Lawrence made headlines recently for a proposal being considered by the city’s Affordable Housing Advisory Board. Voters in Lawrence last year approved a 1/20th of a penny of city sales tax for a 10 year period to put toward affordable housing in the city. The tax is expected to garner $1,000,000 dollars a year until 2029. The proposal currently under review would change the city code to allow for two small homes to be built on a single zoned lot.

Tom Boyle, the President of the North Lawrence Improvement Association, says the reason Lawrence is struggling to find and fund affordable housing is because of websites like Air BnB. North Lawrence has long had a reputation for affordable prices and it is near downtown. As a result, homes are getting snapped up as Air BnB rentals, which has impacted the availability of affordable housing to buy or rent long term across the city.

Boyle notes buyers from around region, “have bought up affordable housing in low-income neighborhoods because the property is cheaper. They buy the property, then they rehab it, turn it into an Air BnB. It takes away from the housing stock that the city would normally purchase to turn into affordable housing for sales or affordable rental property.”

The Vice Mayor of Lawrence, Jennifer Ananda says that the rental issues involving Air BnB are something residents want the City Commission to examine.

“That was one of the things that were kind of requested to look at are some of the unintended consequences or unintentionally overlooked issues involving Airbnb,” says Ananda.

Airbnb has not impacted just Lawrence, but nationwide larger cities have grappled with the loss of affordable housing to hospitality sites like Airbnb. Neighborhoods lose the benefit of resident homeowners and also lose property available for longer-term renters. A study by McGill University looked at Airbnb’s impact on available housing in New York City. The study founded that between 7,000 to 13,500 units were taken out of the long term rental market due to Airbnb.

“We told the city commission if we wanted to live next to a motel, we would have bought our property next to a motel,” says Boyle.

Home sharing, as Airbnb does, has gained allies in homeowners and consumers. In 2018 the Goldwater Institute filed suit against three different cities looking to maintain the property rights of homeowners and advocate for consumer choice. The sharing economy has come under attack for a number of reasons, affordable housing supply being one of them. Homeowners in cities like Miami and Seattle are understandably unhappy with the prohibitions against home-sharing. In Miami Beach, a homeowner can face a $100,000 per violation fine for home-sharing. Home sharing in places like Lawrence is in high demand due to Kansas University being there, making the forecast of affordable housing a grim one.

Ananda says the commission is open to examining special use permits and tax allocation as they relate to Airbnb, but notes that any potential regulation will not fix affordable housing issues in the city.

“By virtue of existing, having rental property available does not make it affordable,” says Ananda.

The alternative proposal for affordable housing includes an option for adding an additional home to an existing property or building two new homes. However, the proposal does not outline what an affordable price tag looks like, and whether both properties on a lot would be affordable, or if even both would be eligible to rent. Yet, Boyle’s concern is that in areas like North Lawrence that are prone to flooding, nestled up against the Kansas River as it is, will not take building density into consideration when planning for affordable housing.

“The higher density is like throwing rocks in a pond. You throw enough rocks in there and you know the water will come up until it breaches the dam,” says Boyle.

However, Ananda notes there is still a lot to consider involving affordable housing before decisions are made.

“There is no one size fits all solution for affordable housing. It does have to be kind of ‘both/and,” says Ananda.

This is part one of a two part story on affordable housing in Kansas. The next installment focuses on regulations that stand in the way that lead to higher construction costs. 

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