How Affordable Is Downtown Dallas Housing? We Send Our Intern to Find Out.
Photos by Elliot Kaiser
Note from Jim:
In the last week of April I asked the city to tell me how many guaranteed low-income housing units are available in downtown Dallas. There should be lots of them by now -a a couple thousand by some estimates -- because over the decades, the city has used hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money to finance renovation of downtown office towers.
Most of that was money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD money carries a clear condition and mandate: Any apartment building financed with HUD money should have at least 51 percent of its units set aside for low income tenants.
A complex formula determines the level rents HUD considers "affordable" to low to moderate income tenants. In Dallas, the bottom line rent is in the $525 to $550 range for a single bedroom. If there are low income units available, at least some of them should be in that range, according to HUD guidelines.
But Curtis Lockey and Craig MacKenzie -- two developers who have filed a formal complaint against the city with HUD -- say there are no such units available downtown. None. Nothing. No affordable units at all.
Two months ago I asked the city a simple question: How many are there? I still do not have an answer from them.
So one day I'm looking at our summer intern, Elliot Kaiser, walking around our offices looking like he needs something to do, and I'm wondering. What happens if a fine young person like Elliot goes into downtown Dallas and tries to find an affordable apartment?
In other words, what if we tested the market with a mystery shopper? What could be simpler?
Young man goes out, tries to find apartment in downtown Dallas for five bills. Such places either exist or they don't.
Elliot's adventure is ongoing. Here is his take on how the search is going so far:
By Elliot Kaiser
One day Jim approaches me with eyes full of mischief and asks me a question: "How would you feel about wearing a wire?"
Fine, I guess. I mean, I'm no snitch, but how often will I get to use devices from the spy store in a lifetime? Actually, it's not really a wire but a voice recorder with a nifty earpiece that can tape phone calls.
Jim wanted me to apply to a few places downtown and find out if there's anything available for anyone less affluent than the upscale-single or empty-nester set. So off I went into downtown, seeking a prospective domicile on my meager government stipend.
Walking past Pearl Street with a recording device in my pocket, I'm wondering what kind of ploys these crafty management types will use to sucker me in. The worst thing I could do is get swept away in talk of deals, a rooftop pool and a sexy urban lifestyle and actually lease an apartment. No. That is not what I'm here to do. I really do qualify for a low income residence. My budget can only support a $550 rent and not much more.
My first stop is the building at 1900 Elm St., formerly known as the Majestic Lofts, now "1900 Elm" -- the old Titche-Goettinger building. Seven stories high, it sits across the street from the Main Street Garden.
The lobby is an empty, narrow, carpeted hall with partitions on each side. I enter the leasing office, a poor student, and ask what might be available. The leasing agent puts on a welcoming smile as she presumably minimizes her game of Minesweeper and asks with the slightest drawl: "What size are you looking for?"
I respond, "Whatever I can afford."
"And what's that?"
I try to keep a straight face as I give her the numbers: "Five fifty to 600?"
"The only thing I have that may be close to that will be at 676 square feet, and that one is leasing for $770. Would that work?"
"I have smaller ones, but they're not on notice to vacate, and they're not available."
"Well, I might need to talk to my roommates," I tell her. "But you don't have anything that might be a little cheaper? I'm thinking about transferring to El Centro, and I'm not going to have a car. But I'm pretty sure I can't afford any more than $600."
She coos as if speaking to a 5-year old who skinned his knee: "Aww, I'm sorry."
I ask if there are any places she could recommend.
"The Davis Building," she says.
The male agent at the Davis Building at 1309 Main Street invites me to step into the office but warns that he has an appointment in 10 minutes. I promise him this will be fast.
He advises that if I had gone online I could have discovered all the information I need. Before I'm shuffled out the door he states that the lowest space he has available is for $1,100.
Next stop: 1800 Main, the joint leasing office for the Wilson Building at 1623 Main, The Merc at 1800 Main and The Element, also at 1800 Main. Outside the glass exterior I pass huge colored dots affixed to empty retail spaces like medieval plague decals. These dots, called "D-Spots," are the insignia of Downtown Dallas Inc., an organization that attempts to attract people to downtown with clever sexual innuendo and their own online guide to events happening downtown.
In the leasing office, monitors are set up with images depicting how exciting loft life is while spin-class music blares from the speakers.
Another young woman greets me with hope and hospitality in her eyes. She looks like one of the SMU students I trip over on my way to breakfast every day. After I tell her I am looking for something cheap, she chirps, "Well, what kind of price range are you looking at?"
I tell her. The light immediately falls from her face, and her voice drops a few octaves.
I'm out the door seconds later.
I'm buzzed into The Kirby, a 17 story, old-Dallas gothic building, just after 1 o'clock. Getting way too hot out for this. I'm wondering if The Bridge, a downtown homeless shelter, might be a better bet.
The agent tells me she has an appointment with an actual applicant in a few minutes, so I run through my case quickly.
She tells me she hasn't heard of prices like that since "I don't know when."
I throw out that somewhere -- and I can't remember where -- I heard that there were some rent-controlled units in downtown, and the Kirby might have some of them.
She counters that, "Some properties might have apartments that low, but we don't." And she's kind enough to recommend that I should keep looking but probably should "adjust" my price range a little bit. In so many words: Make more money.
Eventually I decide to see what an apartment locator could find for me. I ask him if there is anything at all downtown for those living on a low to moderate income.
Apartments in my range are "a real hard thing to get when you're downtown," he says. He tells me he'll look for something and let me know. I can't blame him for never getting back.
Another Note From Jim:
My plan is to keep humiliating Elliot by making him go around getting shot down at fancy downtown towers for the rest of the summer or until he wises up, quits his internship and goes back to reading Greek and Latin classics for the summer -- his Plan B, which should have been Plan A anyway.
In the meantime, I issue this open invitation to city housing officials. Please, Dear Housing Officials, if you know of a guaranteed low-income rent-controlled apartment in downtown Dallas, let Elliot know. One unit. That's all we ask. Deliver Elliot from Apartment Purgatory. We await your call.
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