Houston’s Montrose Center will provide affordable housing for seniors aged 62 and above. (Photo Credit: Montrose Center)

Stories of Houston’s Third Ward and Charlotte’s Historic West End read nearly identical. Rapid development and gentrification are common in nearly every conversation about the historically Black neighborhoods. 

Even their histories with mass transit, and the development that typically comes along with it, have been interestingly similar. By the mid-1980s, both Charlotte and Houston leaders were grappling with strategies to address growing population needs and expanding development. 

In 1984, Charlotte Planning Commission recommended a light rail connecting Uptown and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Funds for a feasibility study were dropped however due to lack of city council support. Houston’s path also met early hurdles when voters rejected a 1983 rail plan by referendum. 

Ground was broken on the projects in 2001 for Houston and subsequently in 2005 for Charlotte. Now, as there are plans for Charlotte’s CityLynx Gold Line streetcar and expansion of Houston’s METROrail, the two historically Black neighborhoods continue to grapple with added development along transit lines and neighborhoods struggle with how to ensure affordable housing for their residents while preserving their important history.  

Close to downtown (or in Charlotte terminology “Uptown”), the areas have already attracted townhome developers, increasing average home prices. According to a 2018 report by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, median home values in Houston’s Third Ward increased 176 percent between 2000 and 2013. 

Some plans are seeking to curb that lack of affordability. Federally-funded, city-administered down payment assistance programs, coupled with the city’s Land Assemblage Redevelopment Authority that took vacant tax delinquent property and sold it cheap to developers who agreed to produce homes at affordable price points, have been part of the solution, according to Leah Beinkovitz with the Kinder Institute. Low-income housing tax credits have also been put to use and community-based development groups have been dedicated to providing low-income housing. 

The federal housing tax credit program directs private capital toward the creation of affordable rental development. Owners and investors can use the credits as a dollar-for-dollar reduction of federal income tax liability and the value associated allows residences to be leased at below market-rate rents. 

According to Beinkovitz, neighborhood advocates in Houston argue that more is needed – “something that doesn’t just provide subsidies for affordable homeownership but that changes the game entirely.” 

The City of Houston set about creating its own Community Land Trust in 2016. “Like many major metropolitan areas in the United States, the nature and scale of affordable housing needs in Houston vary considerably by geography,” states a report from Grounded Solutions Network, a national organization working on inclusive housing initiatives that the city contracted to investigate the feasibility of the project. The report noted that Third Ward was a neighborhood where the strategy could be particularly effective. “In these neighborhoods, new development is quickly obliterating housing affordability, dramatically reshaping local demographics and radically altering the character and culture.” 

That need for maintaining a city’s neighborhood culture is something that Jeffrey Lowe, an associate professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University points out. “It’s a values question,” said Lowe in the Kinder Institute’s report. “The CLT (Community Land Trust) model is one that does not lend itself to the maximum that the market can bear, it lends itself more to giving away the maximum in a way that those who need assistance the most, those persons who are lower-income, for example, have an opportunity to have shelter that they can afford.” 

Land makes the difference. 

After seven years of planning, collaboration and construction, a project for LGBTQ older adults launched in 2018 and is helping ensure more inclusivity into the mix as well. The Law Harrington Senior Living Center is a project of the Montrose Center, Houston’s LGBTQ community center, and will provide 112 one- and two-bedroom independent living apartments for low-income seniors ages 62 and above in the Third Ward community. Apartments are limited to single older adults and couples whose annual income is below certain amounts based on an annual calculation from the Houston area. Income levels range from 30 to 60 percent of the city’s area median income. 

The project, which saw its first residents move in this past January was born out of some thought leadership with former Mayor Annise Parker, the Montrose Center and other key players throughout the city. “We really recognized there was a need for LGBTQ seniors to be able to have affordable housing,” says Austin Davis Ruiz, communications and marketing manager for the Montrose Center. Buy-in from the city housing authority, the business community, private foundations and the city’s leadership have been key to the project’s success. 

Sitting a mile away from the city’s LGBTQ community center and surrounding neighborhood of Montrose, the project is not only helping to address needs for more affordable housing options in Third Ward, but is addressing similar gentrification of gayborhoods, or areas that are predominantly inhabited or frequented by LGBTQ people.

In 1977, Ray Hill organized a protest against the anti-gay activist and singer Anita Bryant. An estimated 1,200 people showed up and galvanized the LGBTQ community in Houston. A year later, coalitions formed, most notably the Montrose Center, which was then called the Montrose Counseling Center. “As Montrose grew and continues to grow, the attraction of the location invites a phenomenon that affects ethnic and minority neighborhoods around the country,” says writer Dana Jones in explaining the history of the city’s gayborhood. 

Like historically Black communities, these gayborhoods face a gentrification of their own that includes affordability, but also the loss of gay culture and businesses. Ruiz points out that the project is not exclusively LGBTQ, but LGBTQ-affirming. “We specifically wanted it to be open to Third Ward residents, because there’s such a dearth of affordable housing in the city, let alone in Third Ward,” he said. “It’s a community that’s really struggling. We wanted to make sure it’s not just taking care of our LGBTQ seniors, but also taking care of people in the neighborhood.” 

Land in Montrose is very expensive and the neighborhood’s development has pushed a lot of its LGBTQ residents out. The Law Harrington was able to acquire land that was donated by the Midtown Redevelopment Authority with close proximity to the heart of the LGBTQ community.  

Unlike Houston, Charlotte has never had a specific gayborhood. The Dilworth neighborhood is likely the closest thing the Queen City had, but by the early 1990s the neighborhood started to change, and by 2000 many LGBTQ residents were also priced out.  

More than a third of all households in Charlotte are “cost-burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, according to a city report. With a growing number of LGBTQ seniors, there is no doubt that many fall into that category and with historic lack of protections in housing discrimination, they face additional barriers to safe and affordable options. 

“They’re twice as likely to live in social isolation and they’re four times less likely to have needed money for retirement saved up,” says Ruiz speaking of the national LGBTQ older adult population. With most senior living facilities in Houston and beyond being religiously affiliated, LGBTQ seniors are more likely to have to go back in the closet. 

As we grapple with finding solutions for affordable housing in Charlotte, what does that mean for the LGBTQ community and where we define our neighborhoods? How does Charlotte incorporate the inclusivity of LGBTQ identities into projects to address the issue, or do we need our own?

qnotes is part of six major media companies and other local institutions producing I Can’t Afford to Live Here, a collaborative reporting project focused on solutions to the affordable housing crisis in Charlotte. It is a project of the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, which is supported by the Local Media Project, an initiative launched by the Solutions Journalism Network with support from the Knight Foundation to strengthen and reinvigorate local media ecosystems. See all of our reporting at charlottejournalism.org.

 

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