Can you afford to live here?

Texas Monthly, November 2015                                                 

. . . Reunited with my bike, I pedaled over to a new development called Avenue Place, where the nonprofit Avenue Community Development Corporation is in the process of building a close-in affordable housing option. Despite the fact that it is only minutes from downtown and near several interstates, this neighborhood of what is now 49 (and will eventually be 95) new homes is so quiet that you can hear a rooster crowing from an adjacent older section of Near Northside. Inside Avenue Place, a pedestrian trail snakes through the development of meandering streets centered on a playground, and a community garden is slated to go in on one of the grassy verges. With the contemporary design (courtesy of Austin’s Northfield Design Associates) and the color palette of the one- and two-story homes—exteriors range from royal blue to peach to yellow to lime-green—you feel more like you are in some tech-worker-heavy neighborhood in Austin than a Houston barrio.

These homes—ranging from 1,330 square feet to just over 2,000—start at around $200,000 and go up to $250,000. Income-eligible buyers can qualify for subsidies of $86,000 (if the buyer earns 80 percent or less of the local median income) or $26,000 (120 percent or less). To discourage predatory investors, buyers who sell within the first ten years of ownership must share any profits with the development corporation.

Seated in the living room of the development’s model home, the only one on the ground that has yet to sell, Avenue CDC executive director Mary Lawler tells me of the origins of this project and Avenue CDC, which traces its birth back to the mostly successful fight to save Old Sixth Ward, a 150-year-old historic district just west of downtown. Today Old Sixth Ward offers the greatest concentration of Victorian architecture in the region outside Galveston, and with its gracious old homes and brick streets, it’s one of the only Houston neighborhoods where you can get a sense of what the city was like before cars, freeways, and air-conditioning atomized our way of life. It also retains a mix of income levels, and that combination of affordability and preservation has been Avenue CDC’s driving force ever since.

“We were really born out of a fear of gentrification,” she says. “The people in the Sixth Ward could see downtown looming over them, and they wanted to protect their little historic neighborhood. Not just the historic architecture, but also the economic diversity.”

When the Washington Avenue corridor boomed in the aughts, when it shed its past as a long string of used-car lots and funky music dives and became a long string of upscale apartments and velvet-rope dance clubs, Avenue CDC was there to salvage a few adjacent pockets for moderate- and low-income residents, and now it is taking the fight to Near Northside.

In a major coup, Avenue CDC was able to wrangle a deal for the twenty-acre Avenue Place property during the recession in 2008 from prior owner FedEx. In 2011 it built a 144-unit affordable apartment complex along one side of the property and watched it fill up immediately. Then the group went to work on Avenue Place, putting in homes, apartments, streets, utilities, and other amenities, to the tune of $44 million, some of it funded by the Houston Endowment. The houses sold as soon as their last shingles were nailed into place. “We just can’t build them fast enough,” Lawler says.

She hopes this neighborhood and others like it—her group is also active in the First and Sixth wards and the sprawling Northline barrio, just across Loop 610—will enable longtime residents to remain where they have lived and worked all their lives. . . . 

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