Swan Crossing addresses affordable housing shortage

Melissa Crowe By Melissa Crowe

Aug. 9, 2014 at 7:06 p.m.
Updated Aug. 10, 2014 at 12:11 a.m.

Real estate agents say Victoria is a seller's market, and with half the county made up of renters and a shortage of affordable housing, the dream of becoming a homeowner is falling out of financial reach.

However, Victoria officials haven't given up hope on a publicly funded subdivision aimed at filling in the housing gaps.

Tucked into southeast Victoria on the corner of Lova Drive and Hanselman Road, a quiet 55-lot subdivision called Swan Crossing is a reprieve from escalating rental prices. For some, it's a chance to build equity and an opportunity for first-time homebuyers to lay down roots.

But eight years since the city unveiled the subdivision, only half the lots are filled up.

Home sweet home

Rose Alvarez is one of 27 homeowners who have taken up residence on Swan Drive.

When the apartment complex where she was a renter sold in November to the University of Houston-Victoria, Alvarez, 58, knew she'd have to move again.

She'd spent much of her life as a military wife, traversing across the country, growing familiar with the routines of purging and packing before settling into an apartment in Victoria.

With the help of a friend, she got in touch with Victoria real estate agent Priscilla Pompey, who has taken the reins of the Swan Crossing subdivision.

"I, still to this day, I can't believe it," Alvarez said. "I wanted a home, but I didn't know how to go about it. I don't make that much money."

She dropped out of high school and later earned her GED. She works with special-needs students at Chandler Elementary School, where her students call her Miss Rose.

Standing in the custom kitchen in her three-bedroom home on Swan Drive, she is still getting used to the smell of new paint in the space that's all hers.

It was hard work getting to where she is, putting her finances in order and taking life into her own hands.

The paperwork was exhausting, and there were times she was ready to throw in the white towel and call a leasing office.

"It was so, so hard," Alvarez said, but Pompey wouldn't let her quit.

She purchased a new couch, washer and dryer set and a refrigerator and moved into her three-bedroom, two-bathroom home June 1.

Victoria steps in

Time and bad economics have reshaped Swan Crossing's landscape.

Marketed in 2006 to first-time and low-income homebuyers, affordable housing was in demand.

The fair market price for a two-bedroom apartment in Victoria was $589 and climbing that year.

Swan Crossing was Victoria's solution to the housing issues.

The City Council invested $250,000 in local tax dollars and used $570,000 in federal funds from the Community Development Block Grant program.

The grant came with restrictions. The city put in guidelines on how many lots would be sold to buyers in different income brackets. Officials also added financial assistance on the price of the lot, installing sidewalks and a driveway. Home prices begin in the mid-$80,000 range.

To qualify for a lot, buyers must meet set income guidelines, but at the same time, they must earn enough to qualify for a mortgage to cover the cost of the home. The 2014 guidelines cap the income for a family of four at $43,350.

But the 55-lot, 12-acre neighborhood hadn't gained enough momentum before the national recession hit in 2008, said Victoria Development Services Director Jared Mayfield.

"I'm a big believer in home ownership," Mayfield said. "There's another level of pride that comes with owning a home that is or was part of the American dream."

In 2010, with construction in the neighborhood at a standstill, Victoria City Council voted to partner with Golden Crescent Habitat for Humanity to fill eight lots with cottage-style homes.

Habitat Director Cynthia Staley said it is the city's long-term affordable housing solution.

"From our perspective, Habitat housing is desperately needed now," Staley said.

Setting the foundation

Wednesday morning, construction crews poured and smoothed concrete foundations for two new homes on the east end of Swan Drive. Contracts are pending on four nearby lots.

Mayfield said the goal was to have Swan Crossing sold-out and built-up by now.

"It's just good that it's back on track, and it's got interest," said Mayfield, who has overseen the project since 2006. "We're seeing homes under construction."

Habitat for Humanity plans to finish its 10th home this year and build three more by next spring. Thirteen other homeowners, six of whom were above income eligibility, have also built houses on Swan Drive.

With about 17 percent of Victoria County residents living below the poverty level, according to 2012 Census data, the need for affordable housing and Swan Crossing is still real.

"The interest seems like it's at an all-time high," Mayfield said. "We have the ability to sell out; it's just a matter of capturing enough homeowners."

Significant erosion in renter incomes during the past decade has "pushed the number of households paying excessive shares of income for housing to record levels," according to a 2014 study on the rental property industry by Harvard University.

Victoria County's fair market rental rate went from $699 for a two-bedroom apartment to $721 in five years, according to federal housing records.

Nearly half of all renters in the county spend more than a third of their income on housing costs, according to the Census data.

"Habitat families can't afford that," Staley said.

For Alvarez, homeownership has been a dream come true.

Her mortgage payment is a little more than $700 a month, about $100 more than she paid in rent at her old apartment.

It may not be her final stop or the place where she grows old, but for now, it's home.

"I plan to stay here for a while," she said.



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