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Affordable housing on the line

City leaders and the Denton Housing Authority clashed this week over a proposal to bring more affordable housing to the city, bringing the problem with rising rents into sharp relief. 

A Dallas developer is planning two apartment complexes near the MedPark train station in southern Denton. Built side by side, The Standard at MedPark would have 230 units for working families, and The Hudson at MedPark would have 160 units for seniors. The developer wants to partner with the housing authority and keep rents affordable -- in exchange for property tax breaks.

During a work session Tuesday, some council members balked after learning that approving the project meant no property tax revenue for the city, the school district and the county.  Instead, that money would flow to the housing authority. 

The Denton Housing Authority is a 30-year-old nonprofit agency that manages federal housing assistance programs for the city. The agency also had a hand in developing three affordable housing projects in the city: the Renaissance Court Townhomes for working families and the Heritage Oaks and Pecan Place Apartments for seniors. 

Jim Carter Memorial Park at the Heritage Oaks Apartments on Bell Ave. DRC File Photo
Jim Carter Memorial Park at the Heritage Oaks Apartments on Bell Ave. 
DRC File Photo

The primary way the agency helps working families is through a federally funded voucher program. Low-income families apply to the authority and use the vouchers to subsidize the rent for apartments in the private market. 

Sherri McDade, CEO for the Denton Housing Authority, told council members this week that recent federal budget cuts affect how many families the agency can serve. 

Moreover, the region's rising rents are shrinking how far that federal money can go. Rents are rising as much as 10 percent a year in some cities in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, squeezing Denton's affordability. According to a recent rental market study by Zumper, Denton's median rent rose 3 percent last year to $1,000 for a two-bedroom apartment,  the ninth-highest among cities in the D-FW area.  

In addition, Denton has about 99 percent occupancy in apartments and homes for rent, McDade said. 

Currently, 1,536 Denton families receive vouchers to help pay the rent. In an interview Thursday, McDade said that many of those families are forced to look for homes out along U.S. Highway 380 and Little Elm rather than in town. 

She has written letters to participating landlords asking them to hold off on raising rents so the agency can avoid cutting families from the voucher program. 

She estimated that the agency will only be able to serve 1,460 families in the coming year. They hope to reduce the number of vouchers through attrition rather than cutting families from the program, she said. 

In other words, as families leave the area, the agency simply won't issue a voucher to one of the 3,000 families currently on the waiting list. As things stand, "those families will never get a voucher," McDade told council members Tuesday.  

The agency has been actively looking for other ways to provide more affordable housing, seeking partnerships with developers that can build more housing as well as income for the agency. 

McDade told the Denton Record-Chronicle Thursday that she was surprised at the council's reluctance to consider ways to help address the city's affordable housing problem. 

"I thought we were on the same page," McDade said.  

Several council members seemed reluctant Tuesday to approve the agency's two latest projects without more discussion about the long-term implications of the partnership. Mayor Chris Watts said he estimated the two projects would divert about $5 million in city, school and county taxes to the housing authority. He and other council members asked for more information from the agency about what the city would get in exchange for that money. 

City Manager Todd Hileman pledged to put together a model policy and procedure for the council to consider for any future projects from the Denton Housing Authority. 

The City Council is expected to vote next week on a resolution the agency needs to continue with the partnership. 

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881.

FEATURED PHOTO: The Denton Housing Authority is located at 1225 Wilson St. in Denton.
DRC file photo.