As Near Northside booms, group pushes affordable housing

Houston Chronicle, August 31, 2015                                 

As property values skyrocket in the traditionally working-class Near Northside, a community development group is moving forward with projects that seek to ensure the neighborhood keeps residents in a range of income brackets.

Avenue CDC has spent years building affordable homes on land it owns in the area and offering subsidies to make sure lower-income people are not displaced by gentrification. The latest to secure financing is a planned 48-unit apartment complex called Avenue Terraces at 4300 Irvington, set to open in mid-2016. The construction financing is being provided by Capital One and tax credit equity financing by National Equity Fund.

The complex is being built next to another Avenue CDC project, the 148-unit Avenue Terrace apartment community that was completed in 2011. Avenue Station, a 68-unit apartment building on North Main, is scheduled to open in January.

For those interested in buying single-family homes, Avenue Place offers houses that are priced below most of what is available 3 miles from downtown. They range from 1,400 to 2,000 square feet and sell for $161,000 to $254,000. Buyers earning less than 80 percent of the city's median household income (currently, $45,000) can get subsidies of up to $86,000. Those earning less than 120 percent of median income can get $26,000 subsidies.

Avenue Place has completed 49 of 95 planned houses.

All of the properties have long waiting lists, said Mary Lawler, Avenue CDC's executive director. The single-family homes and one-, two- and three-bedroom apartment units are set aside for specific income levels. For example, some are reserved for families of four earning no more than $20,000. Others are available to families earning up to $48,000.

"What we are seeing is definitely a lot of interest in the neighborhood by prospective investors and developers," Lawler said of the Near Northside. "The property values in the area have changed pretty dramatically over a fairly short period of time. ... People are concerned about their continued ability to stay in the neighborhood."

City data show that more than half of Houston's families do not earn enough to own houses in today's market; the homeownership rate has sunk to 47 percent; and many neighborhoods with access to public transportation are beginning to see major increases in property values, pushing middle- to low-income families out of their homes.

In the Near Northside, 17 percent of homeowners are considered low-income and 46 percent are considered moderate income.                    

Once part of the Fifth Ward, the Near Northside initially drew people of Italian and German descent during the era when most of the homes there were built, between 1900 and 1940. For seven decades now, the population has been predominantly Hispanic. While surrounding areas such as the First Ward, Woodland Heights and East Downtown have boomed, the Near Northside has been relatively slow to develop.

A retail study commissioned by Avenue CDC identified several barriers to the area attracting more retail. The deterrents include blight, homelessness and even the design of the light-rail line, with its lack of left-turn options along Main Street.

A research paper from a Rice University doctoral candidate Elizabeth Korver-Glenn,  who is affiliated with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, studied the neighborhood and the effects of redevelopment on the existing residents. The study concluded in part that a common concern was "rising property values and taxes" among residents.

The paper concludes, in part, "Any increases in property values may be swiftly reflected in rent increases, ensuring that renters bear the short-term tax burden or forcing them to move to other, more affordable housing elsewhere."

Ashley and Jason Phelps moved into their four-bedroom home, gray with a light-green door, this summer with their three young children. They grew out of their little bungalow in Sunset Heights once their youngest son was born. They wanted to stay inside the 610 Loop but had trouble finding a place within their budget.

The Avenue Place house cost just more than $250,000.

"They've created this community where everyone is together," Ashley Phelps said. "We are able to have children and a family and still live in a cool, dynamic place."

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