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Reflections on Housing Reimagined | Part 01

A recap of our conversations at City Talk: Housing Reimagined with some additional research added to support the points discussed. 

A broad audience from multiple disciplines participated in our thought panel.

The sun dips into the horizon on a warm Tuesday evening. Sweat rolling down the cheek, I prepare for our talk on housing and development. What to expect and who will show up, always tempting questions to get overwhelmed about. As participants arrive, we spend a few minutes to mingle and get to know each other before diving into the conversation. All together 16 folks, ranging in age, and coming from wide swath of professions including architecture, engineering, politics, interior design, literacy programs, philanthropy, and homeless coalitions. The topic of discussion for this City Talk, Housing Reimagined. Affordable housing is a critical debate, and as expected, the answers for resolving affordability, availability, and equity differ just as much as the folks attending. A brief snapshot of the history of zoning, development, real estate kicks, and the issue of college homelessness kicks off the conversation. 

After kicking the topic around a bit, we land on zoning and government. What role should the city play in the development of affordable housing? In Fort Worth there can be a plethora of municipal hurdles to overcome. The city through impact fees and planning hurdles can intensify cost for the development process. Factor in the distinct personalities of each council members and their preferences, development can be a subtle game of roulette, with the outcome determined on chance. On other side, there are cost for the city to extend and operate additional infrastructure, which nationally is severely underfunded. And infrastructure doesn’t just stop at utilities, new neighborhoods require additional resources from local fire, police, garbage collection, city council, and the city's planning department to make sure everything is theory is equally and equitably represented. So, where do we draw the line?

When looking at current vessels being used Tax Incremental Financing and Neighborhood Empowerment Zones come to the forefront. Using NEZs the city can waive certain fees for distressed communities and offer 100% Tax Abatements on the property taxes for 5 years on certain projects. Currently there are 6 Neighborhood Empowerment Zones in Fort Worth. For housing the city mandates that 10% of the property be allocated to accommodate affordable housing as defined by HUD to accommodate families and individuals at 80% of Area Median Income (AMI) and another 10% be allocated for families at 60% of AMI. At $57,309, the latest AMI per the census, that puts affordable housing at $1146.18 per month for 80% of AMI ($45,846.40 per year) and $859.64 for 60% AMI ($34,385.40 per year). When you factor the minimum wage at $7.25 in Texas, a family would need to work 118 hours at 60% to cover just rent and 158 hours at 80%. When you consider this does not even include groceries, transportation, and other living expenses, the picture starts to become pretty grim. On top of this, per the NEZ, affordable housing is an optional feature. A developer can opt to pay a $200 fee per unit that would have been designated per year. With a 200-unit multi-family complex this would only generate $8,000 per year. Coupled with the tax abatements, where do we get funding to pay for affordable housing? 

TIF funding is available in Fort Worth in multiple districts, all of which are set to raise asset values. TIF District 4 which includes the location we are hosting the event in aimed to see a total tax value of $631,130,464 by 2022 when the TIF funding expires. With the language in the Near Southside TIF recognizing neighborhoods as assets in the conclusion, the emphasis on land value cannot be understated. When we look at the resulting development one can approach with a mix of satisfaction and discontent. Magnolia Avenue and The Near Southside has become perhaps the most hopping district in Fort Worth, filled with a plethora of boutique shops, great restaurants, and a creative art community. Yet, it seems history is repeating itself. Similar to when families left the area after desegregation was implemented to enroll their children into private schools and the construction of the convention center displaced Hell’s Half Acre to Magnolia Avenue, a reverse flight is beginning to take place, as property values begin to rise.  Considering the Near Southside did not receive its initial funding to start until the neighborhood deteriorated to a point that the hospitals where on the verge of leaving, is value the only thing worth paying attention too? What would it take to bring some serious attention to housing? Value seems to be the key to the success with the TIF, and part of it makes sense if you factor the cities need to recoup the dollars allocated. However, is this a good metric of success for the locals? Can we ensure peace of mind and well-being when the cost of entry is so high? We fall back on the argument of supply and demand, but when you consider this is a man-made idea, what is keeping us from changing this? With a seeming aggressive gambit to attractive development by rezoning communities and demolishing old properties, it feels we are missing the bigger picture.

Some suggestions shared are to develop a new municipal policy to waive certain steps and fee’s for homes dedicated to addressing affordability, a play on the NEZ but with universal coverage across the city and no opting out option.  The idea is you would get a streamlined development experienced, eliminating some of the painstaking steps in the process. Yet, neighborhoods can protest the development of affordable housing projects, siting a memorable term NIMBY, NIMBY. The question becomes how we make this a story that the public will embrace and support. College homelessness is a unique niche we stumbled upon, and one of the few forms of homelessness people have an open ear for. Could we use art and writing to shine a creative marketing light on the issue? The idea of documenting the stories of those effected could warrant some consideration. My mind dabbles on this and what an art show could look like. How do we come to understand this condition more utilizing some interactive piece? Could we put neighborhoods in a position to be champions for this issue? 

