Quality of life and property values are
Race is an idea, not a fact, argues historian Nell Irvin Painter, who notes that neither biology nor genetics can offer a shred of evidence to support a concept of racial difference.
On the other hand, soft sciences like education, economics, and sociology often uncover strong correlations in racial disparities in outcomes in the lives of people, but under close examination, causal factors are found to be economic, social or cultural, not racial.
Why are African-American kids more likely to be disciplined at school and black men more likely to be incarcerated? Theories abound. Some are well-informed, others are not, but the truth is we really do not know. As one meta-study (page 312) notes, the topic of race is so emotionally charged and politically contentious that academics shy away from studying and writing about it for fear of being misunderstood, or of having the body of one’s work clouded by the charge of racism.
There’s the rub.
While it seems to safe to say that racism in America in the second decade of the 21st century is no longer systematic, clearly it exists in many forms, overt and covert, conscious and subconscious. We can suspect it, we can see it, and we can define it, but how do we address it? The subject is divisive, repugnant to some, unfair to many, and hurling it into a discussion only serves to embolden the angry, intimidate the fair, and cloud the real issues for all.
That, one fears, is exactly where a discussion of two proposed workforce housing complexes in Texarkana the stands. That strong and vocal disapproval immediately emerged from the upscale neighborhoods near the two sites should come as no surprise to members of the Texarkana City Council, nor to city staff.
Google Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) and nearly every scholarly article begins with a description of strident local opposition, especially when the proposal involves building rent-subsidized, multifamily apartments anywhere but in a high-poverty neighborhood.
“Opposition to multifamily rental housing is expressed in many ways. Most fundamental, perhaps, are attitudes,” explains a paper from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. “Whether founded in facts, the expression of an underlying bias, or the mechanism for pursuing perceived self-interest, such attitudes are inevitably where opposition begins.”
Finesse out the potential of underlying bias, which can be neither refuted nor overcome, and what remains is the need for a robust discussion of facts and justifiable self-interest questions such as property values and quality of life.
When Council Member Mary Hart called out opponents for perceived racism, she may have doomed Monday night’s public hearing to nothing more than an angry exchange of opinions.
That would be a shame because the need for affordable housing for the working poor in Texarkana borders on colossal. According to the city’s own surveys, 2,735 renters and 1,320 homeowners spend more than 1/3 of their income on housing costs. That includes 2/3 of elderly renters and 1/5 of elderly homeowners, a total of 1,160 households where the need for prescription drugs or the price of having a telephone must be weighed against paying utilities and the rent or mortgage.
Real questions abound
Biased or not, opponents have several legitimate questions that deserve answers. Among them:
- Why here? Why are both projects proposed for the Pleasant Grove School District, and not in distressed neighborhoods, which Renew Texarkana, the city’s national-award-winning comprehensive plan, identifies as urgently needing revitalization (see pages 148 and 271)?
- Will these apartments lower the value of nearby single-family homes?
- Will the tenants of these people be more likely to engage in crime and anti-social behavior?
- What will be the ratio of increased property taxes vs. increased demand for services from the city and the school district?
- Will these complexes create traffic congestion and parking problems?
Reasonable answers exist. Less pressing, but still salient questions surround the handling of this piece of city business. The Harvard study, for example, recommends developers and local government work hand-in-glove to educate and involve the community over a lengthy period, like months, not a week.
Instead, these proposals seem to have sprung up quickly and documents prepared for the council’s information packet indicate they received minimal staff analysis. Both proposals, for example, indicate the city’s fiscal liability at nothing more than perhaps waiving a $500 water and sewer hook-up fee.
Clearly, however, the Summerhill Road site will hasten the need to widen Summerhill to Clear Creek and to install some sort of traffic control at that intersection. The project at Cowhorn will border on a high-use walk/bike trail. Since the master plan (p. 117, et. al) sees a network of these trails as a high priority, the city might consider installing lights and closed-circuit TV to give users a sense of security.
One of the biggest sources of opposition to these complexes stems from fundamental misunderstandings of where they fit on the continuum of housing assistance (mea culpa).
Listening to the discussion, one hears a conflation of terms that suggest all government supported housing is the same. “The projects,” “Section 8,” and “rent-subsidy” each belong to a separate layer of contemporary American public housing, which itself is amidst a dramatic transition.
“Public housing as you know it is going away,” said Darren Smith, head of development in the Southwest for MVAH Partners, the Cincinnati-based company proposing to build the workforce housing apartment complexes.
At the risk of oversimplification here are the three tools the federal government uses to provide housing for the needy.
The projects: The government stopped building these in 1968, the same year Congress began the process of turning over the development of low-income living to the private sector by way of tax credits. Primary funding for these projects are Community Development Block Grant Funds, targeted to benefit low- to moderate-income neighborhoods.
Section 8: This is a demand-side tool which gives a family, whose income is below 30 percent of an area’s mean income (AMI in the parlance), a voucher to use for rent. Some research associates Section 8 housing with increased crime. The idea was to help people move out of high-poverty, high-crime neighborhoods and to get the government out of the business of building and maintaining “Projects” by allowing landlords to receive competitive rents. A consensus seems to have emerged that the net effect was to relocate the criminals to nicer neighborhoods. Political support for the program is waning.
LIHTC: This is an IRS program, not HUD. Pass-through funding and oversight are provided by the Texas Department of Community Affairs. Developers receive tax credits, which they then sell to banks, to finance building apartments. The developer must also borrow money to complete the financing.
Unlike Section 8, tenants can earn up to 80 percent of the AMI, though the average for the complex must be no higher than 60 percent. Tenants must pass screening requirements. Although landlords can accept Section 8 vouchers, rents are higher and voucher holders must pay the difference.
Here is a tool from TDHCA for estimating program eligibility. To use it, download it, open it tand select Bowie County and nine percent. Note The current AMI for Texarkana is $52,200. A single person, or retiree, would be eligible if his or her income is less than $32,720. That increases by roughly $5,000 for each additional person in the household. At 80 percent of AMI, rents start at $818. At 60 percent, rents start at $613 and increase to $911 for a three-bedroom apartment.
“This is not a free place to live. It is for the working class who are overburdened with housing costs,” said MVHA’s Smith. “You have to have a job to pay your rent, so we can pay our mortgage.”