Updated Dec. 20
When development company Blazer Residential received a federal grant for $60 million in 2014 to build The Lodge at Huffmeister in Cy-Fair, it was met with organized resistance from nearby residents.
Despite more than 30 formal complaints that were filed against the complex, the development was eventually completed this year and has since started leasing apartments. However, opposition was so strong, the developers opted to change the project’s name to The Meadows at Cypress Creek.
The project is one of dozens completed in Cy-Fair as the larger debate over low-income housing developments—which offer reduced rent based on a qualifying applicant’s income level—has been ongoing for years.
Officials with the Houston Housing Authority argue more low-income housing is needed in Cy-Fair, where the construction of a $417 million Daikin Industries manufacturing plant is expected to bring thousands of blue-collar jobs to the area.
“There are thousands of jobs in Cy-Fair that don’t pay a living wage, so where do those lower-income workers live?” HHA President and CEO Tory Gunsolley said.
Opponents still question the need for the projects in Cy-Fair, citing concerns about crime and property values. Kay Smith, a longtime resident and former District 130 candidate for the Texas House of Representatives, said she protested The Lodge at Huffmeister throughout the process and still has concerns.
“You get a mixture of types of residents in these complexes, and it only takes one to bring down the whole area,” Smith said.
She said she worries Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick will pursue legislation in the upcoming state legislative session that could take away local input in the process of determining which low-income housing projects get built. State Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, filed House Bill 616 on Dec. 16 with the intention of removing input from state representatives from the process of determining whether a project should move forward.
In the meantime, local lawmakers—including state Rep. Tom Oliverson, who defeated Smith in the spring Republican primary—have vowed to continue opposing low-income housing in the interest of representing their constituency.
“I understand people need affordable places to live, and I am not opposed to that, but at the end of the day, I represent the people of this district,” Oliverson said.
Funding low-income projects
Each year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development awards funds to support low-income housing projects throughout the U.S. Within the boundaries of Cy-Fair ISD, 27 projects funded through HUD, including senior and rehabilitation facilities, exist. Only 20 purely residential HUD-funded projects exist in Cy-Fair, accounting for 4,492 total low-income multifamily units in comparison to 126,754 total homes in Cy-Fair, according to 2010 census data.
Once construction is underway, HUD-funded low-income housing projects have to meet certain standards, including having replacement reserves for any damage that arises, money to maintain the property on a daily basis and multiple inspections, according to HUD’s website.
“From a community standpoint, a lot of times people will say, ‘Why don’t you do something about this awful development over here?’, and it turns out it is not an affordable development, it is just cheap, old housing,” Gunsolley said. “There are standards in place for affordable developments.”
Cy-Fair low-income housing developments include a Section 8 housing complex, which allows qualified tenants to use vouchers to reduce their rent; low-income housing tax credit projects, which give developers a tax credit for taking on the project; and other multifamily projects, which include rehab facilities and senior living complexes.
Although funding sources vary, most developers in Cy-Fair get aid through a program called the low income housing tax credit, Gunsolley said. Developed in 1986, LIHTC awards tax reductions to developers of low-income rental housing projects.
Gunsolley said the credits are highly competitive, especially for projects that do not receive federal funding. The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs uses a point system to choose which projects, out of the many proposals submitted, actually get built.
Points are awarded for a number of reasons, Gunsolley said, with the objective being to build the properties that receive the most points and require the least amount of funding. He said most of the development is focused on projects in high opportunity areas like Cy-Fair—communities with low rates of poverty, successful school districts and nearby job centers.
Research shows children who grow up in high opportunity areas—even if they come from a low-income background—are ultimately more successful, Gunsolley said.
A 2014 study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute focused on policies aimed at reducing poverty and inequality at both federal and state levels, concluded poor children who live for many years in low-poverty neighborhoods with high-quality schools perform significantly better academically than those who do not.
“The reasons anyone would want to live in a high opportunity area are the same reasons that HUD policy is encouraging us to look at high opportunity areas,” Gunsolley said.
Gunsolley said there is a need for low-income housing in Cy-Fair. In Houston alone, more than 100,000 people need affordable housing, he said.
“The tax credit program is really targeted at folks who are making 60 percent of the area median income, and in Houston that is a family of three making $40,000 per year,” he said. “A lot of the backlash is thinking that these folks are fundamentally different than the people who are already in the area.”
Although incomes vary throughout portions of Cy-Fair, thousands of residents qualify for low-income housing in the region. In the 77064 ZIP code, about 24 percent of the area’s households would qualify for HUD funding, while about 30 percent would qualify within 77429, according to census data.
The new Daikin facility under construction north of the Grand Parkway could exacerbate the need for low-income housing in the area, officials said.
The facility is in Waller County—where few affordable housing options are available—and will be staffed by more than 5,000 industrial workers, Daikin officials said.
Leslie Martone, president of the Cy-Fair Houston Chamber of Commerce, said even though the plant will be located in Waller County, many of the people who move to the area to work there are likely to end up looking for housing in Cy-Fair.
A similar dynamic can be seen with students at Prairie View A&M University, which is also located in Waller County, Martone said. Some students are bused to their classes from their residences in Cy-Fair by the university, she said.
“Prairie View A&M is coming in, and they have somewhat of a housing crisis so they are extending their search for students to live in our apartments, which is taking away some low-income opportunities,” Martone said.
Martone said she, too, looks to Waller County for living opportunities for those area transplants.
Some residents like Smith agree with the merits of high opportunity areas but disagree that Cy-Fair has a need for low-income housing in the first place.
Smith, who advocates against low-income housing in the Cypress and Tomball areas, said projects face opposition for many reasons. She said issues could range from overcrowding in Cy-Fair ISD schools, undue burden on emergency services and the effects such projects have on flooding. However, Smith said she believes the main problem is no area residents want or need the housing.
“The system is set up so the incentive is to put the housing not in low-income areas, but to push them out in communities that don’t have people that need the housing,” Smith said.
Gunsolley and officials with Blazer Residential both said low-income families do not move to the area to fill the housing projects. Instead, tenants taking advantage of those projects are already living in the nearby and surrounding region.
“If we build an affordable housing development in Cy-Fair, you’re not going to get a ton of people from East Houston that want to pick up and move there because this development opened up,” Gunsolley said.
Matt Fuqua, Blazer’s vice president of development, said prejudice and misconceptions about the type of people moving into low-income developments are the biggest challenges his company faces when building a new project.
“What affordable housing represents—who its tenant base is—you don’t necessarily think teachers, small families, government employees at first,” Fuqua said. “It’s a tough [job]to paint that picture, but it is one of those things that helps once it has been built.”
As Cy-Fair is an unincorporated area, with no city to input points on any HUD-funded low-income housing projects, local state representatives are the only community leaders who can still express feedback within that point system, Smith said.
In the 2013 legislative session, Texas state senators eliminated their opportunities to provide points toward low-income projects. Patrick, who was a state senator at the time, was a leader in the charge and may turn his gaze on this matter in the House this session, which begins in January, Smith said.
Oliverson said he would oppose the kind of legislation that would remove state representative input from the process, such as Leach’s HB 616.
“Not on my watch,” he said. “We are much more in a position [than the Senate]to make a decision on a project— yay or nay.”
There are currently no low-income projects proposed for HUD funding or tax credits in Cy-Fair. Oliverson, who will be a freshman legislator representing District 130, said he has some concerns with low-income housing that reflect the sentiments of his constituents.
“Fundamentally, I believe that the community has a right to have their voice heard,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story was updated Dec. 20 to include information on House Bill 616 filed by state Rep. Jeff Leach.