the ordinance would prevent landlords from denying housing because someone’s rent money comes from housing assistance such as vouchers, settlements, benefits, subsidies, Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers and more.
“I think something like source of income (protection) can be that accountability factor; can be that way to show that we do not need to discriminate based on who is receiving or how they’re receiving their funding for housing — we just need to house people,” Ferreiro said, “and that the folks that receive vouchers are no different than anyone else.”
The Lawrence City Commission will consider the proposed ordinance changes during its meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 13.
Panelists agreed that source of income discrimination was one of the most pressing issues within the city’s affordable housing crisis, and they wanted to ensure that community members who are interested in this issue are able to get informed and advocate to city leaders at the upcoming meeting.
Panelists said even seemingly stable situations, such as homeownership, can be temporary. People frequently transition from being renters to homeowners and back to renters, Boyle said — life changes constantly.
“If you’re ever in that position where you do become a renter or are facing housing instability, … there will be protections created for you, even if you don’t need them at this very moment,” Boyle said.
Savannah Fergus, housing stabilization case manager for the Lawrence Community Shelter, agreed with that sentiment.
“I think homeowners should be concerned about this because it’s a human rights issue, and this is our community,” Fergus said. “These are our neighbors, and this issue should be important to everybody here.”
Panelist Gabi Sprague, human services program manager for Douglas County, said it’s much cheaper for the community to house people and prevent homelessness than it is to bring a person out of homelessness.
And panelist Kincaid Dennett, executive director of People’s Owned and Operated Collective Housing, said that when we raise the floor of how difficult life can be for people, the ceiling gets higher, too.
“So what benefits the people at the bottom also benefits the people at the top,” Dennett said. “And I think we need to depart from the mindset of ‘somebody getting something means something is being taken away from me.’”
But source of income is just one piece of a very complex puzzle. Panelists also agreed that other key changes need to happen.
In particular, Lawrence simply needs more affordable housing — and ideally, panelists said they would like to see a greater variety of housing options, as well.
Sprague pointed to work currently underway to revise the city’s land development code. She said she hopes the updates will result in less restrictive guidelines around developing affordable housing, and possibly incentives for developers to build more of it. Dennett said the affordable housing stock could be increased through a diversity of tactics, including housing cooperatives.
Sprague also said she has been working on developing a tenant legal representation pilot program. She is currently seeking funding to pay for an attorney and a paralegal to represent tenants in eviction cases in Douglas County District Court.
Ferreiro said she wants to get more landlords into partnerships with the housing authority’s programs.
“We have so many landlords that I would say are champions of this program, that have provided housing in exchange for subsidy and that have had success stories,” she said.
But there will always be about 10% of housing situations that don’t go as well. That’s “just the reality of the game,” but her job is to mitigate those issues, she said — and LDCHA has more than $100,000 available to help incentivize landlords to take risks.
The Lawrence City Commission’s next meeting is at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 13 at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St. Meetings are in person and livestreamed on the city’s YouTube channel.
The commission accepts written public comment via email to firstname.lastname@example.org until noon the day of the meeting. The commission also hears public comment during meetings and via Zoom. See the source of income protection agenda item at this link, and Tuesday’s full meeting agenda at this link.
Jasmine Bates, an AmeriCorps member working for Douglas County, moderated Thursday’s panel. Bates will be at the meeting Tuesday “specifically just to support people in making public comments.”
The panel was recorded and will be uploaded to the Lawrence Public Library’s YouTube page, Marc Veloz, community resources specialist at LPL, told the crowd.
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The task of checking people in at the North Lawrence campsite for people experiencing homelessness falls on resident Jennifer Adams — along with other duties, such as de-escalating problems, distributing donations, and trespassing people when they violate the contracts secured in Adams’ tent.