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The Improbable Tale of Affordable Housing in Wealthy Clarksville

“Affordable affluence” may seem like an oxymoron. But, in the Clarksville neighborhood of Austin, a place where a modest one-bedroom/one bath home goes for a quarter of a million dollars, neighbors are trying something a little different. They’re making some homes affordable for families that would otherwise be priced out of the neighborhood. By the end of this week, two more families will be moving into newly renovated Clarksville homes.

The 3-bedroom/2 ½ bathroom home on West 11th Street near downtown Austin smells like fresh paint.  The front door is charcoal. The window frames are lime green.  The echo coming from the voices of property manager Rose Gabriel and Mary Reed, the president of the non-profit that owns these properties will be gone once the family with two boys moves in this weekend. Gabriel rushes to the living room window: “the gas meters are getting put in!!! Ah! That’s exciting!” she says, “this means we’ll have heat and then, we are finished.” Reed joins Gabriel at the window and points to the bare yard. “And then, it’ll be time to landscape,” she says. Gabriel says that the most important thing is that once the gas meters are installed, “the tenants can move in.”

The properties are owned by the Clarksville Community Development Corporation. Reed says when the non-profit was established in the late 70’s “one of [the] missions was to provide affordable housing – to maintain the ethnic and economic diversity of our neighborhood.”  Reed says, “that is not necessarily stated value of other neighborhood groups. So, that’s probably another reason why you don’t see other neighborhoods doing that.”

Many parts of Austin are sprinkled with affordable housing developments.  But Gabriel says, Clarksville is the only community in West Austin where neighbors decided to buy homes and refurbish them with the sole purpose of renting them out. To qualify, a tenant’s income has to be 60 percent of the federal poverty guideline or lower. That’s about 45 thousand dollars annually for a family of 4. Gabriel says to keep people in the homes, they had to tweak their rules over the years: “one of our newest guidelines has been that we don’t charge people more than 30 percent of their income.” She says the rest can be used for bills.

Reed says neighbors involved with the non-profit realize how expensive it is to live in Clarksville. And it takes more than an affordable home to be able to fully "afford" living there. That’s why they came up with an alternative to Fresh Plus and Whole Foods - the neighborhood grocers. “Some of our tenants, at least one, has (sic) a vegetable garden,” Reed says “so, that’s one way she’s reducing her food bill. And then, we have a community garden as well.”

To help with utility bills, the non-profit has updated homes to make sure they are insulated and windows are thick and properly installed. When it comes to transportation, the Clarksville neighborhood is centrally located, so, getting somewhere either by foot or by bus is less of an issue than in other parts of Austin.

Affordable housing doesn’t always look like this. But, the need for it in Austin is growing. Just last week, the City Council set aside 10 million dollars to compete for state grants that could fund a couple of affordable housing projects. If approved, some projects may be centrally located.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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