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Dallas Can Do Better Than $200K per Homeless Housing Unit

Let’s talk about a little nugget from Wednesday's Council briefing.
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A row of cots lined up inside the Oak Lawn United Methodist Church, which opens its doors to shelter the homeless on the coldest nights of the year. Photo courtesy of Oak Lawn United Methodist Church.
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Dallas Can Do Better Than $200K per Homeless Housing Unit

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On Wednesday, City Council members were briefed on housing for the homeless. Specifically, they were briefed on the city’s goal to add 1,000 permanent, supportive units over the next three to five years to combat chronic homelessness. More specifically, they were briefed on the way $20 million in bond funds could best be put to use to that end.

It’s a difficult task facing the Office of Homeless Solutions: identify potential spots to place the housing, taking into account the same discussions of equity that define the city’s affordable housing talks, while balancing the needs of developers. You realize very quickly that $20 million doesn’t do much without outside buy-in.

But one thing did jump out from Wednesday’s presentation. Of the three proposed sites brought to Council during open session, the largest, a 100-unit site just south of LBJ Freeway along Greenville Avenue, comes with an estimated cost of $20 million. Some quick math brings us to $200,000 a unit.

The city can do better than that. That seemed to be Councilwoman Jennifer Staubach Gates’ main point when she took the microphone after the briefing, and it stands to reason. She pointed to a project in her own district, the St. Jude Center, which she says was built at a touch over $5 million for 100 units—$50,000 a pop. (Wilonsky has it at $6 million and 104 units—$57,000 per—but the point stands.)

Major caveat needed here: Gates’ comparison is nowhere near apples to apples, because the St. Jude project was a renovation of an existing building. The city’s $20 million proposal, if it’s built, gets built from the ground up. But her larger point has to do with leveraging developers’ interests in ways that stretch city funds.

“I think we just need to be really flexible, when we release the Request For Development Interest, to try to maximize achieving as close to those 1,000 units as possible,” Gates said.

Over the phone on Thursday, Monica Hardman, who directs the city’s Office of Homeless Solutions, said Wednesday’s briefing had an even more specific aim than the ones in my lead, which was to garner feedback on sites identified by city staff. But, she said, it’s important to take a step back and note that her department’s strategy indeed involves the sort of leverage Gates speaks of.

Hardman talked about fitting the bond money into incentive packages to entice developers, and about the potential for additional city funding in future years. Too, her office anticipates it will get several proposals from developers who’ve already picked out—or who currently own—their own sites to build or renovate; she sees the potential for mixed use. And in fact, she says she’s already made contact with a variety of interested parties, including larger development companies and smaller community-level housing developers, but also philanthropic agencies looking to kick in funding.

And on $200,000 a unit? Hardman says the number was an estimate based on recent construction projects within the city, but that it will be possible to do it for less money. Again, she sees private partners as the key. It will also be interesting to see if the city gains developer interest from anyone looking to do something truly outside the box. You’re starting to see cities with more pronounced homeless issues experimenting with things like, say, building housing out of shipping containers.

“We welcome the opportunity to utilize some of our city-owned assets and acquiring some potential properties in strategic parts of the city,” says Hardman, “but we also really look forward to proposals from the development community—and that’s really where we’ll be able to see that creativity and that innovation.”

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