Fort Worth ready for leadership on affordable housing

05/10/2014 12:00 AM

05/09/2014 7:10 PM

In case you missed it, North Texas is growing by leaps and bounds.

The latest estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show 30,000 people settled in Tarrant County during the 12-month period that ended July 1, 2013 — the eighth-largest increase in the nation.

Businesses relocating to the area are bringing new jobs and opportunities and making Fort Worth an attractive destination for working families.

But with growth come pains, chief among them is the city’s ability to offer residents across the income strata quality and affordable housing.

This is a particular worry of District 8 Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray, who repeated her concerns about the area’s affordable housing shortage at Tuesday’s meeting of the City Council’s housing and economic development committee.

“As we are looking at these big economic developments that are coming into our city, who is going to work there — that is what we need to be thinking about — and where are they going to live?” asked Gray.

Before running for the council in 2012, Gray was executive director of United Riverside Rebuilding Corp. and a longtime affordable housing advocate.

Her comments came during a discussion about the city’s tax abatement policy for residential developers.

Until last week, the policy provided tax credits to developers who reserved 20 percent of new units for residents living between 60 and 80 percent of the area’s median income.

In Fort Worth, that’s $39,480 to $52,650 a year for a family of four.

The council voted 7-2 Tuesday to provide developers an option to pay $200 per year per apartment during the incentive agreement’s term rather than building affordable, multifamily housing units.

Those developer fees would go to the Fort Worth Housing Finance Corp. trust fund, used to support housing projects, including renovation, rehabilitation and development of affordable units throughout the city.

Gray canceled an interview with the Star-Telegram Editorial Board. Her opposition to the new policy seems to be a protest vote, stemming from her belief that it fails to respond to the immediate housing shortage.

She’s right about that.

The new ordinance is a long-term proposition; it does not address the current 17,000-unit shortfall for families living at 30 percent of the area median income. At the same time, Fort Worth has a surplus of more than 8,000 units for families at 80 percent of median income.

The policy change was a compromise that District 2 Councilman Sal Espino described as a “middle ground,” as it increases the city’s flexibility in addressing housing and makes other noteworthy changes long overdue.

The new ordinance includes language that explicitly requires 10 percent of units be constructed at 80 percent of area median income and that 10 percent of units be constructed at 60 percent, to receive the abatement. While the equal division of units at those income levels was the city’s practice, the policy was vague and developers could negotiate building more units at the higher income level.

Equally important, the new policy insists that no reduction in the number of the units be allowed if the 20 percent set aside is recommended — another ambiguity in the previous policy that gave developers leeway in the negotiations.

As proof of the necessity of these changes, Jay Chapa, director of the city’s Housing and Economic Development Department, showed that of the 3,832 units constructed by developers utilizing the tax abatement policy over the last nine years, only 367 — fewer than 10 percent — were affordable units. About 300 of the units were at the 80 percent income level and none were at the 30 percent income level.

Chapa also said that if the 11 projects that benefited from the abatement policy since 2005 had used the $200 per unit option, over the terms of the agreements (about 25 years) the city would have raised about $9 million for the trust fund.

The fund, established in 2005, has not received support from the general fund since 2008, and Gray is pushing to change that.

Fort Worth is not the only city to face such growing pains. And raising awareness of the housing shortage is an important step.

But so is presenting alternatives and innovative solutions. No one else on the council can match Gray’s expertise on affordable housing, and none is better-suited to provide needed leadership.

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