The images in this spread show that downtown living is exciting, creative and cutting edge. But with all of the renovation and construction, will there be room for everyone who wants to live downtown? That is, will there be affordable housing?
City officials and others say affordable housing will not be in the immediate future of downtown's renovation, but long-term projects are possible. John Lawrence, president of Downtown Jackson Partners, says there are a few factors to place into the equation—and a major problem is meeting the demand for any type of downtown housing. Developers will leap to meet the desires of high-dollar tenants first, where the demand is more quantifiable and the development more likely to be profitable.
"We looked at cities that were comparable to Jackson, cities like Little Rock and Baton Rouge that are almost identical to Jackson," said Lawrence, who himself lives above Hal & Mal's in a loft. "We looked at what the downtown residential population vs. their downtown employment population and vs. their metro area population. When we plugged in our formula, we figured that (Jackson's) demand is probably somewhere around 1,400 residential units downtown. That is what we would like to be working toward," he said.
A group called Cooper Carry Architecture, a planning firm based in Atlanta, consulted with the city's Planning Department to come up with numbers of their own. This group said that the demand calls for 400 to 1,200 residential units in Jackson.
The second part of the problem is that there are not many vacant buildings with spaces large enough for apartments that are not already presently occupied by office tenants. "It is not like Birmingham or Shreveport or Memphis," said Lawrence, "where there are all these blocks and blocks of vacant buildings."
Most developers have very limited options, Lawrence said. One is to try to buy land from private landowners, many of whom have inherited the property. "If you want to buy one block of property, there are probably about 10 different parcels for that one block," Lawrence said. "And it is probably property that has been inherited. They have probably about 10 different cousins for that one block of property, and they can't even decide where to have Thanksgiving, let alone what to do with Granddaddy's property." In other words, the problem for a potential apartment developer is to package enough property to build a large residential development.
Once the developer jumps that hurdle, it is still a costly project to take on with land prices downtown—it is simply more expensive to build an apartment in town than somewhere in suburbia. "It is about $5 per foot to buy land in a field somewhere." said Lawrence, "and about $15 per foot to buy land downtown."
This financial hurdle is one that small developers like Robert Polk have been dealing with for years now. He agrees with Lawrence, saying that the problem with a developer trying to build affordable housing is that costs are just too high.
"The problem you got with entry level housing is the initial cost. (Affordable housing) probably will happen, but only with government tax incentives," he said.
public helping private
Getting public entities involved in these projects is one solution to finding ways to integrate moderate- to low-income housing in a downtown residential renaissance. Director of City Planning and Development Corinne Fox said that most of the projects that the city is currently involved in are for market-rate (meaning pricey) housing however.
"We are working on some incentives to assist developers. One thing—if you buy a piece of office space and turn it into residential housing, you will receive a major tax break. That is one incentive," Fox said.
City planners are looking toward other cities for ideas, though. In 1984, downtown Denver, Colo., looked much like what we see today in the nucleus of Jackson. It was desolate, vacant, a ghost town of sorts. Many of the major department stores were gone, along with the gas and oil companies that once made the city thrive. Now downtown Denver has undergone a major change—thanks in large part to Downtown Denver Partnership Inc. (DDP), a non-profit organization that has planned creative, vibrant and unique projects for the downtown area.
"People who lived here then, in 1985, and those who live here now will tell you that there has been a dramatic change," said Errin Welty, DDP research coordinator. Most importantly, the city has been successful in including many, if not all, of its citizens in the new downtown scene. "About 25 percent of the existing center-city housing is considered affordable," Welty said. "And that includes everything from senior low-income housing to moderate workforce housing for people who earn about 20 percent of the median income."
Many of the projects in downtown Denver were able to implement affordable housing into the mix because of strong city support. "A lot of the projects had affordable housing tax credits, which made it possible for developers to be able to include affordable residential units," Welty said.
Two years ago, in fact, the Denver city government passed an ordinance that stated that all residential units being built in the city must have at least 10 percent affordable housing. "We know that we don't have as much affordable units as other cities and there is more to be done, but we are trying to improve in areas where we are lacking," Welty said.
it's all about balance
The National Low Income Housing Coalition is dedicated to helping improve the lack of affordable housing crisis in the United States. Its report, "The Crisis in America's Housing: Confronting Myths and Promoting a Balanced Housing Policy," says that unbalanced housing is one of the biggest problems facing many cities in the United States. A balanced housing policy calls for homeownership and rental housing opportunities to be available and affordable for all families regardless of income. The group believes that communities should invest in people just as much as in property.
Unbalanced housing causes problems more complicated than someone not being able to stay in the trendy area of town. "When housing prices are hyper-inflated, homeownership is out of the reach for millions of middle and low income people," the report stated. "When housing markets collapse, homeowners can be crushed if they have to sell before prices have rebounded and they can't recoup investments. When other housing options are scarce, unaffordable, of substandard quality or not convenient to decent jobs, services and schools, a local housing crisis is created or exacerbated."
Will a boom in downtown living in Jackson bring this kind of problem along with it? That is, if the downtown development projects continue to only include upscale, high-income residential projects, will the city have a festering unbalanced housing situation?
Not if the city is proactive, much as Denver has been, and leaders are determined to do this right the first time. We can learn from the others early enough in our boom to get it right: The key is to mix it up, making sure that all of the citizens are able to enjoy the fruits of the hard work planners, builders and officials have put into downtown. That'll take both incentives to bring down the costs and, more than likely, some regulation to require affordable housing units within new developments. In other words, it takes a balance and a commitment to both improve the downtown and make it accessible to everyone who is interested.
I think the prices should be just expensive enough to where those types of people who don't like to take care of their stuff can't get in, but not too expensive to where someone like me can move into downtown and enjoy my stay.
- Black Man
Succinct point, Black Man. See you downtown, friend. ;-D