Few places can rival the rugged beauty of Provo, Utah, situated against the big-sky backdrop of the Wasatch Mountains. Like many cities, however, downtown Provo steadily declined in the 20th century, with once-thriving areas overrun with vagrants and marred by dilapidated buildings. Recently, Provo officials have begun revitalizing core neighborhoods through reinvestment, new construction and historic preservation. City leaders want the improved neighborhoods to attract a diverse mix of residents, so they are carving out room for affordable homes and apartments to complement high-end restorations.
Provo’s Maeser Elementary School, a historic building dating from 1898, was the longest continuously operating school in the state until it was shuttered and faced demolition in 2002. Today, an ongoing rehabilitation project is transforming the school into 31 apartments for low-income seniors. “There are three elements to the Maeser project,” says Doug Carlson, director of the Provo City Housing Authority, “[They are] the preservation of this historic treasure, the provision of affordable housing and neighborhood revitalization.” Already, adjacent development is helping to spur home ownership and economic growth in central Provo, Carlson adds.
In the last decade, numerous cities have touted their downtown revitalization programs, encouraging residents to forego suburban sprawl in favor of urban life. “New Urbanist” neighborhoods are sprouting, featuring traditional main streets, where people can walk or bike to shops and restaurants and leave their cars at home. Yet the redevelopments often unintentionally force lower-income residents to move away to find affordable housing, according to “Affordable Housing and Smart Growth: Making the Connection,” a report by the Washington-based groups Smart Growth Network and the National Neighborhood Coalition. “Smart growth is not achieved if new developments feature a town square, mixed uses, grid street networks, and front porches in the ‘new urbanist’ tradition, but fail to plan for affordable-housing communities,” the report’s authors write.
In response to such concerns, local governments and private organizations increasingly are factoring affordable housing into their downtown revitalization efforts. The benefits of providing housing downtown have been proven. Each new downtown employee spends about $3,000 downtown each year, but each new downtown resident spends between $7,000 and $14,000 annually, according to the Washington-based National Main Street Center. Home ownership — an ultimate goal of many municipal housing efforts, in addition to providing affordable rental properties — also has been shown to reduce crime, encourage reinvestment and help stabilize the tax base.
Funding affordable-housing projects can be challenging, however, for budget-strapped municipalities looking to boost the local tax base and attract new businesses. And, ongoing prejudices against residents of affordable housing — based on economics, race and class — have hindered developing such projects in certain neighborhoods.
However, cities and counties have found creative funding partners. The Maeser school project funds, for example, came from a $50,000 grant from Restore America — an annual program from the Washington-based National Trust for Historic Preservation and Knoxville, Tenn.-based Home & Garden Television, which has assisted dozens of downtown rehabilitation projects nationwide.
Provo found more money in affordable housing and historic preservation tax credits. According to a 2004 report from Washington-based Fannie Mae Foundation, about half of all projects taking advantage of the historic rehabilitation tax credit are exclusively housing, with another 20 to 30 percent considered mixed-use. By coupling the historic rehabilitation tax credit with other subsidies, such as the low-income housing tax credit, housing authorities and their nonprofit partners often can revitalize vacant buildings for less than it would cost to replace them.
A relatively new provision in the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development HOPE VI program may help place affordable units in even more downtowns. First created in the early 1990s with input from the New Urbanism community, the program has directed federal funds to demolish substandard public housing and replace it with mixed-income, mixed-use and pedestrian-friendly communities. Because HOPE VI was tied to existing housing, however, small cities without a public housing authority did not qualify for the money. Since December 2003, a “Main Street” provision allows small cities to use HOPE VI funds for affordable housing in existing downtown buildings, such as the upper levels of commercial buildings or converted loft space in warehouses or mills. The provision is intended for communities with less than 50,000 residents, no more than one public housing authority and fewer than 100 units of public housing.
Private funding sources are important as well. More than 100 nonprofit organizations and public agencies applied for this year’s Restore America program, which placed a priority on affordable housing. In addition to the Maeser project, a Restore America grant will help convert the 1914 Hot Springs High School in Little Rock, Ark. — President Clinton’s alma mater — into loft-style apartments, most of which will be set aside for low-income individuals. In Miles City, Mont., the Old Holy Rosary Hospital, built in 1910 to serve railroaders and cattle barons, will become an affordable apartment complex within walking distance to schools and shops. “These projects are difficult to put together — you lose a lot of blood, sweat and tears,” Provo’s Carlson says. “But let me tell you, they are worth it.”
