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Raj Mankad: Nine Ways to Make Houston Affordable (Again)

Article and photography by Raj Mankad; originally published at (12/19/14)

A feeling of malaise, even panic, has permeated a swath of Houstonians even as we receive national attention for job growth. We have lost Houston’s greatest attribute – affordability. Erin Mulvaney reported for the Houston Chronicle on the spike in housing costs and quoted a couple moving to Portland, Oregon, for the lower rents! A recent article by Anis Shivani, who was evicted from a complex to be partially demolished for a new luxury development, claims Houston’s oligarchs have destroyed the city and the planning commission has sold out to developers. Though some of Shivani’s claims are overstated and have been questioned, his anger and dismay speak to Houston’s affordable housing problem.

Shivani appeared on Houston Matters with Kinder Institute for Urban Research Director Bill Fulton, who distinguished between changing demographics and new development. Fulton argues that “you cannot freeze-dry a neighborhood.” Preservation ordinances might protect the built form, but the underlying economics of the “great inversion” will still lead to wealthy people displacing those with fewer resources.

I am no expert on affordable housing, but as Editor of Cite I am exposed to all kinds of ideas, and I collect a few relevant ones in this blog post. The ideas don’t form a comprehensive analysis or a cohesive strategy. Rather, I’m trying to get across the breadth of possibilities for those with low to moderate incomes given the political climate of Houston. There are as many ways to approach affordable housing as there are keys on a piano, but we seem to be stuck in a one- or two-note song. Here are nine ways to polyphony:

1) Incentivize Developers of Expensive Housing To Build Where We Want Them

Our mayor, Annise Parker, campaigned for zoning during the unsuccessful 1993 referendum. Why hasn’t she made zoning a priority as mayor? When she spoke at the Rice School of Architecture this year, she said that the zoning train had left the station long ago. It’s too late, she says. Her plan to create a general plan for Houston is likely about refining and daylighting “the Houston way” – the complex mix of infrastructure planning, deed restrictions, minimum lot sizes, parking requirements, and other tools. Without strong controls like zoning or form-based codes, our government has few opportunities to extract deals for affordable housing out of developers.

But we can incentivize development where we want it. The Downtown Living Initiative does just that. Developers are given up to $15,000 in tax rebates per unit for homes and multifamily projects within the Downtown District. The cap, doubled from 2,500 to 5,000, has nearly been reached. Subsidizing developers building units most Houstonians cannot afford might seem perverse, the opposite of what we want, but locating our growing population Downtown, which has the infrastructure to handle highrises, is a win for neighborhoods that want to preserve their scale. I’d rather see a highrise go up on a surface parking lot adjacent to light rail than on top of a 1970s garden apartment.

The goal of building a thriving residential sector Downtown was the subject of jokes, derision, and doubt up until this year. (I know because I edited this doubtful article in 2011.) The success of the Downtown Living Initiative speaks to the power that incentives can have and the possibility that other outlandish ideas can work.

2) Strengthen Incentives To Revitalize 1970s Garden Apartments

In her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs argued that mixed retail and residential uses, a varied building stock, and a compact grid make for vibrant urban life. She focused on areas slated for “urban renewal,” neighborhoods classified as slums. Those same places are now so coveted only the rich can live there. The sidewalk ballet of butchers and bakers on the Lower East Side of Manhattan is for multimillionaires. Jacobs’ own townhouse was on the market in 2009 for $3.5 million. Hardly a model for affordable housing. (The rent controls that Shivani calls for have not created an affordable city in New York except for a lucky few.)

The contributors to Reconsidering Jane Jacobs (American Planning Association, 2009), edited by Max Page and Timothy Mennel, argue that we can’t reduce Jacobs’ insights to a “mixed-use” formula. The deeper message is to use our own powers of observation to witness where urban life thrives, even when it runs counter to our received wisdoms, and to be bold about using those observations to make better cities.

Susan Rogers, the founder of the Community Design Resource Center at the University of Houston, has taken up that reconsidered Jacobsian call to action. She points to two aging apartment complexes, St. Cloud and Thai Xuan Village, as illustrations of “how grounded and organic change can transform decline into opportunity.” These apartments are on superblocks wrapped by parking lots outside Loop 610 – the antithesis of the Lower East Side – but they embody “eyes on the sidewalk” security, vitality, and resilience. Through a mix of entrepreneurial spirits and government subsidies, owners and residents have maintained these multifamily buildings as affordable housing for tightly knit communities. Read the details in Rogers’ full article. What if, as a city, we were to treat St. Cloud and Thai Xuan Village as models instead of exceptions? What if we sustained the same political will that turned around Downtown for a ground-up revitalization of our existing stock of multifamily housing?

3) Increase Supply by Reducing the Cost of Parking

During the Walk Houston civic forum, organized by the Rice Design Alliance (publisher of this blog), Christof Spieler noted that, in the past, Houston has created affordable housing through supply. In other words, the market rate for apartments has long been near or below targets set for affordability. That economic dynamic is out of sync now. Houston is setting records for housing construction starts, which might give one hope for a return to affordability. The 1970s garden apartments are being demolished and replaced with what Swamplot commenters call the “Texas donut.” The units in the new buildings are double the rent of apartments in the same neighborhoods a few years ago, $2,500 for two bedrooms instead of $1,250.

