Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle
Only those age 62 and older will be allowed to live at the Retreat at Westlock, now under construction.
Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle
Nearby residents opposed the Retreat at Westlock with a petition, saying the development would bring crime and decrease home values. The complex along Texas 249 now will be for seniors only.
The nine undeveloped acres along Texas 249 near Tomball presented a unique opportunity for affordable housing in a most desirable area: high income, low crime, good schools — factors that might help a low-income family break out of the vise of poverty.
Called the Retreat at Westlock, it would be the Harris County Housing Authority’s newest project, a small way to help the thousands of families in the county struggling to afford rising rents.
Then came a familiar situation. Tomball residents voiced concern last year that the development would bring overcrowded schools, crime and decreasing property values. In an online petition, some described the project as a “ghetto” that would invite “thugs” and “riff raff.”
The heated opposition sent the housing authority back to the drawing board, where the plan was revised.
The apartment complex set to open later this year will bear superficial similarities to the original vision — 140 units, a modern, stucco-and-brick exterior — but there will be one key difference: No children will be allowed to live there.
Facing community opposition to low-income families moving into the suburb, the housing authority placed its highest restrictions ever on one of its properties. Nobody under age 62 will be allowed to stay or visit for more than three days.
Housing authority officials herald the agreement as part of a new strategy that’s more sensitive to local concerns. Caught between a mandate to promote affordable housing in places like the county’s upscale suburbs and a system that enables some local politicians to effectively shut down such efforts, authority officials say outreach and compromise with the local community will be effective tools.
Fair housing advocates, however, are startled by the county’s move. They say the restrictions build on a history of failing to meet the needs of low-income families while bowing to political pressure by opting for less-controversial senior housing. With the opening of Westlock, eight of nine of the housing authority’s properties will cater to seniors. The only authority development that caters to low-income families is near the intersection of Beltway 8 and Interstate 45, a relatively low-income area that’s not considered “high opportunity.”
“That’s inconsistent with Harris County’s obligations under the Fair Housing Act,” said John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, which advocates for affordable housing across the state.
County housing authority spokeswoman Timika Simmons said that while there is a need for senior housing, especially in Tomball, she acknowledged that the shortage is greater for low-income families countywide.
“Right now, everyone is being forced into senior housing because that’s more acceptable,” Simmons said. “But it does not resolve our issue with families.”
She noted that many had expressed support for the Tomball senior housing project.
The housing authority “must seek to have genuine conversations with the immediate communities that surround our proposed developments,” Simmons said. “The specific needs of one community cannot be automatically applied to the needs of another part of Harris County, which is very large and diverse.”
The debate over the Retreat at Westlock is one of many to come out of a decades-long struggle over where to place affordable housing.
Complex in Galleria area
Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court largely reinforced a push to promote affordable housing in “high opportunity” neighborhoods — generally high-income, low-poverty areas with high-performing schools — after a Dallas fair-housing group argued that such projects built in high-poverty, mostly minority neighborhoods had a negative impact on those communities.
President Barack Obama last year announced an initiative to put more affordable housing in wealthy neighborhoods, a move that critics said was an overreach of “federal neighborhood engineering.”
Locally, the Houston Housing Authority has drawn fire since proposing a 233-unit affordable housing complex in an upscale Galleria-area neighborhood, which would be its first in a high opportunity neighborhood.
The debates have been particularly striking in Harris County’s suburbs, where whole swaths of territory — from Katy through Cypress and east, including parts of Kingwood and Humble and down toward Pasadena — are considered “high opportunity” by the county.
For more than a decade, Rhonda Hecker has lived in the Village Creek neighborhood, about two miles southwest of the Westlock site. The brick buildings on large plots are characteristic of many suburban Houston communities.
A Houston native, Hecker lived in northern Spring Branch until she had children. Hecker said she was drawn to the Tomball area for the good schools, low crime and strong sense of community.
“It was kind of like being in the country, in the city,” said Hecker.
Hecker was among hundreds of residents who showed up at a town hall meeting late last year that focused on the Retreat at Westlock proposal. Neighbors launched a petition drive to oppose the complex, getting more than 1,400 signatures, and flooded local officials with calls, letters and emails.
She and others argued rapid growth was already burdening local schools. They worried about a possible increase in crime and a decline in property values. Hecker, 54, said her home was her “largest investment.”
The arguments, though not unique, can have particular resonance across Texas, in part because of how the state provides subsidies for most affordable housing projects: through the tax credit system.
Developers compete for the highest subsidies. Each project is assigned a score, and typically the eight to 10 highest scorers receive a portion of roughly $12 million in federal tax dollars that comes to Harris County each year for competitive tax-credit projects.
Developments get points for being placed in “high opportunity” neighborhoods. They also get points for letters of support from local officials, such as the Harris County Commissioners Court or the Houston City Council.
Left up to legislators
State representatives, though, also hold a unique ability to subtract points through letters of opposition. State senators gave up a similar power in 2013.
That often means that the fate of a project lies in the hands of the local state legislator.
According to Henneberger, legislators in north and northwest Harris County have been among the most active in opposing affordable housing projects funded by tax credits.
In Westlock’s case, former state Rep. Allen Fletcher wrote a letter opposing the project. Simmons said the project was “not scoring well,” leading to the revisions.
Opposition to projects in the northwest suburbs has been particularly organized in recent years, with residents forming groups called the “Cypress Coalition” and the “Tomball Coalition” to advocate on their behalf.
Kay Smith, who has lived in the area for more than 20 years, helped organize both groups. Smith said she has always been involved in local politics, including leading a local Republican women’s club and serving on the Harris County education board.
She said she was “drafted” by residents to advocate against affordable housing developments. Smith was instrumental in negotiating the Westlock compromise.
Though she ran unsuccessfully last year for Fletcher’s open seat, she still holds sway in the area. At least two developers approached her to inquire about how proposed affordable housing complexes might fare.
Without restrictions, not well, she said she told them.
County says need remains
For Smith and others, the Retreat at Westlock has become the threshold for affordable housing developments: Any project with fewer restrictions, they will oppose.
“We want our seniors to be taken care of,” she stressed. “We’re giving that information to the developers, and we’re hoping that they’re hearing it.”
They appear to be: This year, no developers applied for the competitive subsidies to build affordable housing in the area from Katy north through Cypress.
The housing authority does not have any projects of its own planned for this year, but hopes that outreach efforts will set asolid foundation for projects in 2017, possibly even family housing developments.
The problem, Henneberger said, is that allowing community opposition to dictate the terms of a development ignores a real need.
“They’re not working with the community,” he said. “They’re granting a self-appointed set of residents in the community effective veto power.”
He also challenged the county’s concept of community: Instead of catering solely to those living around a proposed development, authority officials should consider the needs of the entire county, including large families of limited means. County officials concede as much in their own fair-housing plan.
“Harris County has large deficits in the quantity, quality, and affordability of 3-plus bedroom units,” the plan states. “The combination of larger families (and the increased cost associated with them) and limited housing options creates major impediments in affirmatively furthering fair housing.”
Henneberger also said the county has at times incorrectly encouraged senior housing as a more palatable option over family housing. In 2014, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs spokesman Gordon Anderson said, the state halted distributing tax credits for senior developments to the Houston region because it found that applicants “couldn’t prove up that need.”