Lost Houses

By my count, somebody may be shorting Judge Buchmeyer 110 low-income houses in West Dallas

Ann Lott, the president and CEO of DHA, said to me, "Everybody you talk to is going to have a different definition of what low-income is and what affordable housing is. It just depends on who you speak to. I have people on my program who will tell you $60,000 is too high. They can't reach it at that rate. So you're getting into semantics. What do you want to call low-income?"

But two definitions in the same deal? With the same judge? See, from my way of looking at it, semantics is all over the place naturally, but there are two things that are never semantics. The money. And the dirt. A dollar is a dollar. A square foot is a square foot.

And there's some of this money that I just have trouble following. For example, DHA says it is donating all of the "development costs"--streets, sewers, other infrastructure--as its own gift to the deal, a way of helping keep prices down.

Graciela Aleman tried for years to get in on the Greenleaf Village deal in West Dallas, but the city told her they didn't do deals like that. Now they're doing it, without her.
Peter Calvin
Graciela Aleman tried for years to get in on the Greenleaf Village deal in West Dallas, but the city told her they didn't do deals like that. Now they're doing it, without her.

"We're doing the infrastructure," Lott said. "That's costing us money. It's approximately $4.6 to $5 million. That's a direct cost. We're paying for that. I'm not getting any grant from the federal government. We've taken out a loan. That's our contribution to the effort."

At $5 million for 310 lots, that comes out to about $16,000 per lot that DHA is putting in.

Ms. Lott also told me that Habitat for Humanity is paying about $14,000 to DHA for each lot it will build a house on, and KB Home is paying $18,500. For the area, that's extremely stout. A perusal of tax appraisals on surrounding streets, which already have residential infrastructure, shows average lot values to be in the $3,000 to $4,500 range.

It's conceivable that you could tag a little bit higher value on the DHA lots, because they will be in a brand-new neighborhood instead of a run-down one. But that's kind of speculative, isn't it? Since not a house has been sold yet in this new area? Can the lots be worth six times what other lots are worth nearby? And isn't it funny that the lot prices Habitat and KB Home are paying DHA are so close to the money DHA is spending to develop the lots?

Look at it this way: Habitat and KB Home don't have to pay to develop the lots, because DHA is doing it for them. But Habitat and KB Home are paying DHA approximately the same thing as the development costs for the lots. And the ground itself, the land, the dirt: That comes out somewhere in the wash between free and a couple of thousand dollars, which is about half the market rate in the area.

For some people, there is no wash. Graciela Aleman is a Latina real estate broker who tried for several years to get the city to tell her how she could develop new homes on DHA property in West Dallas. She says the city just kept telling her it didn't do deals like that.

"I was ignored. I was put aside. I was disrespected, and finally I was not allowed to compete," Aleman told me.

Maybe you're thinking there's always someone who feels left out.

And maybe you're wondering why this is such a bad deal, if it turns a bunch of dismal public housing land into an attractive new single-family neighborhood. I don't disagree. I do wonder why Aleman had such a tough time getting in on this and Henry Cisneros did not. For a process involving public land, this deal feels awfully private. But let's grant that Greenleaf Village, however it gets done, will be a good thing for the area. I understand all of that. But I still say it's a simple question. You told the judge 210 low-income houses. You have defined a low-income house as $65,000. Say we cut you slack and let you ooch the price up to $73,000 without the city subsidy.

How many of those are you going to do?

And it's possible, after all, that I am taking this judge thing way too seriously on account of my lack of coolness. I'm just concerned for everyone involved in this fine venture. I feel a little like Fagin, in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist:

"Mr. Fagin concluded by drawing a rather disagreeable picture of the discomforts of hanging; and, with great friendliness and politeness of manner, expressed his anxious hopes that he might never be obliged to submit Oliver Twist to that unpleasant operation."

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