In some areas, local governments are creating incentives for private developers to include affordable housing in revitalization projects. For example, Arlington County’s Affordable Housing Ordinance requires developers either to provide affordable units on or off a building site or contribute to the county’s Affordable Housing Investment Fund, a revolving loan fund used for acquisition and rehabilitation projects. In support of the county’s efforts, Gov. Tim Kaine signed into law legislation that ensures the county’s authority to implement the requirements. The signing occurred at One Metropolitan Park, a 399-unit residential complex near the Pentagon that, when phase one is completed in June 2007, will include 20 units that the developer has promised will remain affordable for at least 30 years.
As a close-in suburb of Washington, Arlington County has been heralded for its approach to development, winning an award from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2002. The county has adopted a land-use plan that concentrates dense, mixed-use development in distinct neighborhoods along its two Metro subway corridors. Its “urban village” concept emphasizes pedestrian access, wide sidewalks with restaurant seating, bike lanes and street-level retail.
Yet the county has been a victim of its own success. Between 2000 and 2005, nearly 10,000 units of affordable housing — about 50 percent of Arlington County’s lower-income housing stock — escalated in value to a price beyond the means of those residents affordable housing is supposed to attract. Public servants have been priced out of homes; only 25 percent of Arlington County’s police officers and 911 operators, and 9 percent of its firefighters live within the county, according to the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing.
To counteract the trend, since 2000, Arlington County has dedicated money for housing programs for low- and moderate-income residents and for the Affordable Housing Investment/HOME Fund Program. Its fiscal year 2007 budget includes $17.5 million for housing programs and $5.7 million for the fund. The money has been used to add 1,771 committed affordable units since 2000, bringing the total in the county to 6,100. “We’ve had a real problem with the loss of affordable housing over the last five or six years,” says Chris Zimmerman, chair of the Arlington County Board. “Arlington County does not have any public housing per se; the federal low-income tax credit has been the most significant source of affordable housing. The county’s Affordable Housing Investment Fund then leverages those federal dollars.”
Recently, county officials faced a battle over a proposal to redevelop part of a historic Depression-era garden apartment complex that had long provided affordable housing. Located in a part of the county that has seen rampant redevelopment in recent years, three areas of Buckingham Village were targeted to be demolished to make way for new upscale townhouses — raising the ire of housing advocates and historic preservationists.
Seeking compromise, the county board convened affordable housing advocates, county officials, preservationists and the developer. The group produced a memorandum of understanding, good through March 2007, stating that the members will work out a deal that preserves historic buildings and affordable housing units, while allowing the developer to redevelop portions of the complex. The deal includes a commitment from the county to contribute $16 million to subsidize new affordable housing units in and around Buckingham Village.
Across the country, communities are embracing ethnic minorities that once were ignored by redevelopment efforts or priced out of home ownership. Santa Ana, Calif., is one of several cities that is embracing “Latino New Urbanism,” creating a downtown area that celebrates the Latino culture and includes affordable housing units that promote home ownership and upward mobility within the Latino community. San Diego has approved five “pilot villages” that embrace the trend. One village, called Mi Pueblo, contains more than 1,100 residential units, about 25 percent of which will stay moderately priced. According to a 2005 USA Today report, three-bedroom, two-bath homes in Mi Pueblo are painted in vibrant colors and sell for about half the local median price.
In October, Miami earmarked $30 million for community redevelopment and workforce and middle-income housing projects in Overtown, a long-struggling but vibrant African-American neighborhood. The funding will help build the planned Historic Overtown Folklife Village District, which would contain more than 2,400 new housing units and highlight the area’s black history and culture. The district plans include at least two new mixed-use housing developments: Jazz Village, which would include homes and a workforce training school, and Lyric Promenade, which would include low-income rental housing and a hotel.
Affordable housing has come a long way since the days of “the projects” — those blighted inner-city developments that were segregated from downtown parks, community centers and shops. By combining economic revitalization with homes that are affordable to a range of residents, cities are building a strong foundation for continued investment in their downtown areas. “The success of any local economy depends on all different people and all different income levels,” says Arlington’s Chris Zimmerman. “A diverse community is the kind of community we want to live in; it’s what makes this a special place. And if we lose that, we all will have lost something.”
Kim A. O’Connell is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.