Where Should Affordable Housing Be Built In The Phoenix Area?

By Christina Estes
Published: Thursday, November 2, 2017 - 5:05am
Updated: Saturday, October 20, 2018 - 11:32pm

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(Photo by Christina Estes - KJZZ)
Phoenix neighborhoods near 19th Avenue and Northern Avenue are struggling with the issue of affordable housing.

The New Neighbors project is a collaboration between KJZZ and the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting that looks at how the Valley of the Sun has changed since the economic downturn a decade ago. Today, we’re in the middle of a real estate and rental market boom, our cities are centralizing — it’s all changing the face of our communities Valley-wide. This is Part IV of the "New Neighbors" series.

When Valley leaders talk about light rail, they often speak in glowing terms: how it spurs economic development and increases property values. But, the reception is less enthusiastic among some residents, especially in one part of Phoenix.

What’s The Neighborhood Like?

The area surrounding 19th and Northern avenues is arguably one of the most socioeconomically diverse parts of Phoenix. Within a one-mile radius, there is city-owned housing for low-income residents and large residential lots valued at $1 million. There are older apartments renting for $600 a month and new infill houses going for $600,000.

(Photo by Christina Estes - KJZZ)

The intersection of 19th and Northern avenues is also home to light rail. The northwest extension from Bethany Home Road to Dunlap Road opened last year. And, for some neighborhoods it’s been a rough ride.

Police department records provided to Phoenix Councilman Jim Waring show a 56 percent increase in service calls to 19th and Northern since the extension opened. Trespassing, shoplifting and thefts are among the most popular calls.

What’s Affordable Housing?

There’s also been more interest from developers looking to build what the government calls affordable housing — designated for people who make less than 80 percent of the area’s median income (AMI) and are paying only 30 percent of their income toward rent.

Cindy Stotler, housing director for Phoenix, said 98,000 people in the city are at or below 80 percent AMI. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sets income limits. As of April 14, 2017, HUD determined a single person with an income of $37,100 was at 80 percent AMI and considered low-income. A family of four with an annual income of $52,950 was at 80 percent AMI.

HEAR MORE: Does Downtown Phoenix Need More Workforce Housing?

Stotler said most affordable housing communities set aside a certain number of units for different income levels. For example, less than 30 percent AMI; 40 percent AMI; 60 percent AMI; and 80 percent AMI.

She said affordable housing may — or may not — be regulated by HUD or another agency like the Arizona Department of Housing or Low Income Housing Tax Credit program rules.

Where Is Affordable Housing Being Built?

(Photo by Christina Estes - KJZZ)
Affordable housing developers look for opportunities along the light rail line in order to receive tax credits.

Developers can get tax credits and financing help when they build near public transit centers. The thinking goes like this: people with lower incomes rely more heavily on public transit so living close to the light rail line will help them get to school, work, doctors’ appointments and grocery stores.

But Phoenix Councilman Sal DiCiccio, a light-rail critic, said the focus should be on buses which cover more areas

“I mean, a common-sense person would say, 'You shouldn’t be clustering them. Why cluster them along light rail?' So you’re saying from now on only people that are poor in that area or that need affordable housing are the only ones that are going to use light rail? That’s just illogical to me," he said.

Neighbors have raised the same issue. While new housing developments along light rail downtown are mostly luxury, the projects pitched around 19th Avenue are mostly affordable.

Public documents from the Arizona Department of Housing show six low income housing tax credit programs in Phoenix this year. Of those, five projects are scheduled along the light rail line. And, three of those five are within a half mile of 19th and Northern avenues.

Hover over the map to see household income, rental prices, home values and more.

Why Are Residents Pushing Back?

During a Phoenix City Council meeting earlier this year, residents expressed frustration over a project presented by Catholic Charities. Steve Capobres, vice president of business development, said the group wanted to redevelop an office building it has owned for 60 years.

“We develop low-income housing,” he said. “We are not going to develop luxury apartments on this site, so no matter what I do, I cannot appease the neighborhood.”

Councilman Daniel Valenzuela told him neighbors felt ignored.

