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Bonton Farms is Closer to Adding Workforce Housing to its Mission

Bonton Farms had the money, but now it's closer to having the city’s permission to turn dirt on its first multifamily affordable housing effort.
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Daron Babcock at Bonton Farms, photography by Elizabeth Lavin

Bonton Farms and Catholic Housing already had the money to build affordable multifamily housing in the Bonton neighborhood. But the partners need the city to approve a zoning change that will allow them to turn dirt.

Last week, they got a little closer after the City Planning Commission voted to approve changing the zoning from neighborhood commercial to multifamily for a stretch along Bexar St. between Valentine and Silkwood streets. City staff recommended the CPC approve the request.

At an earlier briefing, CityBuild Community Development Corp. director Trey Holloway said the 12 studio apartments, 14 one-bedroom apartments, and 10 two-bedroom apartments would be affordable, workforce housing. (CityBuild is the community development arm of Bonton Farms.)

Holloway explained that, as many know, Bonton Farms’ initial mission was to create jobs in an area that had been long-ignored by the city and private development. 

“But we realized real quick that housing was a serious problem,” he explained. “We’d have people come to the farm to work with us, and to work on their life plan, and they would leave us, and we’d find out they had to move out of the community because they had nowhere to live.”

So the mission became a little bigger.

“Several years ago, Bonton partnered with Catholic Housing on a NOFA application with the city housing department,” he said. A NOFA, or Notice of Funding Availability, allows community development corporations to partner with the city to create housing. Through this mechanism, city-owned land is combined with public/private partnerships and social service providers. It is also subject to whatever rules and limitations that are imposed by the funding streams the city has accessed. Currently, the city has about $3.2 million in NOFA funding from three sources.

In Bonton’s case, Holloway says that its NOFA requires (thanks to a deed restriction) that a percentage of the units remain affordable housing for at least 15 years. And while the NOFA (and the zoning passed by the CPC this month) only requires a percentage, Holloway said “100 percent” of the units would be affordable. 

Some commissioners were worried about the prospect of potentially concentrating more affordable housing in South Dallas, which is something the city should always monitor. But Bonton representatives said the affordable housing shortage was hitting Bonton, too.

This wasn’t a matter of deciding whether the development should be placed in Bonton or in a more affluent neighborhood closer to jobs and services. This was an all-in deal that was specifically designed to address the need of a specific neighborhood; the project would die without the zoning change.

Holloway told commissioners on June 2 that newly-built homes in Bonton were selling for $300,000 or more, “which is also creating an affordability problem.”

Even in Bonton, an area where only 30 percent of residents own cars and 44 percent live below the poverty line, residents run the danger of being priced out of a place to live. 

At briefings on June 2 and June 16, commissioners also focused on aesthetics and amenities, questioning the decision to place the complex close to Bexar Street. They asked whether CityBuild could squeeze in a little more greenspace into the design. 

The project’s civil engineer, Michael Westfall, explained that the variances—which include a maximum height of 45 feet, which is about three stories—might seem “harsh” for regular multifamily housing, but it was in line with the neighborhood commercial zoning that was currently in place. However, by June 16, the developers had met with city arborists and were able to come up with some changes to the landscaping plan that would address new trees and greenspace. The project also protects a large oak tree on Silkwood St.

Without the variance allowing for the 45-foot height, the project would be subject to residential proximity slope requirements. That would limit it to 26 feet, and would reduce the number of units available for rent by a third. Pushing it up against Bexar St., Westfall said at the briefing, would also minimize the impact of the height to existing homes nearby.

But Westfall explained that everything—the placement of the building next to the sidewalk on Bexar Street, the number of units, the amount of parking—was predicated by the idea that Bonton could be a walkable neighborhood. Bexar St. was recently repaved. The sidewalks were redone. Bonton plans on adding in bike racks as well, and there is a DART station less than a mile from the proposed complex. 

Holloway said that the aim was to create affordable workforce housing in an area where there isn’t a lot of it. 

“We want to house the folks that are working on the farm,” he said, adding that other individuals that meet the income requirements have also been able to move into various rental homes that CityBuild owns in Bonton, too. 

“In all honesty, we have so many men and women who are dying, who don’t even have a place to live,” he said. “Amenities are great, and we’d all love to have them, but our biggest goal was to get people off the street.”

It’s worth noting that William Blair Park and a small lake reside less than a mile from the project. The Buckeye Trail is also close by, as is Bonton Farms and its associated cafe and farmers market. A community center is also within walking distance, and Bonton also plans on building a 9,000 square-foot health and wellness center in a partnership with Parkland Hospital and Baylor Scott & White Health, located at Bexar and Carlton Garrett streets. 

Bonton also works with residents to provide DART passes, and partners with Bike Friendly Dallas to offer donated bikes to Bonton residents, too.

But what almost got lost in the kind of mind-numbing discussion about setbacks and site trees and residential proximity slope and a soup bowl of acronyms is what this complex will mean to the community. 

Clifton Reese, who serves as the president of the neighborhood association and is also employed by Bonton Farms’ honey operation, spoke in favor of the project twice. Both times he said he was speaking on behalf of his neighbors.

“We support this project because it’s about the things we all agree on—it’s about sustainability, equity, and everything that comes with development in inner city communities like Bonton,” he said on June 2. 

“I grew up in this community and I watched a lot of things happen and a lot of things not happen to this community,” he said on June 16. “The opportunities that housing will provide for the people in this project will be a lot. Housing isn’t the only thing, it’s (what) the access to housing can bring. Sixteen years ago I was sleeping in a car. Now I own a home.”

At that same meeting, he reminded commissioners that they were seeing him and not a gallery full of Bonton residents, because the very meeting that discussed the fate of his community also had inequity built into it.

People who live in Bonton can’t often afford to sit all day at a City Plan Commission meeting, he pointed out.

“A lot of people get off late,” he said, adding that six or seven people, including a homeowner who will be directly behind the site, provided letters of support. “They go to work early, and they get off late.” 

In the end, the commission (with commissioners Melissa Kingston and Lorie Blair opposing) voted to approve the zoning change, and the matter will head to the city council.

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Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.

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