Athens to build first mixed-income housing

The Athens Housing Authority received an $8.6 million grant from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs to raze the Jack R. Wells public housing complex and replace it with Athens’ first mixed-income community.

Mixed-income housing is the newest development in the public housing. It used to be that low-income people were placed into public buildings – communities where every tenant was receiving government assistance or reduced rent. Now, there’s a new wave of developments that combine low-income and working class renters – brand new developments where cops and nurses live alongside those traditionally “quarantined” to public housing.

Mixed-income housing has popped up in cities across Georgia and across the nation. Athens is finally joining the ranks.

Mixed-income housing became an identifiable affordable housing option as early as the 1960s and 1970s. However, the trend took off in 1993 with the federal HOPE VI program, a federal housing subsidy designed to combine assisted and full price rental units in the same developments, according to an academic study

Officials, experts and citizens alike were skeptical at first. Would the stigma of “the projects” drive away market-price renters? Were the costs really manageable?

Over the past two decades, however, professionals in the affordable housing industry have turned to mixed-income housing as an alternative to traditional assisted-housing initiatives. The majority of experts today prefer multi-income housing, though there are still questions about its long-term validity.

Until key questions are answered, “advocacy of mixed-income housing will be based largely on faith and the dissatisfaction with the previous thrust of housing policy,” according to a study published in the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s periodical.

There are numerous successful mixed-income developments nationwide, including at least 23 in the state of Georgia.

“It’s the first mixed-income housing community in Athens, but not nearly the first in the state,” said Athens Housing Authority media director Marilyn Appleby.

State and local governments nationwide developed incentive programs and initiatives to promote mixed-income housing. The Georgia DCA, in an example of these government incentives, granted $8.6 million in tax credits to AHA to replace Jack R. Wells with mixed-income housing.

Jack R. Wells, a maze of low-slung, 1960s brick and siding apartment buildings, houses 125 renters. The public housing complex admits tenants based on income level. Eligible residents’ incomes fall between 50 and 80 percent of the median income in Clarke County.

The new Jack R. Wells community will boast 375 units, equally divided between public housing units, affordable dwelling units and market-rate units.

“We’re transforming this neighborhood here. To update the buildings isn’t enough – there’s a limit to what you can do there,” Appleby said.

Phase one of this project is set to begin this summer. Tenants will move out and the whole neighborhood will be razed.

The first construction along Hawthorne Avenue, slated for completion in 2014, will include a 100 unit building for the elderly. Phase two will be complete by 2016, and the third phase will finish by January 2017, said Appleby.

The Georgia DCA is providing current Jack R. Wells residents with Section 8 housing vouchers if they choose to leave the housing authority system. The vouchers allow families to obtain affordable prices from privately managed properties affiliated with the program.

“A lot of the families that live in Jack R. Wells have indicated that they’re interested in the voucher program,” Appleby said. “They’re completing their paperwork and they’ll work with the Department of Community Affairs on being eligible for the program, and then from there also looking for places to live that are in that program. They can go anywhere that takes the Section 8 voucher.”

Current residents will have the option to return to Jack R. Wells after construction is completed. AHA is working with the Clarke County School District to ensure students won’t have to change schools when they move.

The tax credit comes from money the federal government allocates to the states under the Low Income Affordable Housing Tax Credit created in the 1986 Tax Reform Act. The Georgia Department of Community Affairs allocates those funds for the state. Builders get the credits to develop and maintain apartments as affordable housing.

AHA gets $869,000 in tax credits for ten years through this program. The AHA will sell the tax credits to finance the construction at Jack R. Wells. Large businesses and corporations can buy these credits, or they can be syndicated to individuals, who use them to take money off of their own taxes.

The money generated from tax credits allows AHA to borrow less, allowing for lower rent charges.

Phase one of construction costs about $14 million, according to AHA. AHA estimates that the funds from selling tax credits will generate 60 to 70 percent of the total cost of the project. Local government and other loans will pay for the part of the project not funded through tax credits.

Columbia Residential, the developer for the project, has built 23 mixed income communities throughout Georgia and more throughout Texas and Louisiana.

The residents of Jack R. Wells support the process – in fact, they voted for it.

“We voted to start over. Tear it down,” said a resident of Jack R. Wells. “I can’t wait to come back to this,” she said as she pointed to the sketch of the finished community.

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