At 5603 Lilac Road, two rows of decorative garden stakes outline a space on the ground just larger than a singlewide mobile home. The tall hardwood trees on either side would perfectly shelter a home, but they now spread their canopies over nothing but hard-packed ground.
This lot and eight others to the west sit dormant now but will soon look drastically different. They are part of a recent 18-acre purchase by M/I Homes—a homebuilder that has built in Waterstone, Firethorne and Cinco Ranch Cedar Grove. The residents who lived here for the last eight–14 years were asked to leave early this year and are now scattered across other mobile home parks between here and Brookshire or living with family.
M/I Homes has big plans for the quiet property, which opens on the northwest corner of Mary Jo Peckham Park. Plans have not been finalized with the city but include 52 lots with 2,200–3,600-square-foot homes on them. The homes, which will be completed in 2015, will start in the high $280,000s to mid-$300,000s. This area and the land to the southwest of it together will make an “L”–shaped block connecting Lilac Street and Avenue D.
The new development, according to housing experts, is one example of a broader pattern in the area. Amid the high growth and opportunity, especially in the luxury market, there is a shrinking foothold for senior citizens and low-income households. In fact, low income housing advocates said there is not even a good measure of the need for more affordable alternatives because of the patchwork of jurisdictions in the area.
At least two key factors are making affordable housing scarcer, area Realtors said. They include rising home values and rental rates and the profusion of new neighborhoods with homes starting in the $150,000–$300,000 range. Though the availability of lower priced housing ultimately depends on location, there seems to be few efforts in the Katy area to try to build houses under $200,000, said Chaille Ralph, chairwoman of the Houston Association of REALTORS board.
“I really do see that lower price point market going away, certainly for the newer construction,” Ralph said. “That leaves the resale market and probably the $100,000 to $175,000 market under $200,000.”
Her observations are supported by various neighborhoods under construction, like the Cane Island master-planned community in the city of Katy, Cross Creek Ranch, Firethorne and at least half a dozen other smaller enclaves with home prices reaching into the millions.
The upward trend is not a surprise, but it can become a problem, said Chrishelle Palay, the Houston co-director of Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, a nonprofit that advocates and tracks affordable housing initiatives in the state.
The proliferation of such expensive housing keeps low income residents—a group that often includes low-wage employees who are the backbone of local businesses, senior citizens, young people, students of area colleges, minorities and the disabled—from being able to live near places known in the housing world as “high opportunity.”
“High opportunity” communities are those that, among other characteristics, are in close proximity to employment centers, have a low crime index and high household income, Palay said. They also frequently do not have high concentrations of poverty or minorities, she said.
“These communities need to be making allotments for affordable housing,” she said. “In many of these places affordable housing is not high on the priority list. In fact, when developers approach these communities with affordable housing, they are automatically turned away.”
Katy realtor Mary Kiesewetter, with Better Homes and Gardens Gary Green in Katy, said the market is driving builders to build homes with price tags rising well above $300,000.
“They are just going with what is selling right now,” Kiesewetter said.
According to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs database, there were no applications from the Katy area for the 9 percent Housing Tax Credit—meant to spur affordable housing developments—in the 2014 cycle. The list of applicants for the 4 percent credit is not yet available.
In fact, there has not been a project from the Katy area awarded an HTC since 2010, Palay said. The most recent two were both multifamily complexes marketed toward the elderly. That is an example of a larger trend in “high opportunity” areas, she said.
Developers know low-income housing for the elderly is more palatable to these communities than other populations, she said.
The last HTC awarded for a development geared toward a general population—not just the elderly—was in 2006, Palay said.
“It is pretty much known in the affordable housing world that if a 9 percent tax credit deal is proposed there is going to be some serious opposition from the community, so they don’t even try,” Palay said.
That community opposition is often explained as a project’s “bad fit,” Kiesewetter said. Even areas that have been historically more affordable are now transitioning into more expensive locations.
“Affordable housing is an interesting question here in Katy, because we don’t really have any,” Kiesewetter said. “I don’t know where those people go.”
To compound the need, the rebounding economy has sent median home values across Katy ISD vaulting upward by approximately 20 percent in the last year, said Jack Barnett, chief communications officer with the Harris County Appraisal District.
HCAD splits the area into two zones, one north and one south of I-10. The median increase in values to the north was 18.4 percent. Values to the south of I-10 rose by about 20.1 percent.
Meanwhile, at least a dozen apartment complexes marketed as “luxury” are under construction in the area.
This overall inflation of the cost of living has sent many seeking assistance, said Lily Delagarza, director of social services for Katy Christian Ministries. KCM helped 60 families with rent or mortgage between October of last year and May of this year, she said.
“There were many more who needed assistance, but we can only give until the money runs out,” Delagarza said.
KCM applies every year for a federal grant, specifically for rent and mortgage assistance, administered through the United Way. Last year’s grant totaled about $32,000 plus an additional $6,000 for food.
Delagarza said she tries to stretch the money to help more families but that means some walk away with only partial rent.
“We schedule 14 appointments per day,” she said. “I would say 50 percent of that is for rent and mortgage assistance, but when we don’t have any more grant money all I can do is refer them out to other organizations.”
Many of the people seeking help with mortgages are already so far behind they cannot be helped, she said.
Several of KCM’s clients have had their rents go up, and they are waiting for leases to expire to find a new living situation. Even a $50 increase per month can take a toll on a family whose resources are already stretched thin, Delagarza said.
“A lot of people don’t know where to go. They can’t afford to live in Katy,” she said.
There subsidized housing complexes built in recent years only cater to senior citizens, which make up about 10 percent of KCM’s clients, she said.
“We used to have a list of low-income apartments that we would give to our clients but many of the complexes have called us and asked us to take them off of that list because they no longer consider themselves low-income,” she said.
The list had about 30 apartment complexes on it, six were designated as low income. There are only two left now.
“I guess they have made changes and don’t want to cater to the low-income families anymore,” she said.
Source: Community Impact
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