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Ansonborough Field. City seeks more "affordable housing"

Developers face a conundrum.
Warwick Jones

The City may not always be sensitive to criticism. But at least it has its finger in the wind. It seems as though it felt a need for more affordable housing on Ansonborough Field. But whether this breeze was real or imagined, we are unsure. African-American members of City Council originally wanted "affordable housing" included in the development of Ansonborough Field, a reflection of the fact that a housing project was demolished to make way for the development. But we sense that enthusiasm has waned as members realize that the housing to be provided as affordable, is not. The City is persevering to ensure substantial "affordable housing" will be built on the Field. As before, we think it makes no economic sense. (See Afforable Housing on Ansonborough Field? March 6, 2006)

Asking for 25% of housing to be affordable
At the meeting yesterday of the Committee that will decide who develops the Field, members agreed to ask the developers to lift the number of affordable units to at least 25% of the total housing units provided. The three finalists competing for the project originally allowed only for 15 to 20%. As an incentive to provide more affordable units, the Committee reminded the developers that the parking requirement for "affordable housing" was 1 parking space for every 4 units. This compared with 1.5 spaces for every unit of conventional housing. The Committee hopes that this consideration might allow higher "affordable housing" density on the site. Whether such a consideration will make a difference, is conjectural. Parking generally is planned for the ground floor, which cannot be used for housing because of FEMA regulations. So a decrease in the parking requirements may not give much or any latitude to increase housing density.

Interiors can be more economical
The developers were also given further incentive to increase the "affordable housing" ratio by a modest change in the requirements. In the original request, "affordable housing" was to be indistinguishable from conventional housing, in all respects. Developers now may make the interiors of the affordable units more "economical". We doubt that this will prove significant. As one developer at the last meeting said, achieving economies on the interior will make little difference to the final cost of units. We alos think it may be a false economy as cheap material may lead to higher maintenence costs.

Profits pressured by redefining "affordable housing" buyers
But although the bar over which developers must jump was lowered in one respect, it was raised in another. The original stipulation allowed developers to provide "affordable housing" for those earning between 80% and 150% of the area median income. Perhaps the City was reacting to criticism that it was providing "affordable housing" for those who did not need assistance. The City now suggests that upper limit be reduced to 120% and that consideration be given for those earning as low as 50% of area median income. This will add to pressure on developer's profit by reducing the potential sale price of "affordable" units.

And it also seems that some members of the Committee don't expect the developers to reduce by much the consideration to be paid to the City in the wake of any changes.

Enthusiasm of developers reduced?
We understand there wasn't too much enthusiasm amongst developers to get involved in the Ansonborough Field project. There was concern about pollution of the site, the uneconomical "affordable housing", the ability to make a profit, and fear that the decision on the successful bidder would be weighed by political considerations. We suspect the three finalists may be having second thoughts too.

The provision of "affordable housing" is a major problem for the developers. Although the interiors of the affordable units may be more "economical", the exteriors will be identical to those of the conventional units. The cost of construction of each unit will not be materially different from the conventional units. Yet to make the units affordable, the developer will have to sell or rent them at well below market prices and quite possibly below cost. So now they are being asked to produce even more affordable units and with the expectation that there will be little change in the cash paid to the City. In ain't going to happen!

Other requests
The Committee had a number of other requests to make of the developers. Some of the submissions had few details relating to the materials to be used in construction. The Committee sought more information on this and emphasized the need for quality construction materials. It also sought more details in relation to market rate housing - the size and nature of the units, number of bedrooms and bathrooms etc. It was also concerned that some structures may exceed the height limits for the area. The Committee asked the developers to indicate whether variances were needed, something the Committee wished to discourage.

The Committee discussed whether the City should insist on a payment in cash for consideration, or allow for some terms. Initially, the mood of the Committee was inclined to cash. But the Mayor suggested that there would be no harm hearing suggestions. If for example, a substantial increase in "affordable housing" could be achieved by providing terms, then it may be favored. He prevailed.

The developers will be given three weeks to respond after consideration of the queries raised by the Committee.

We still ask why "affordable housing" is being built on the Field
Our reaction to the meeting yesterday has already been signaled. We question whether "affordable housing" should be placed on the Field and as we've written before, it makes more sense to sell housing at market rates and the proceeds used for developing "affordable housing" in less affluent parts of the City. But there is also the consideration that if the developers provide a greater proportion of "affordable housing" on the Field, it will be at the expense of the quality of the housing, or the amount of cash that is paid to the City by the developer.

Ansonborough residents not likely to be happy
We expect that the residents of Ansonborough will not be too happy with the City's recent proposals. There may be no legal reasons why the developers should not provide fewer parking spaces with the provision of "affordable housing". But realistically, there will be more cars than parking spaces in the development, whatever the percentage of "affordable housing". The City undoubtedly hopes residents and others will use the nearby parking garages. The residents of Ansonborough fear that the spillover will be to the detriment of parking in their neighborhood.

No discussion of supermarket proposal
There was no discussion at yesterday's meeting of the proposal to incorporate a supermarket into the development. One of the finalists proposed a supermarket be placed at the site of the proposed African American Museum, and that the museum be built on Ansonborough Field. With Mr. Wally Seisheimer and David Agnew members of the consortium that made this proposal, we find it hard to believe that the Mayor had no wind of it. (Mr. Seisheimer was principal of the group that developed Vendue Range and is a political supporter of the Mayor. Mr. David Agnew was once an assistant to the Mayor and rumored to be the Mayor's choice as his successor) We thought the proposal made good sense, as did many other people we spoke to. It may have made good sense to the Mayor as well, but the finger in the air felt a chill wind from some members of the African-American community. So it seems that this was sufficient to kill any consideration of the proposal. Pity, it could've made a lot of difference to the economics of the development.