Construct on Houston’s inexpensive housing successes. Don’t take away the instruments.

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  Build on Houston's affordable housing successes.  Do not take away the tools.

To understand how welcome the new luxury apartment complex is, it rises On the corner of West Dallas and Montrose, remember the fire that consumed the $ 50 million development at that location in 2014.

Seconds before the five-story building went up in flames, a construction worker stuck on the top floor was swinging like Spider-Man went to a lower balcony and then jumped off the railing – into the arms of a waiting firefighter.

A welder’s torch had apparently started the fire, but the dramatic scene, captured on video of the dangling worker and smoking wreck, asked for interpretation as a symbol of Houston’s explosive boom and bust cycle. Houston had been on oil and gas for years while the rest of America sank in the hangover of the 2008 Great Recession. Across Houston, aging garden apartments were quickly falling to give way to luxury towers and mid-height houses.

When oil prices collapsed in June as high-end developments went online, renters looking for a $ 3,000-a-month two-bedroom apartment listing got a result. But what Houston needed then, and still needs, is housing that is affordable for the construction worker and the firefighter who saved him.

In the seven years since then, good news on this matter has been rare. The math for developers and their investors for affordable housing nearby doesn’t work – lower rents can’t offset land and construction costs.

So policy makers and housing officials had to get creative. The 367-unit luxury development that laid the foundation this week at 2400W shows that it works. Although the new building is also five stories high and has chichi amenities like a sky lounge with views of the city center, there is a key difference from what burned down in 2014. The new complex was built in partnership with the Houston Housing Authority through the creation of a Public Finance Corporation. This means that the developer technically leases the property rather than owns it and therefore pays no property tax. In return, the developer must reserve 50 percent of the units for households earning less than $ 63,000s 80 percent of the area median income for a family of four.

“Without creative public-private partnerships – Houston is zoning, land is expensive, construction costs are what it is – it’s difficult to make affordable housing in a more affluent part of the city,” said Philip Morgan, CEO of Morgan Group who has developed projects similar to the West Dallas property. “Without any kind of help, it’s essentially impossible to build.”

The state law that made the West Dallas Deal possible was signed by the governor in 2015. As of 2018, the Houston Housing Authority, in partnership with private developers, has used the tool to build or purchase 16 homes and add 2,705 affordable units.

The program comes at a cost in removing millions of dollars in territorial taxation of real estate that, if otherwise developed, would generate revenue for cities, schools and other institutions. State Senator Paul Bettencourt believes that this is too high a price and on Friday presented a bill that could make such projects almost impossible. Senate Bill 591 would limit the agreements to real estate that would provide more units for those earning far less than $ 63,000, and would give any tax authority affected by the project a veto over it.

“We cannot have entire apartment complexes removed from the tax roles without the approval of the tax authorities concerned,” Bettencourt told the editor, citing an article in the San Antonio Express-News about the explosion of these developments and a study by the University of Texas as demands for reform.

Some additional checks and balances make sense, but Houston’s housing needs are too urgent to veto a long list of tax authorities and effectively kill a program that has created thousands of affordable units.

If Bettencourt is really concerned about improving living space for people well below the 80 percent threshold targeted by the Dallas Project, he has plenty of company. Many housing advocates also want to focus more on finding homes that the poorest can afford.

“Affordable for whom?” asks Zoe Middleton, co-director of Texas Housers in Houston and Southeast Texas. “We’re making progress, but not deep enough.” She says units reserved for families with median incomes of 50 percent or 60 percent are most needed. These would help the grocery store and other retail workers, people we now recognize as heroes and officially recognize as essential.

She is right, of course: Houston needs more affordable housing for all income levels. Fortunately, there has been some good news on this front in recent years. Under Mayor Sylvester Turner, Housing and Community Development has used disaster recovery funds to guarantee units for a wide range of incomes. The city has signed 30 private developer contracts using more than $ 300 million Harvey funding along with low-income residential real estate tax credits to build 3,100 affordable units. Ten of the developments have broken new ground.

In 2016, that editor criticized Turner for speaking out against a plan for affordable housing in the Galleria Area on Fountain View Drive because it seemed to bow to the forces that weren’t in my backyard. In response, he argued that the details of this deal did not pass and he had asked housing managers to build projects “in all areas of the city.” While we still view Fountain View development as a missed opportunity, Turner can point to fresh concrete and rebars in the ground in almost every city council to prove he was committed to his commitment.

“The days of the concentration of affordable homes in certain parts of the city are over,” Tom McCasland, director of the Houston community and housing development department, told the board.

The harsh truth, however, is that these steps are not fast and far enough to really address a deepening crisis.

“We need to make a significant effort quickly,” said Mark Thiele, Interim President and CEO of the Houston Housing Authority. “On site, our waiting list is 72,730 for social housing and 25,571 for vouchers. Nationwide there are only subsidies for 1 in 5 households in need. “

To make further progress, we need all the tools the city can find – help for workers at the lower end of the pay scale as well as for workers whose salaries are in the middle income area of ​​the area. Unless Texan legislation creates better sources of funding or fails to identify a workable form of accountability, we urge leaders at all levels of government to continue to use the bipartisan tools that are already in place. Many Texans are barely attached to it, and now is not the time to pull the ladder away.