Heather and John Collins first found out about a proposed 60-unit apartment complex planned for 909 Fisher St. — across the street from them — when a neighbor met State Rep. Penny Morales Shaw walking on their street.
“Our understanding was that (Shaw) was trying to determine whether to support the project,” Heather said.
Further digging and a conversation with the Super Neighborhood Council 12 president garnered more information about the Fisher Street Apartments and its New Orleans-based developer SBP, formerly the St. Bernard Project, a nonprofit disaster recovery and housing organization.
What the Collins couple learned has them and a number of other Garden Oaks-area neighbors concerned about the project's potential impact on the community, with regard to increased flooding risks and traffic in the already highly developed area. More than 600 people have signed an online petition in opposition to the project.
Because SBP is applying for 9 percent federal housing tax credits allocated by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) as a funding source for the development, the project is competing against several others in the Houston area. Housing tax credits are awarded based on a scoring system outlined by the TDHCA, which gives points for support from elected officials as well as community engagement.
The Houston City Council voted to support the project and a few others planned for the area on Wednesday, a day after area residents voiced their opposition to the council and SBP representatives also offered their input. The other local housing projects supported by the city council are the Houston 150 Bayou Apartments at 6970 Portwest Dr., Harvard Street Lofts at 15 Harvard St., the Campanile at Minimax SEC on Minimax Drive as well as Jackson Hinds Garden at 607 Thornton Rd.
According to SBP spokesperson Foofie Schaefer, the proposed Fisher Street development would feature 60 apartment units, including 15 two-bedroom and 43 one-bedroom units. According to the project's application with the TDHCA, the plan calls for 54 low-income units and six market-rate units.
Schaefer said the development would also feature a leasing office, adequate gated off-street parking and a community center open to neighborhood residents. The 9 percent tax credits would be one funding source for the development, with other sources coming from conventional financing and grants.
“We are still in the planning phase of the development,” Schaefer said. “We are identifying financing and working on architectural design concepts.”
The Harris County Appraisal District valued the property at a little more than $1.4 million in 2020.
Schaefer said the mission of SBP is to shrink the time between disaster and recovery and fortify people against their breaking point. It wants to offer resilient, energy-efficient housing to low- and moderate-income households.
“However, it is important to us that we create mixed-income communities that attract people from different walks of life,” she said. “For perspective, the deeply affordable units will be affordable to three-person households with the head of the household in professions like fast food cook, making about $21,000. The mid-level units to professions like school bus driver, making about $34,000, and the remaining affordable units to professions like news reporters, making about $42,000.”
SBP also wants to serve veterans. Schaefer said their rental developments include a unit preference for veterans and their families.
Residents voice concerns
John Collins said he is supportive of bringing affordable housing to the area and recognizes the neighborhood has been transforming over the past decade.
John and Heather both grew up in the neighborhood and were high school sweethearts at Waltrip. After living in El Paso for several years after attending college and graduate school, they moved back home to be closer to their families and live where they grew up.
John said he finds the proposed development on Fisher to be different than Avenue on 34th, the affordable housing complex that Houston nonprofit Avenue is building on the site of the former Doyle’s Restaurant.
“That is 70 units over two acres,” John said. “(Fisher Street) is 60 units on less than half the amount of land. The only access to this development would be off Fisher Street. It is boxed in on three sides. My concerns would be exactly the same if the proposal was for 60 luxury apartments, and I just don’t think that site can support such a large complex.”
Heather understands some people may think that with all the townhomes being built in the area, there is no concern with further development. However, recent flooding, especially during Tropical Storm Imelda in 2019, has her wary about future construction in the area.
John added that flooding on their street has been worse after the first phase of the city's Garden Oaks/Shepherd Park Drainage Project, which was completed in 2018.
“We are concerned that water from other parts of the neighborhood has been diverted to our area,” he said.
Added Heather: “(The Fisher apartments) location is one of the last green spaces on the street. I feel like there’s almost an anything-goes aspect to development in the city.”
At the city council’s public session Tuesday, only one person, aside from the developers, spoke out in support of the project. Those who were in opposition echoed the Collins’ concerns, with a few noting there were other larger plots of land in the neighborhood that would be more conducive to a larger development.
Speaker Callie Ritter characterized the land as a “funky trapezoid one-acre lot” and wondered how 60 units might fit there. She also said Garden Oaks Montessori Magnet, where the apartments would be zoned, was already at 176 percent capacity.
Ritter said the Fisher Street project, on the heels of the already-permitted 382-unit multi-family structure that Hines is building on 34th Street, would only add to overcrowding in classrooms.
Speaker Jane Granahan told the city council she felt like the community engagement process had not been respected. Another speaker said the apartments would be SBP’s second project of this type and that they typically take over a year to plan such developments.
Heather Collins said she felt the project was being rushed through, especially since there were no renderings available yet. She explained that the Super Neighborhood and the Garden Oaks Civic Club are still gathering information regarding the development and have not had an opportunity to hold meetings on the community’s concerns.
Process not over
Mayor Sylvester Turner told the callers that the council’s affirmative vote on the proposed projects was just the first step. The second would be another public hearing and approval by the TDHCA, which plans to award the housing tax credits in July. Securing the support of Shaw, who did not respond to an email seeking comment, figures to be critical for the project.
City council member Abbie Kamin, who represents the area and voted to support the project, said the city remains under a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which requires the city to use an objective scoring process to determine which housing tax credit applications will receive its support.
Kamin said when she recently learned the Fisher project had been included in the city’s package of applications, her office immediately notified the Super Neighborhood to ensure community awareness and engagement. She said she also had multiple conversations with Turner over the past week-and-a-half, sharing questions and concerns voiced by residents.
“We also put the nonprofit applicant, SBP, in direct contact with residents to answer questions about the project,” Kamin said.
In the aftermath of last week’s winter storm, which has Kamin working to address the ongoing disaster response, she said she is also committed to keeping the lines of communication open regarding the development.
Kamin said she continues to address flooding in the area, including through involvement in the ongoing Garden Oaks/Shepherd Park Drainage Project. Kamin said she advocated for the 900 block of Wakefield Drive, which experienced flooding during Imelda after the first phase of the project was complete, to be added to the project's scope.
SBP’s Lauren Avioli reiterated Tuesday that the council vote was “just one step” in the process.
“I look forward to a public hearing,” she said.
SBP co-founder Liz McCartney said she welcomed additional concerns and comments about the project, for which Gensler is the architect.
“I am excited about city’s new stringent draining requirements,” McCartney said.
Schaefer said the developer is working with residents to discuss concerns and how the development can address them.
“We are still in the design phase so there is ample time to work with the neighborhood to identify solutions to these issues,” she said. “We recognize that Fisher Street is a residential street, and we will be building adequate off-street, gated parking for residents.”
Schaefer said the disaster resilience measures they will implement with regard to flooding include above- and below-ground detention, biofiltration and permeable pavement. She also said since the apartments would include only 15 two-bedrooms units, they don’t think the development would have much impact on the nearby school, but they have notified Houston ISD.
When the vote was held Wednesday on the proposed resolution, several council members voted in favor of removing the Fisher Street development from the list of supported projects.
However, Turner and a majority of the council members, including Kamin, voted in favor of the development.
“We still feel that the project is being rushed through without adequate planning by the developer and without adequate input from the community,” John Collins said after the vote. “We’re disappointed that we weren’t able to speak to Council Member Kamin directly about these issues, but we look forward to expressing our concerns to (State Rep.) Penny Morales Shaw and making sure our voices are heard on this issue.”