- Associated Press - Monday, November 28, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - The latest housing development to open in December in Midtown offers a competitive set of amenities that should prove popular with new residents, including a fitness center, splash pad, library and community space, computer labs, playground and courtyard.

The 49-unit Classen Commons, which boasts stunning views of the downtown skyline, is also the first new affordable housing built downtown in decades.

William Fulmer, housing director at Neighborhood Housing Services Oklahoma, said his organization started looking at how best to address the shortage of affordable housing in Oklahoma City several years ago.

Ultimately, the only way the deal got done was for the agency to donate its headquarters to Belmont Development, which specializes in affordable housing, and to move Neighborhood Services Oklahoma outside of the urban core.

“We started looking for affordable land, and it just kept pushing us further and further out and away from Oklahoma City,” Fulmer said. “We had a three-story office building here that we had rehabbed and used as our offices and leased to Oklahoma City Public Schools.”

Initially, plans included converting the half-century-old building into housing, but that plan was deemed not feasible.

It was then that Neighborhood Services executives were introduced by local architect Larry Blackledge to Belmont Development. Along with Hixon Construction Co., the group had to balance cost restrictions and loan requirements with city design review and neighborhood concern.

Creative design angles included reusing the old office building’s basement and converting it into a storm shelter that even includes a restroom and elevator access. The courtyard includes a large wall that may be used for outdoor movie screenings.

The apartments, ranging from two- and one-bedroom units to efficiency units, will be offered to residents 62 and older, half of which must have an income of 60 percent or lower of average median income, and the other half must be at 50 percent of average median income or lower.

About 10 apartments already are leased, sight unseen, while a waiting list exists of interested tenants for the remaining units.

Ian Colgan, assistant executive director of the Oklahoma Housing Authority, is among those not surprised at the rush to rent units at Classen Commons. In a city that routinely attracts glowing headlines about affordable housing, new numbers show the most vulnerable residents are increasingly being priced out of the market.

“Oklahoma City is synonymous with affordable housing stock for its residents,” Colgan said. “We have a relatively affordable housing stock for our residents. Oklahoma City is among the top three, along with Omaha and Des Moines, when it comes to affordable housing and market strength.”

But the housing isn’t so affordable for those deemed very low income, with 53 percent of residents making “very low income” paying more than 30 percent of their income toward housing, and another 18.9 percent of the same category paying more than half of their income toward housing.

The numbers are even worse for those categorized as “extremely low income,” or earning less than 30 percent of average median income. Of their portion of income spent on housing, 72.2 percent are spending more than 50 percent on housing and 17.1 percent are paying more than 30 percent.

Colgan and others see a crisis in affordable housing ahead for Oklahoma City if current trends continue. While the city’s median rent in 2014, $763, remained among the lowest of major cities in the country, the number is growing rapidly.

From 2010 to 2014, Oklahoma City’s rent grew at a rate of 18 percent, ranking the city just behind San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and Seattle. The rent growth topped cities, including Los Angeles; Austin, Texas; Dallas; Fort Worth, Texas; Houston, Minneapolis and San Antonio.

Oklahoma City during that same time period built five affordable units for every 100 households paying 50 percent or more of their income toward housing. That number is far below an array of cities that include 17 for every 100 households in Omaha, 20 for every 100 in Indianapolis and 33 for every 100 in Kansas City, Missouri.

“Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and the District of Columbia all do a better job providing affordable housing to those at 15 percent of average median income,” Colgan said. “If we recognize these issues now, we won’t become an Austin or Dallas where this is a problem.”

In discussions with a recent gathering of the Urban Land Institute, a panel of specialists in affordable housing advised a communitywide focus is needed to develop new solutions.

Chris Varga, an Oklahoma City planner who oversees the planning department’s housing and community development, cautioned declining funding is available through federal Community Development Block Grants. The Neighborhood Stabilization Fund, which helped pay for housing with City Care, Pershing Center and at West Lawn Gardens, also is nearing an end with an estimated $1.3 million still available.

Darrell Beavers, housing development team leader at the Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency, reported a large percentage of projects have been built in rural areas as opposed to urban areas in Oklahoma City and Tulsa where the largest need is being unmet. Part of that gap is by design - a state tax credit for affordable housing created by Oklahoma lawmakers two years ago excluded Tulsa and Oklahoma counties.

Colgan said his agency has a two-year waitlist of about 10,000 people needing affordable housing. The Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency also has a waitlist of about 10,000 and no new applications are being accepted.

Those still trying to fill the gap in Oklahoma City include Positively Paseo, but the agency’s capacity is limited to building less than a dozen new homes each year.

Cathy O’Connor, director of the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority, said her office has renewed its efforts to bring new affordable housing to the market. All of the 136 apartments being developed by Ron and Jason Bradshaw at the historic Page Woodson School are affordable units being offered to those making 60 percent or less of average median income.

O’Connor also is reserving authority-owned land for affordable housing and is hoping to have a mix of housing included in the area known as Core to Shore.

“What’s changing is the belief in the reality that we need to provide affordable housing as part of a mixed income community,” O’Connor said. “We need to provide housing for the range of incomes - that’s important. We have people who need to live close to work and yet there are no affordable options for them.”

Fulmer sees Classen Commons as an ideal but rare example of truly addressing the needs of a segment of the population needing affordable housing. The apartments are across the street from a bus stop, within walking distance of a Homeland grocery store and St. Anthony Hospital, and, in a couple of years, the city’s new streetcar system.

Page Woodson, meanwhile, is within walking distance of public transit as well and a large employment base at the OU Medical Center.

Both Colgan and O’Connor say they believe the city is ready to seriously look at affordable housing and how to better grow the city for all of its residents. Perceptions, O’Connor said, must change as part of the ongoing discussion.

“Everybody should be able to live in a safe place and have access to high-quality schools, amenities and to be able to get to work,” O’Connor said. “Most of the people who qualify for affordable housing do work. They are not unemployed. They work. If you are at 60 percent of average median income, you have a job. It may not pay as much as other jobs, but it is work.”

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Information from: The Oklahoman, https://www.newsok.com

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