By Theresa D. McClellan
For the Fort Bend Star
Unable to secure utilities for their planned low-income apartment housing near the Long Meadow Farms subdivision, the Fort Bend Women’s Center had to halt the plan and reject the $15 million tax credit it won from the state.
Now it’s back to the drawing board for creating affordable housing in a low poverty area of Fort Bend County for domestic violence survivors. They will try again in February, said FBWC Executive Director Vita Goodell.
“We don’t have a new site determined, but we are making sure they have utilities,” said Goodell.
This summer the Fort Bend Women’s Center received approval and a $15 million tax credit from the state to build the 104-unit low income housing community called Magnolia Gardens for survivors of domestic violence who are no longer in crisis.
Nearby residents along Virginia Drive, where homes ranged from $300,000 to $800,000, opposed the plan citing concerns about declining property values, safety, school overcrowding and the fact that the initial proposal was based on the assumption that the center would get annexed into the Long Meadow Farms subdivision and use their utilities.
It was the lack of a permit that killed the project.
When the community MUD denied the annexation request, the center continued forward with its plans and assumed it would build its own wastewater treatment plant on their 20-acre site at the corner of West Bellfort and Skinner Lane. Their proposal met all the other state requirements and it won the tax credit. It had until Sept. 20 to make the commitment to take the funding.
While the agency understood that getting its own wastewater permit should not be a problem, there were too many obstacles, risks and variables which could take up to two years. Also, it was unable to get a $4 million mortgage approved without the nonprofit having a definite wastewater permit, said Goodell.
“The chances of us not getting a permit was zero but it’s a two-year process. We would have to build the apartment without knowing we had a permit and while that has been done with others, we are nonprofit people. The board decided, ‘let’s not look at this as a challenge to conquer.’ We decided not to risk our center money. We would not have been good stewards,” Goodell said.
The Fort Bend Women’s Center bought the property on the stipulation they get approved funding to build. After their tax credit was approved, they met with the architects and engineers to pursue a wastewater permit with plans to break ground in the spring and take a year to build. They decided it was prudent not to take the money at this time.
“Housing Tax Credit program awardees returning their credits is not a common event, however, we have had some awardees in the past who were unable to secure proper zoning or local permitting or lost a piece of their finance structure and had to return the credits,” said Michael Lyttle, Chief of External Affairs for the state department.
He said their actions will not prevent them from applying again.
The entire process has been eye-opening for the nonprofit. In order to get state approval, the effort has to be built in a low poverty area with good schools.
“We’ve got a lot of places to look at similar to what we had, just outside of nice neighborhoods where the scoring is good,” Goodell explained.
“I think there will always be resistance. It’s a catch 22. They have a valid reason for wanting affordable housing for low poverty areas so the kids are in good schools and around others doing well, that’s a formula for success. But the problem is that when we look for places like that, we will be near affluent neighborhoods. They don’t understand what we are trying to do and will have that knee-jerk NIMBY (not in my backyard) attitude.” said Goodell.
The executive director said she now realizes the kinds of objections they will encounter in the future.
“I went in thinking people won’t object because it will be well run. I had this rosy view and I’ve learned a whole lot,” said Goodell.
She said it is important to get the word out and educate people about the need for affordable housing and the working poor who needs it.
“Affordable housing is for like the custodian in your school, the minimum wage manager at McDonalds. People have this picture that it’s going to be gangland. But we have lots of clients who need the housing and this would have been a big help. It will still be a huge boon to our ladies when it happens,” she said.
One of the Virginia Drive residents who vocally opposed the project earlier this year said he didn’t wish anything bad for the organization.
“It’s just probably better for both groups that it didn’t work out here,” said the homeowner who declined to be identified.