“You can roll your eyes, sir, if you’d like. Or you can get out there and talk to these neighbors, which is what I have to do every single day," said Valenzuela.

When people pushed back against the size of a project pitched by United Methodist Outreach Ministries, better known as UMOM, Darlene Newsom, the group’s CEO and a nearby resident, told council members, “When we decided on this site I made it clear that I did not want any Section 8 vouchers or overlays on this property. This was going to be quality, affordable housing for people who are working.”

Section 8 provides rental vouchers for people to use anywhere they can find qualified landlords willing to take them. The vouchers are regulated by HUD which will cover 70 percent of market rate rents and allow tenants to pay only 30 percent of their income toward rent.

Hover over the map to get more details on city-owned housing.

In August 2016, Phoenix opened its Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher wait list and received more than 27,000 pre-applications. Phoenix has a total of 6,808 Section 8 vouchers. Of those, 1,307 are reserved for veterans, victims of domestic violence, human trafficking survivors, children who have aged out of the foster system and families identified by the Arizona Department of Child Safety that need housing to be reunified with their children.

Councilman DiCiccio, a fiscal conservative, prefers Section 8 vouchers.

“Why not allow the individual the right to make their own decision for their own family of where they think is the best place for them to live?” said DiCiccio.

How Is The Community Responding?

Inside Open Door Fellowship on a warm August evening, Shannon McBride welcomes dozens of visitors. McBride not only works along 19th Avenue, she also lives nearby.

“I’ve watched some great things happen and I’ve watched some things that have been hard,” she said.

After hearing concerns among residents, McBride organized a community forum on affordable housing. She invited Phoenix Housing Director Cindy Stotler, Police Commander Gabriel Lopez, Councilwoman Deb Stark, Butler Housing Company President Reid Butler and LISC Executive Director Terry Benelli to share information and answer questions.

McBride also introduced two women who live in affordable housing communities, including a woman named Maria, who is raising two grandchildren.

(Photo by Christina Estes - KJZZ)
Concerns among residents led Shannon McBride to organize a community forum at Open Door Fellowship.

“I’m not sure why we’re here if to make it good or bad or whatever,” Maria said. “I just want you to know that affordable housing is not all bad. It’s like any other place in the city, OK? The people who live there are like you and I. We’re all brothers and sisters.”

While everyone was encouraged to share, some residents didn’t feel comfortable. One woman said it’s not that they don’t want to support lower-income people — it’s that they feel like the area is already dense with apartments. She worries about her property values and wonders whether she should stay.

Another resident asked if there was a way to limit the number of projects in an area. The short answer was: “Not really, because there’s a huge need for affordable housing.”

One man’s question about whether city leaders are focused on the bigger picture caught the attention of Councilwoman Deb Stark who said it might be time to look beyond light rail.

“When you look at the Scottsdale area where they have lots of resorts, the Kierland area in Phoenix, there are a lot of service oriented jobs that they probably are making minimum wage,” she said. “Should we be looking at other parts of the city that may have that need for affordable housing?”

Conversations are important, according to ASU Associate Professor Deirdre Pfeiffer — but so are plans.

“The research tells us that there’s a fairly high likelihood that that neighborhood is going to change in some way, after that transit station comes in,” she said. “Every community, every neighborhood should have a plan.”

Pfeiffer was involved in Reinvent PHX, a program designed to maximize community benefits on the billion-dollar light-rail investment.

Using a federal grant, Phoenix created community vision plans along the original line. They included goals like more trees, better sidewalks, new businesses, and housing. Similar efforts are underway for the light rail extension south of downtown. But, there was no money to design a plan for the 19th Avenue extension.

What Are The Future Plans?

Shannon McBride and others stepped up and created a coalition of businesses, schools, faith groups, neighborhood groups and government. They branded the area “19 North” with a mission to protect, promote and revitalize the neighborhood.

City staffers are now working with her grassroots nonprofit to create a vision plan for 19th Avenue. It won’t be as detailed as proposals for other communities along the light rail line, but it’s a start.

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