Lawrence has a long way to go from a housing standpoint, Lawrence City Commission candidates generally agree.
Candidates vying for three commission seats on the ballot in the November general election offered up their stances during a public forum Wednesday.
The Lawrence Board of Realtors (LBOR) and Lawrence Home Builders Association (LHBA) on Wednesday morning co-hosted the forum, where members of the public heard city commission candidates respond to issues related to the housing industry and asked their own questions.
Moderator Danielle Davey asked questions of candidates Justine O. Burton, Mike Dever, Brad Finkeldei, Courtney Shipley and Dustin Stumblingbear. Amber Sellers was absent because of a work obligation.
Q: ‘Do you believe [the Pallet Shelter Village] is a wise investment, or do you think we should have invested in more permanent structures, and do you think this will provide a good return on investment?’
The Pallet Shelter Village for unhoused community members is soon to be built on North Michigan Street in Lawrence, and it will include 50 small cabin-like shelters. The goal of the project is to give people who are experiencing homelessness noncongregate spaces to have safety, privacy and dignity to help them transition into permanent housing.
Referring to the project — which has cost the city about $2.44 million thus far, though commissioners in December set aside about $4.5 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds for the project — an attendee asked candidates for their thoughts on the longevity of the city’s investment in the village.
Shipley in part credited the increase of people living outdoors in Lawrence to the COVID-19 pandemic and the idea that more people are coming to the city from other places. The Pallet Shelter Village is necessary to combat that, she said.
“These things were always happening; they were just happening inside the shelter where we couldn’t see them,” Shipley said. “We’re seeing behaviors we don’t wanna see, we’re seeing trash, and yes, camping in every park in town. If you want the camping in every park in town, on all of our trails — one of our greatest assets in this community, our parks and trails — if you want to see that ended, then we need this Pallet village to expand the capacity and put people in safe spaces.”
Stumblingbear said he understands the project to be temporary housing, and he believes that’s the understanding the community living near the site has, too. In that case, he said the housing would completely move to another location in the city after three to five years.
Burton wasn’t initially familiar with the Pallet Shelter Village project but said the city has unnecessarily spent a large sum of money on it.
Dever said he sees the Pallet Shelter Village implementation as a step forward to give unhoused people “a place to sleep” while addressing community members’ complaints about their presence around town.
“We’re going to enforce some of the rules that we already have on the books so that some of the behavior that corporate pointed out can be diminished, so we can get back to living our lives,” Dever said. “And certainly these people who need mental health and drug addiction counseling and just need to learn how to get a job, need a driver’s license, need a birth certificate — these are things that we can do to help these people … What we need to do is follow through and complete an action plan and move forward, so we as a community know what the city’s doing, where it’s going and how we would pay for it.”
Finkeldei said he believes the project is the right investment at this time and has the potential to create more permanent structures.
“The investment here is an investment in our emergency housing situation, and I think it’s a vital part of our plan,” Finkeldei said. “… When the Pallet village is closed, I do think we’ll have land [and] it will recoup some of that value either in long-term affordable housing or other housing.”
‘Identify one or two specific provisions in the land development code that could create barriers to development, and how would you like to see those provisions modified?’
The city’s land development code, which asserts rules and regulations for building infrastructure in town, is currently under review and extensive modifications are being made. A steering committee has been working to update the 2006 version since August 2022, and city leaders predict the new code will be presented to the City Commission come summer 2024.
Stumblingbear said his main focus when looking at the code has been on cluster housing projects. He said changes to lot size requirements could help create more common outdoor areas in the community, allowing for playgrounds, community gardens, additional lane space for biking and increased walkability.
Dever expanded on the idea of walkability and busing, which would reduce the reliance on cars. He also said he’d like to focus on providing multifamily lots.
Finkeldei, who serves on the committee, said the entire code needs to be rewritten in a way that allows homeowners and developers to “be creative.”
Shipley first spoke about the steering committee appointments she made during her time previously serving as Lawrence mayor, which she said contributed to moving the work on the code forward. She added that finding ways to utilize parking lots, which she said are a “giant waste of space,” is important.
Burton said she couldn’t comment on the Land Development Code because she’s “not knowledgeable about it.”
‘What strategies would you like to see the city implement to build on [the capital improvement plan] momentum, and attract and encourage more private investment in Lawrence?’
The Lawrence City Commission on Sept. 5 approved the budget and the capital improvement plan (CIP), which Davey said funnels approximately $70 million over five years to support westward expansion.
Finkeldei, an incumbent city commissioner, voted to approve the CIP. He referenced recent annexation projects but said they have yet to be fruitful.
Dever said “predictability and spending money wisely” will be most important moving forward. If the timing and costs associated with city projects aren’t outlined early enough, investors can’t capitalize on opportunities, he said.
“I think that’s the hardest job as a commissioner is listening to staff and discerning whether or not their recommendations are accurate and whether or not can be done for the price,” Dever said. “We need to make sure we have the appropriate policies in place and the procedures in place to make the process of investing and working in Lawrence as predictable as possible.”
Dever and Finkeldei seemed to be optimistic about progress being made in the 2024-2028 CIP, but Burton called the plan “one-sided” and “small-minded.” She said its focus on westward expansion neglects other parts of town and mentioned the need to bring new technology companies to Lawrence as well as build grocery stores on the north and east sides.
“There is no vision for all of Lawrence, and I’m going to say it again and again and again — all of Lawrence,” Burton said. “For years, East Lawrence has been called ‘the ghetto’ … I would like to see more investment dollars spent in North Lawrence and East Lawrence to repair the streets [and] add more businesses.”
Shipley said she couldn’t predict the CIP’s impact and that her suggesting potential incentives for private investors would be “premature.”
Stumblingbear agreed with Shipley on that point, saying that until the Land Development Code is completed, “we can’t really say, ‘Here’s the future.’” Stumblingbear, however, offered green infrastructure, a system that aligns with the natural water cycle, as a viable implementation in Lawrence.
Candidates’ responses to a questionnaire about issues important to the real estate industry and private property rights are also posted on LBOR’s website at lawrencerealtor.com/voter-guide.
The general election is coming up Tuesday, Nov. 7.
Meet the candidates and find out how to register to vote, double-check your registration and/or request a mail ballot on our election page, lawrencekstimes.com/election2023. The deadline to register to vote or update your registration is Tuesday, Oct. 17; advance voting begins the following day.
Keep up with more candidate forums:
Note: Post updated at 10:42 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 20 to add recording