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Home team: County renews affordable housing focus

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Posted: Sunday, January 12, 2020 8:15 pm

The Cameron County Housing Finance Corporation had in mind three Brownsville locations that it thought could help improve the city’s housing stock.

None of them panned out, though CCHFC — reactivated after several years of relative inactivity — isn’t giving up.

The organization had been working with a developer interested in turning the former Resaca Elementary School at 901 E. Filmore St. into multi-family senior housing. CCHFC officials weren’t able to get a meeting with the Brownsville Independent School District about buying the property by the deadline for applying for a 9 percent housing tax credit from the state necessary to make the project go.

Sergio Gonzalez, the corporation’s board president, said the proximity of the expressway and Valley Baptist Medical Center and other factors make the former school, one of three decommissioned by the Brownsville Independent School District last year, ideal for senior housing.

Spearheading the partnership is the developer, Austin-based Commonwealth Companies, which specializes in adapting old buildings for reuse while preserving their historical integrity, Gonzalez said. Resaca Elementary opened in 1931. The plan was to preserve and renovate the Art Deco-style main building and add new construction to create approximately 65 housing units — with the tax credit, he said.

To secure the credit from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs and get the project started this year, earnest money and a purchase contract would have had to have been in place by Jan. 8, Gonzalez said. CCHFC officials have not met with BISD about a sale, though they were given a tour of the property by BISD’s chief financial officer, Gonzalez said.

Mark Yates, executive director of CCHFC, requested at a Dec. 3 Brownsville City Commission meeting that a new Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone for downtown be modified slightly to include the Resaca Elementary property, which would make winning the tax credit easier. Commissioners approved the request.

“If the 9 percent is awarded to that project there’s a good chance that the company we’re working with will develop that property,” Yates said at the meeting.

Philip Cowen, a member of the BISD Board of Trustees facilities committee, said he couldn’t speak for the entire board but thinks senior housing would be an appropriate use of the former school.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” he said.

Cowen said he’d like to see something similar happen with the former Longoria Elementary School at 2400 E. Van Buren St., though BISD has no plans to sell its other decommissioned campus, the former Victoria Heights Elementary at 1764 Roosevelt St. That school may reopen once families have moved into a nearby Brownsville Housing Authority development under construction: Poinsettia Gardens at Boca Chica, he said.

Another location CCHFC and the developer was eyeing for acquisition for affordable housing was a former Texas Department of Human Services building at 2345 E. Price Rd., across the resaca from the Resaca de la Palma National Battlefield.

“A housing project would have been very nice there,” Gonzalez said. “Somebody else put in a higher bid.”

CCHFC also spoke with the owners of the former Payless Shoe Source building at East 12th and East Elizabeth and the Colonial Hotel abutting it at East 12th and East Levee, but were unable to agree on sale terms, Gonzalez said.

“You have to respect the sellers,” he said. “They own the buildings and they value their assets.”

CCHFC continues to search for properties in pursuit of its mission to improve the county’s housing stock, and hopes to make the Resaca Elementary deal happen this year, Gonzalez said. In acquiring properties, the developer would cover nearly all the cost and the county would have a 1 percent stake as a general partner.

“We would have a controlling interest, to make sure it gets a property tax exemption,” Gonzalez said. “That’s a significant cost savings. In return we ask that you provide affordable housing. A general partner interest is a lot when you have ability to dictate who gets to lives there and how to manage it.”

CCHFC was active before the financial crisis, issuing bonds to build single-family housing, but was largely inactive from about 2010 until a few years ago when Yates “picked up the mantle again,” Gonzalez said. The office has no source of revenue and no budget and is staffed by volunteers. Its current focus is partnering the county together with developers to create various types of affordable housing for families, seniors and veterans.

“What we do now is basically community involvement, coming from our desire to see better housing for our community,” Gonzalez said. “We strive for all levels. Everybody needs a good, affordable, clean place to live in.”

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com

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