We agree that land is not really an issue to date. Fort Worth currently has 210 available properties, and collectively between all the Tarrant County College (TCC) campuses there are acres of undeveloped land.  This does leave some potential for experimenting with a prototype. It does however go back to personal preference. Will a community or community champion allow an affordable project in their neighborhood? Also, is TCC the best place to invest in affordable housing. I personally worry how the service could be developed so it doesn't end with graduating from TCC. Seeing how TCC students may continue their education at another university, how do we ensure that whatever solution we offer can transfer with the student. However, on the flip side, some recent examples in Chicago with the DAX House, which houses students in renovated campus buildings and a network of host homes, show the promise of such concepts. In San Antonio, a local community college partnered with the private sector to develop Tobin Lofts, a multifamily complex geared for student living which I personally visited. In addition to housing, the idea of workforce partnerships comes to mind. John Peter Smith (JPS), our public hospital system, could be brought on to look at an integrated workforce program tied to a voucher or housing project on a Tarrant County College campus.  An enticing proposal. JPS could allocate funding to train the next generation of healthcare workers and provide housing for its future employee's. The students would qualify for housing as long as they are enrolled in the campus. 

Interior of Tobin Lofts dormitory.

Yet, despite all the great ideas, it still seems very difficult to finance affordability or justify it. In addition, how do we go beyond just a blank box? There are some at the conversation that think bare housing is the answer.  Support the basic needs rather that what is desirable and abandon good design to get the houses as cheap as possible. Not a view that I personally agree with but given that beatification usually comes with a price tag, I can understand to an extent. I wonder though how we might get over this hump? Also given the range of backgrounds that the homeless come from, a small cottage house may not always be the best answer. Another trend that has gained traction in the local area is small houses. Again, not my personal preference, not necessarily because of the size so much, but rather in that this provides an excuse and accepts the pricing of our current houses as the new norm. Granted I am not for building unnecessarily large homes either, but I feel we let these solutions distract us from the root issues and give excuse to the conditions that led us to the issues in the first place. When you considered the median price for a home in 1940 adjusted for inflation was $30,600 and we haven’t changed construction methods that much (if anything the time and effort to build a home has decreased) we can surely do better that a small shack. When we factor in climate change into the equation, we need ensure that the communities we develop are built to last. With cement production being one of the largest carbon emitters in housing supply chain and increasingly difficult to manufacture due to sand shortages, we need to ensure the carbon cost we pay is not squandered on poorly designed homes. Housing needs to be built to last, and design needs to accommodate the flexibility and mobility technology has enabled us to have.

We discuss to some degree the concept of a community land trust as a possible option. Use an autonomous organization to buy up land in a community lease for a small fee with the promise of mitigating displacement due to a sudden spike in land value and property taxes. Enticing especially since these vessels in full function empower community members to have greater control what gets developed in their neighborhood. However, with that comes a potential loss of collecting value from the house from selling it to a prospective buyer. This does generate some interesting debate, yet the big question remains as whether housing should be just an asset or a means to establish roots and a community. The promise of generational wealth has been seen through the lens of housing and rising land value for quite some time, yet given current conditions is this really the reality we live in? If we are bouncing from house to house, chasing the next big sell, how do we go about building a community? Given that selling benefits mainly the individual, there comes a time when the price will eventually be too high for the locals, and when someone will finally have to lose on the deal. Why does this make sense and furthermore, what does generational wealth really mean? How are we defining it and what metrics, policies, and ideas will prove its worth? Is it about having a nice lump of money for the next generation or is it something else entirely? Ultimately, whatever the answer is, our communities need to be designed to provide a sense of belonging, foster self-actualization, and transcend us beyond individuality.

We finish with philanthropy and its role in helping solve the affordability crises.  With scalability as a key priority, many funders are looking for services to be tied into housing such as financial literacy, counseling, or legal aid. The question becomes how do integrate these in a sustainable way, especially when considering that folks can come from a variety of backgrounds. Considering philanthropy will not be able to solve this entirely on its own, what other ways can we fund housing and other crucial services? How do we get over the cost of risk, and is there a way this could be designed so it also helps the business community? With the topic being on homeless college students, what other core services should be considered? 

As we finalize our thoughts on the topic, it becomes apparent that our original plans to do 3 City Talks will need to be revisited. There is so much entailed with the topic, and this forum is merely just the ice breaker. We leave with more questions than answers but now that we know we are up against; we can move with intention to navigate this complex challenge.


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