Benbrook, Texas: Building a Safe and Supportive Community With Affordable Housing
In 2017–2018, as housing costs continued to surge in Benbrook, Texas, a city of 21,000 in the southwestern suburbs of Fort Worth, an undeveloped 10.5-acre site zoned for multifamily use offered an excellent opportunity to contribute needed affordable housing. Although area residents complained about the illicit activities that occurred on the undeveloped site, they were also apprehensive about inserting multifamily housing among their single-family detached houses. OM Housing, a development firm active in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, acquired the site, and in 2018, it completed the Boston Heights Apartments, which added 144 units of affordable and market-rate housing to Benbrook. In the process, OM Housing worked closely with area residents to address their concerns about safety and compatible design, and it also incorporated sustainable features into the new housing. The project’s environmental features, community safety improvements, and services helped Boston Heights earn a 2021 Vanguard Award for New Construction in the Large Property category from the National Affordable Housing Management Association.
Safe and Environmentally Friendly Affordable Housing
Boston Heights’ 8 two- and three-story buildings contain 130 units rented to households earning no more than 30, 50, or 60 percent of the area median income and 14 market-rate units. Onsite amenities include a clubhouse with a community center; a communal kitchen; audiovisual equipment available for social events; business, fitness, and youth spaces; and a pool, playground, and barbeque area. OM Housing also incorporated green features in the design, earning Boston Heights the first LEED Gold certification for a multifamily development in Benbrook. Features include ENERGY STAR® appliances and low-flow water fixtures that can reduce residents’ utility bills by approximately $40 per month. To conserve water, OM Housing favored native plants in its landscaping and installed a high-efficiency irrigation system. The use of materials with low levels of volatile organic compounds protects residents’ health. Development costs for Boston Heights, which totaled $26.5 million, were financed through low-income housing tax credits and Section 221(d)(4) loans.
To complete Boston Heights, OM Housing needed to overcome initial opposition to creating multifamily housing in a neighborhood of detached single-family houses, which residents believed would undermine their privacy and property values. Residents also were concerned that dangerous and criminal activity occurring on the vacant site would continue after development. To address the neighborhood’s concerns, OM Housing undertook a series of engagement sessions with residents and designed Boston Heights to be responsive to those concerns. The developer hired property management company Asset Living to manage these meetings and offer design advice. To resolve privacy concerns, the structures closest to neighboring single-family houses were limited to two stories, and OM Housing installed a privacy fence and landscape buffer along the property lines. Boston Heights also adopted the principles of crime prevention through environmental design, including features such as a controlled entry system, security cameras, and abundant lighting. OM Housing also pointed to previous projects in which, following completion of a development, crime rates decreased and the value of nearby homes increased more than the average for the Fort Worth area.
The site’s development offered the potential for significant advantages for the developer, the local community, and Boston Heights residents. The site’s existing high-density multifamily zoning simplified the developer’s approval process. Neighborhood residents would benefit because the development displaced those involved in illicit activities. Future residents of Boston Heights would benefit from the site’s location in a preferred census tract, a state designation of suitability for affordable housing because of proximity to schools, employment centers, grocery stores, highways, and other amenities.
Supporting Resident Success
Many residents of Boston Heights are single parents, and through a partnership with service provider Abundance of Life, OM Housing offers programs that support both children and adults. For adults, services include nutrition counseling, homebuyer readiness classes, computer services, and physical and spiritual wellness programs as well as referrals to appropriate agencies. Parenting skills classes, job training, and life skills courses are also available. Children living at Boston Heights may attend daycare and an afterschool program, the Life Enrichment and Academic Program (LEAP). LEAP offers homework assistance and access to Boston Heights’ computer lab, which children can use to complete homework assignments. The computer lab is also a resource for adults who are looking for jobs online or seeking out other important information.
These programs are important for addressing disparities that exist between low-income and affluent households. According to the Pew Research Center, the digital divide between affluent and low-income households remains stark: only 57 percent of low-income adults have access to broadband service and only 59 percent own a desktop or laptop computer, whereas these technologies are ubiquitous among affluent households. Another disparity concerns opportunities for physical activities, particularly swimming. To address persistent socioeconomic gaps in swimming ability — 79 percent of children in low-income families have either no or minimal ability to swim — swimming lessons are available for both children and adults in the onsite pool. Nutrition counseling is available to residents to promote sustained and beneficial dietary changes, combating the strong positive correlation between low income and poor diet. In addition, a homebuyer readiness program at Boston Heights can help lower-income households who want to create a source of family wealth successfully become and remain homeowners.
Based on testimonials and other informal sources, OM Housing reports that Boston Heights has generated positive outcomes for residents, including the achievement of personal educational goals that the residents believe would not have been attainable otherwise. Boston Heights residents say that the development’s services, safety, and affordability have offered them greater physical and material security, which serve as a foundation for resident well-being. In addition, OM Housing says that area residents have benefited from decreased crime and increased property values following the completion of Boston Heights.