Affordable Housing in Downtown

Anyone who’s been Downtown lately has seen the multitude of cranes dotting the landscape. The amount of development going on in Downtown, Uptown, and Victory Park is amazing. These projects bring property tax dollars to our city, and a renewed sense of vitality and growth.

At the same time, I am mindful of the fact that most of the residential projects being built are geared toward the affluent, with one property I know selling its units for about $600 per square foot. While this is tremendous news on many levels, we also need to make sure that we are planning for more affordable housing in our city core, to ensure that folks from all walks of life are welcome in our Downtown. I am convinced that providing a range of housing opportunities for all income levels will not only fill a need among low- to moderate-income residents, but will also help create a healthy Downtown that will endure various economic cycles with resiliency.

That is why I have been so supportive of the affordable housing project proposed by Central Dallas Ministries, a non-profit organization. CDM has proposed a $23M affordable housing project (all of which is subject to property taxes) at the abandoned office building at 511 N. Akard.

Originally, CDM had proposed constructing a total of 209 units, with 100 units being “single-room occupancy” units (“SROs”) set aside as permanent housing for the formerly homeless. Another 100 units would be affordable housing, and the remaining 9 would be market rate. NO homeless services would be provided on-site. The ground floor would be for retail and/or a small cafe, and two floors would be used for CDM offices.

I’m going to digress just a minute, so bear with me. First, what is an SRO? An SRO is an efficiency apartment designed for only one person. Ideally, it has its own kitchen and bathroom (like the 511 N. Akard project), though some do not. SROs have proven very effective at getting people off the street and back into a normal lifestyle.

The use of SROs as an effective tool to combat homelessness was a key point in the City’s 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. Adopted in 2004, the plan set forth policies and practices that the city would need to adopt to address homelessness. Among the primary points was a recommendation to increase SROs in Dallas. (The goal is over 700 such units.) Right now, Dallas has 130 SROs. For comparison, Houston has over 1000.

I should also note at this point that using 511 N. Akard for affordable/homeless housing did not require a zoning change from the city. In fact, the only reason the city had any input at all into this project was because CDM was asking two things from the city: (1) the City’s support for the project to receive financial support from the State of Texas and (2) $1.7M from the Homeless Assistance Center bonds (which provided for some funding for SROs).

Now, back to 511 N. Akard: I met with CDM and neighboring property owners, and corresponded with many others about this project. While many nearby property owners were supportive, some expressed concern that there would be too great a concentration of homeless, which might bring its own share of problems.

In response, CDM reduced the number of units set aside as permanent housing for the homeless from 100 to 50, with 150 affordable housing units, and 9 market rate units. In response to concerns about safety and other issues, we placed a number of conditions on the property in return for the city’s financial support. The conditions allow the city to approve the management company, retailers, and security plan, among other things. A criminal background check will be conducted, and no sex offenders will be allowed to live there.

There are some developers that just don’t want affordable housing in Downtown. I heard one remark that this is too great a concentration of affordable housing, and that the “optimum” mix is 20% affordable versus 80% market. Well, if he’d agree to make 20% of his units affordable housing, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Instead, these developers who decry the evils of affordable housing refuse to provide such housing opportunities, and leave it to non-profits to carry the load. That’s fine, but those developers shouldn’t cry about it when such projects are proposed, particularly when they were quite content to seek and accept public funds for their own projects.

Before fully committing to support the project, I wanted to do a little research on SROs and how they’ve affected the surrounding community in other cities. In particular, I wanted to see how Texas cities dealt with SROs. One of the projects I looked at was New Hope Housing in Houston. I spoke with them at length about their projects in downtown Houston. Importantly, they are in Downtown near upscale lofts, and with an all-girls school nearby.

Laura Hipps from New Hope told me that New Hope experienced the “Not In My Back Yard” syndrome at the beginning, but soon won over its neighbors by (1) working with them in the design phase and (2) proving to be a good neighbor. I also called up the all-girls Catholic school to see if they had had any problems with the New Hope, and at first they didn’t even know what property I was talking about. When I explained, the school representative said “Oh, yeah, I know where you’re talking about. I drive by that every day in on the way to work. They’re a great facility.”

On March 28, the City Council met in special session and approved the city’s support for the project and the use of $1.75M in bond funds. Unless all other funding is in place, we will not be out any money, so there’s no risk. Last week, I spoke in favor of the project at a hearing before the State of Texas. CDM will know by June if the project will receive state support.

Two weeks ago, I visited New Hope to tour two of their Downtown Houston facilities. (See the pictures.) What impressed me most was how clean the properties were, and how there was NO loitering in front of the facilities. (I think that’s because there are no on-site services and entry is restricted.)

I also had the opportunity to meet with Perry, a resident at New Hope. Perry is a Vietnam vet who had had a couple of strokes. He had been living on the streets until he came to New Hope six months ago. Although mostly self-sufficient, Perry needed a little help, structure, and support, along with a roof over his head. Perry gave me a tour of his new home, and it’s great — very homey. Other residents include seniors and others on fixed income. Residents also have a communal library, garden, and TV room.

I was very impressed by New Hope, and appreciated their hospitality. We really need to step up here in Dallas and plan for where we want to put SROs throughout our city so they aren’t all clustered. The homeless aren’t going away, and we need to follow through on the recommendations set forth in our 10-Year Plan.