The new buildings are referred to as donuts because the apartments are built with wood frames that wrap around concrete parking garages. The structures built for housing cars look far more sturdy than the dwellings for human beings. My educated guess, based on conversations with architects, is that the parking garages account for one-fourth to one-third of the total building costs. In most cases outside Downtown, those parking spots are required by law.

Houston is a car-dependent city, but we can imagine a 20- to 40-year transition to some other way of getting around. As Bill Fulton, SWA Group President Kinder Baumgardner, and Energy Corridor District General Manager Clark Martinson have argued, a combination of car rentals, car sharing, and public transportation is creating a cheaper and more efficient way of life than owning your own car – even in Houston. Autonomous and electric cars will only speed up this transition that would likely reduce the number of parking spots we need. If we phase out current parking regulations, we can create more affordable housing by reducing the cost to developers. A Texas donut with a giant courtyard in the middle, instead of a multistory parking garage, would be easier to build and more pleasant to live in. Maybe our existing garages could be converted into housing like this one in Atlanta.

4) Share Resources Through Small-Scale Cooperative Housing

Austin has exported more than Torchy’s Tacos to Houston. About four years ago, University of Texas graduates who had experience in the thriving cooperative housing scene there started Project Haus in Houston. Miah Arnold writes in a 2011 article for Cite: “At Project Haus, $500 per month gets you a good-size room, shared use of the rest of the house, utilities, meals four days a week, and neighborliness. You have to chip in with house chores but you do so based on your curiosities or talents. With a deal like this, it’s easy to imagine a blossoming of co-op variations making a big difference in the way many people live in Houston. Some might pay more for co-ops in fancy school zones or walkable neighborhoods. Still other co-ops might be created to serve workers who now spend hours driving and busing.”

5) Develop Large-Scale Cooperatives with Single-Family Units

During the 2013 conference of the Association of Architecture Organizations, I had the opportunity to tour Villa Victoria, an astounding island of affordability amid Boston’s million-dollar brownstones. Built in the late 1970s after a decade of struggle by a predominantly Puerto Rican community, the 435-unit community is thriving. The individual houses are not architectural gems nor are they old enough to have acquired a historic patina, but, as a whole, the development shapes a gradation of public, semi-public, and private spaces. Residents and visitors park cars along the periphery away from where children play and neighbors congregate. The cooperative’s governing entity, Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, also manages childcare, a computer lab, and business incubators. It’s true this happened in Boston, which can seem as distant from us politically as Paris, and that it came into being during the late 1960s and ’70s at a time of great idealism. Nonetheless, Villa Victoria works. It exists. It is thriving, affordable, dynamic. Let no one say that gentrification is inevitable. Let no one say there are no alternatives. Watch the above documentary about the history of Villa Victoria, if not for the inspiration, then for the incredible bell-bottom pants of the heroes.

6) Create Limited Equity Cooperatives

The funny thing about Karl Marx is that he loved capitalism, and he described its relationship with tradition and culture better than just about anyone else. Though there are a few problems with his theory that capitalism is a step on the way to a utopic communist future, his observations about how capitalism works are still helpful.

Marx argued that the capitalist economy is an endless cycle of crises that open opportunities for change. Here in Houston, Montrose counterculture blossomed in the conditions created by the volatility of Houston upswings and downturns. Suburban growth, white flight, oil busts, and expired deed restrictions were accompanied by the emergence of gay bars, artist enclaves, underground rags, and innovative architecture. Marx also loved to point out that capitalism shredded traditional values. The greater openness to difference in terms of race, class, gender, and sexual identity in Montrose helped Houston move capital even more efficiently. I know young street activists today who don’t realize their suited, business-friendly mayor was once like them. The radical politics of yesteryear are good for big business today (like the HERO ordinance).

Houston does better than many of its neighboring cities because we don’t let traditions like segregation and heteronormativity get in the way of business. However, one tradition that we subsidize and prop up at huge expense, locally and nationally, is the single-family dwelling and the thirty-year mortgage. It works for a big segment of the population but not everybody, especially those who were roped into the risky loans that helped bring about the 2008 financial collapse.

Last year, I had the opportunity to sit down with architect and MacArthur “Genius” grant awardee Jeanne Gang before she gave the Sally Walsh lecture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. I spoke to her about a housing solution that takes the fluidity of capitalism as a core, organizing principle. Here’s an excerpt from my interview with her about her proposal for the 2011 “Foreclosed” exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in which her team adapts an old industrial site in Cicero, an inner-ring suburb of Chicago, into a new model for affordable housing.

RM: One of the things that really attracted me to your proposal was the model for the ownership and financing, the limited equity cooperative.

