Dallas Pushes Affordable Housing Incentives

Severe lack of affordable housing in booming North Texas

Dallas leaders are considering incentives to get developers to build affordable housing.

Thousands of new jobs in North Texas for Toyota and other big employers are drawing thousands of new workers to the region. Extremely high demand has sparked a severe housing shortage and drastic price increases, from high end homes to modest apartments.

Mark Winfrey is a veteran who wound up homeless in his hometown of Dallas between 2012 and 2014.

He now receives a housing voucher with support from the government to cover most of his rent at a small apartment in the CityWalk at Akard building downtown.

CityWalk is a former office building renovated for mostly affordable housing by non-profit group CitySquare.

"I'm lucky. I count my blessings every day, because I walk by and see a lot of people that are waiting and stuck out there on the street," Winfrey said.

He knows other working veterans who receive vouchers but can't find a landlord willing to accept them.

"Because of the boom, the real estate market is at its highest ever in Dallas-Fort Worth. It's made it tougher for those folks to find a quality place to live," Winfrey said.

The Bridge homeless assistance center works to place people in housing but reports thousands of vouchers go unused because of landlords unwilling to accept them, according to Sam Merten, chief operating officer at The Bridge.

"Most landlords are saying, 'I don't want to deal with those headaches,' because there's a line out the door of people willing to pay market rent," Merten said.

On Monday, the Dallas City Council Housing Committee discussed Voluntary Inclusionary Zoning to help working poor who can't find affordable housing near jobs. The plan would encourage developers to set aside units for lower income families. For instance, a fourth floor could be added to typical three-story apartments if the extra units were dedicated for lower rent.

"The cities that are progressive on the front of affordable housing and homelessness have been doing this for years, and it has been mandatory where this would be voluntary," Merten said.

Texas law forbids a mandatory affordable housing set aside, but incentives are permitted, officials said.

Dallas is also under court order and pressure from the federal government to push affordable housing to so-called "opportunity areas," with better jobs and transportation instead of more distant, poor neighborhoods where Dallas affordable housing has been clustered in the past.

The incentives would encourage denser apartment construction in better neighborhoods where community opposition may also be found.

Merten said the CityWalk building is an example of how affordable housing can blend with a neighborhood. Another older building a block away from CityWalk is being renovated into The Mayflower, a combination of luxury apartments and retail space.

"Now you see development in that part of downtown," Merten said.

City Council members Lee Kleinman and Philip Kingston are not members of the housing committee, but they have strong interest in affordable housing and attended Monday's briefing to share their thoughts.

Kleinman has proposed going a step further than inclusionary zoning. The North Dallas councilman suggests a credit program where developers would earn incentives that could be transferred or used in other locations in return for building extra affordable units in places where the city most wants them.

"For instance, my district, I have a lot of aging multi-family (homes), and I'd be more than happy to have someone come in and double the number of units and provide the same number of affordable units, and that would be way more than this set aside," Kleinman said. "Maybe there should be an incentive for them to be able to market those additional credits."

Kingston voiced reluctance about higher density in certain existing zoning categories. He asked city staff for more data but supported affordable housing incentives in general.

"This is good," Kingston said. "Carry on and get us more numbers."

The housing committee took no final action, but Merten said the discussion was a sign of progress on a serious Dallas problem.

"It is something new and exciting for us to discuss, and hopefully it leads to more of the same on these things that other cities are doing that we've been kind of lagging behind on," Merten said.

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