The Houston Housing Authority is poised to build its first new affordable apartments in a decade, after City Council on Wednesday cleared the way for the development of a subsidized housing complex in Independence Heights.
The 154-unit development at Crosstimbers and North Main would be located in a high-poverty, predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood, prolonging housing advocates’ concerns about the dearth of affordable options in low-poverty areas with good schools.
Federal housing officials in August launched an investigation into whether the city’s placement of affordable housing violates the Civil Rights Act, after Mayor Sylvester Turner blocked a similar development near the Galleria, a so-called “high-opportunity” neighborhood.
Turner said he views the Independence Heights project at 302 Crosstimbers as a better financial deal than the proposed development at 2640 Fountain View, which he declined to bring to a City Council vote, citing “costs and other concerns.”
“It’s good not only for people who need affordable housing. It’s good for the school district itself,” Turner said, referencing the nearby Booker T. Washington High School scheduled to open in 2018. “There is almost (unanimous) support for it. It is more cost-efficient than what was proposed (at Fountain View).”
The mayor said in August that Fountain View’s per-unit price tag of $240,000 was too expensive.
The Independence Heights development is projected at $226,000 per unit, according to Houston Housing Authority President Tory Gunsolley, and would be reserved for families earning 60 percent or less of the area’s median income, $69,200 for a family of four.
Gunsolley said he is excited about finally being able to move forward with a project after all but two of the eight projects the housing authority proposed in the last three years were blocked.
“We’ve been trying at a number of different properties to get all of the stars to align so that we could go forward,” Gunsolley said. “It’s rewarding to finally – we’re still not there yet – but we’re closer to the finish line in getting all of those approvals.”
A ‘shocking affront’
The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs is set to review the housing authority’s application for tax credits Dec. 15, the final government approval hurdle.
Housing advocate John Henneberger said his group, the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, asked the city to sign off on the Independence Heights project only in conjunction with Fountain View or another development in a similar “high-opportunity” neighborhood.
“Approving a new low-income project in Independence Heights today … while at the same time continuing to refuse to approve a single new subsidized housing unit in a low-poverty, non-segregated neighborhood, is a clear and shocking affront to civil rights and fair housing, as well as a blatant violation of the law,” Henneberger said in an email.
The Independence Heights development would be located in a census tract with a poverty rate of 35 percent, compared with 6.1 percent for the Fountain View site.
Houston has concentrated most of its units in neighborhoods like Independence Heights, with high poverty and a high concentration of minority residents, worrying some that the city’s affordable housing efforts perpetuate segregation.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that policies with a “disparate impact” on minorities violate the Fair Housing Act, even if the effect is unintentional.
Mayor must ‘hold true’
Tiffany Hogue, policy director for the Texas Organizing Project, a grass-roots advocacy group, said it is important to expand affordable options in neighborhoods like Independence Heights that are thought to be on the cusp of gentrification, but indicated that alone is not enough.
“We still expect the mayor to hold true to his commitment to get truly low-income units in high-opportunity areas that are zoned to good schools and along transportation (corridors) and jobs,” Hogue said in an email.
After blocking the Fountain View project in August, Turner asked the housing authority to seek proposals for alternate projects in the same west Houston area, Council District G.
Gunsolley, the housing authority president, said the agency submitted a proposal to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in September for a site in District G, and another proposal to the Texas General Land Office in October for a site in southwest Houston’s District K.
Neither, he said, is a replacement for Fountain View.
“I don’t think that either one by itself would be seen as a one-for-one replacement of Fountain View,” he said. “We are still looking for more options.”
The mayor said the city should not stop expanding subsidized housing options while the search for another “high-opportunity” site is underway.
“We certainly don’t rule out building housing in those areas, and we probably will build housing in those areas,” Turner said. “But that doesn’t mean that we stop all public housing completely until it’s done.”
HUD did not respond to a request for comment on the status of its investigation into Houston’s placement of affordable housing.
In other housing news, City Council signed off on the demolition of the troubled Crestmont Village apartment complex in South Acres and confirmed Tom McCasland as director of the city’s housing department.
This story originally appeared 11/30/2016 in the Houston Chronicle.