JG: We were trying to understand these different financial models and because it seemed that ownership was one of the key things that had to be rethought, given the fact that people’s jobs change and in order to keep a job, you have to move to multiple locations … [One model] is called the limited equity cooperative (LEC) and essentially it has been tried on some existing buildings but we’re saying let’s bring this thing out in daylight, look at it, and try to see where it takes us. Typically you have a mortgage that’s tied to a piece of land and a house on that piece of land. The LEC takes the land and de-couples it from the dwelling. So the land is held by a trust with the board and then people can have this equity, which is just the house itself or the unit. And so they own that but they don’t own the land. The beauty of it is it makes it possible for people to have more affordable housing and also takes that whole gambling aspect out of it. People are buying housing to try to see if the price would go way up. They would flip it and it just became this huge thing that had a lot of speculative involvement. The idea with an LEC is that you would still be able to make profit on any improvements or on sweat equity things that you did to your own home, and you would have a ready buyer in the trust. If you had to move for your job, the trust would acquire your property so you have the safety net but it doesn’t keep you from moving to a place you had to go for your new job or to get work.

7) Increase Funding to Community Development Corporations (CDCs) That Are Building Transit-Oriented Developments (TODs)

The affordable housing crisis in Houston is masked by hidden transportation costs. As Jay Crossley at Houston Tomorrow points out, when you map housing costs for Houston, it looks far more affordable than cities our size, but when you couple housing costs with transportation costs, the situation is alarming.

New transit-oriented developments (TODs) built by Avenue CDC and Row House CDC are great models that tie into our expanding light rail network. Fulton Gardens has 42 units for seniors along the recently opened North Line. From the outside, I can see that there are generous common spaces, balconies, and well-lit spaces. With support of the Midtown Redevelopment Authority, Row House CDC built new iterations of the six square house, designed by Rice Building Workshop directors Danny Samuels and Nonya Grenader, on Anita Street within an easy walk of the light rail line soon to open on Scott Street.

Houston CDCs already understand the upside of TODs. I am not sure what it would take to scale up these efforts further so they make a real dent in our affordable housing shortage. I don’t understand the world of Section 8 housing. The money will come if we have the political will to make these strategies a priority. Maybe the recently announced Village at Palm Center, also near a coming light rail line, is another model for providing affordable options to people who want to stay in neighborhoods that are rapidly changing in scale and cost.

8) Revisit Modern Highrise Projects and SROs

Architectural historian Charles Jencks called the destruction of the Pruitt–Igoe housing project in St. Louis “the day Modern architecture died.” Though subsequent research and the Pruit-Igoe documentary have revealed cronic underfunding and poor maintainance as causes, architecture was blamed. High-profile failures were taken as proof that big Modernist, top-down solutions could not work, which dovetailed with the critiques of Jane Jacobs and many others. Since then, affordable housing has generally been dispersed through voucher programs, agreements with developers who integrate affordable units with more expensive ones, and subsidized home ownership.

All across the country, including here in Houston, architects are regaining their role in affordable housing. In New York City, the highrise affordable housing project appears to be coming back in an updated form. The Via Verde development won the 2013 Rudy Bruner Siver Medal for Urban Excellence and a glowing review from Michael Kimmelman at the New York Times. Here’s the description from the Bruner Foundation:

The final design by Dattner Architects and Grimshaw Architects includes 222 units of affordable housing (151 rental units and 71 coop units), and 7,500 square feet of ground level commercial retail and community space. Housing is divided into three linked structures that rise from two to twenty stories and wrap around a central, landscaped courtyard. An entrance on one side provides a secure point of access to the complex and gated courtyard. The complex features 40,000 square feet of green roof space designed by Lee Weintraub Landscape Architects. A series of interconnected rooftop terraces step up from the courtyard and include a grove of evergreen trees, an apple orchard, and vegetable gardens. A residentled gardening group managed by GrowNYC meets monthly and offers classes on healthy cooking using produce grown in the garden.

Here in Houston, New Hope Housing has put architecture at the forefront of their efforts to create new single room occupancy (SRO) buildings that serve people on limited incomes, many of whom are at risk of homelessness. The Canal Street Apartments (2005), designed by Val Glitsch, have 133 apartments organized around a beautiful courtyard. The quality of the design is good for the residents and helps win over neighborhoods that might otherwise oppose such facilities. I toured a different New Hope Housing property and the unit I saw had hard, bare-bone finishes, just this side of harsh, but you could see that the design as a whole helped the residents live with dignity. Residents share a kitchen, which kicked in reduced parking requirements hidden in city ordinances, thereby lowering costs and increasing communal spaces like gardens and patios. (See point 3 above.)

9) Go Bust

Oil prices are half of what they were a few months ago. Maybe this is the inevitable “solution.” Houston is fundamentally about real estate speculation. (Heard of the Allen family?) Get used to the constant upheaval. Housing prices have jumped, and they may fall. Accept the displacement of whole communities because if you wait until the collapse you might get to live in one of those new luxury places yourself. “We can be creative in the leftovers,” writes Carrie Schneider. Make the most of the maelstrom.

Well, we do have options to at least create buffers. A big keyboard worth of notes to play. Some options may seem too hippie, too hipster, too college town, too socialist for our so-called oligarchy. Maybe so. But the upheaval in Houston is so dramatic, it’s high time we act on the best options.

Article and photography by Raj Mankad; originally published at (12/19/14).


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