Second Thought: Wednesday, February 2, 2005
Where to Put the Poor People

They may be always with us — but not in city-subsidized housing.


Fort Worth has been trotting out a lot of big projects lately. The tornado-damaged Bank One building is now being converted to high-end condos, one of several big downtown housing projects. The Trinity River Vision project is going to open up a huge parcel of under-utilized property on the near North Side, and once again, high-end housing is part of the game.
The old and seedy Riverside Villages apartments in the southeast part of town are being torn down and new houses built. The Woodhaven neighborhood is studying how to get rid of low-income apartments that have high crime problems. I could go on, but you get the idea. Fort Worth is redeveloping into a city where expensive housing development is being done across the entire town.
Is this a good thing? In one sense, sure. New residential developments downtown will certainly help Fort Worth, and neighborhood groups are trying to get some blighted properties cleaned up.
But there is a trend emerging in all this that Fort Worth is not dealing with. The city is putting huge dollars into these high-end housing projects while decent low-income housing is being pushed to the side. And while 39 percent of Tarrant County households are renters — a figure that has risen slightly over the past few years — this city is putting most of its money, not into developments that will turn renters into homeowners, but into developments that will help upper-middle-class folks live groovier.
A study last year by the National Low Income Housing Coalition found the average price of a one-bedroom apartment in Tarrant County was $597; a two-bedroom came in at $732. What the study found was that those rates are out of sight for most low-income residents. In order to live in a two-bedroom apartment — and not spend more than 30 percent of his or her income on housing — a wage earner would have to make $14.08 an hour to afford the two-bedroom apartment. For the one-bedroom, the wage would have to be $11.48 per hour. From 1998 to 2004, the average price for a rental unit in Tarrant County went up 28.7 percent, while the average wage, during that time period, declined by 4 percent when adjusted for inflation.
This is not just a Fort Worth trend. It’s happening all over the country. The Bush Administration is cutting the “Section 8” voucher program for low-income housing by $1.6 billion this year. In the last few years, consumer prices have been rising faster than wages, making the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour nearly impossible to live on.
The problem Fort Worth is facing is complicated. Community groups do not want low-income projects in their neighborhoods. When the Riverside Villages project was planned, one-third of the 42-acre development near East Berry was to be for low-income apartments. But the Fort Worth City Council bowed to neighborhood pressure; now the low-income part of the deal is gone. About 230 new homes will be built, with the city kicking in $2.6 million of the $24 million price tag.
Fort Worth is also spending $236,000 to study how to demolish at least two Woodhaven area apartment complexes and disperse their low-income residents to other parts of the city. The city is now deciding whether to spend $5.6 million to buy the apartments and another $8.5 million to replace them with single-family homes.
There’s nothing wrong with the city trying to improve neighborhoods. The problem is that the city is investing in a market that needs no tax breaks — especially the downtown housing market. Empty-nester baby boomers are selling their suburban homes and buying condos in downtown areas all over the country. Fort Worth is no different; yet this city continues to give tax breaks to any high-end housing developer who sticks his hand out at city hall.
What Fort Worth needs to realize is that not everyone can live in a high-end condo. Hell, most of the renters can’t even afford basic, decent apartments. Where these folks are going to live is everyone’s business. And if Fort Worth can afford the handouts to posh developers, then why can’t it set aside just a little bit of money to make sure the low-income housing is not pushed out?
Think of it this way: If you buy one of those pricey condos downtown, you’ll want to go out and eat at night, and someone will have to bus your table. If that person is making $5.15 an hour, he will have to work 89 hours per week to afford a one-bedroom apartment.
This is not to say Fort Worth needs to discourage new high-end development. What needs to be done, however, is to make sure the low-income housing is not an afterthought, or even worse, that the only places low-income people can afford really aren’t worth living in. Because if the trends continue, the working poor who do basic, critical jobs in our community won’t be able to afford to live here. And even the rich folks know that can be a problem.

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