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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
The former McMillen Apartments site has potential for a housing project.

Study confirms housing crisis

Overcrowding, costs plague southeast Fort Wayne

– The study confirms what many already knew about the housing situation on the city’s southeast side, but seeing the numbers laid out in black and white was stunning.

“This is a little shocking. It’s kind of surprising,” said Walt Whitmyre, author of the Bowen National Research study, which showed that at least 600 households face overcrowding, and nearly half of the residents in southeast Fort Wayne are paying more than the recommended 30 percent of their gross income toward housing.

“Clearly, we have a large percentage of people spending too much of their paycheck just to get a roof over their heads,” Whitmyre told the Housing and Neighborhood Development Services board.

And the housing they are crowded into and paying too much for is largely out of date – nearly half of the homes sold since 2010 in the study area were built before 1950, the study found – and often crumbling, Whitmyre said.

Now, said Heather Presley-Cowen, the city of Fort Wayne’s deputy director of community development, officials have to figure out what to do about it.

The problem is especially vexing because the housing that the study says is crowded, crumbling and too expensive is by far the cheapest in the city nationally known for its low housing costs.

In 2013, the average sale price of homes in the study area was $37,408, while the average price in the rest of the city was $113,092.

Whitmyre said the study shows that the area needs nearly 2,500 housing units priced at less than $375 a month to fulfill the needs of the population in the next five years, and another 1,100 units between $375 and $875.

“Let’s face it, it’s hard to find an apartment for less than $375, but it’s also tough to build an apartment for $375,” he told the board.

That means incentives, such as state tax credits, are required in order for any housing development to make economic sense.

Ric Zehr, director of development strategies for developer Northeastern Group and a Housing and Neighborhood Development Services board member, said the cost to build a house will require a mortgage of at least $500 a month.

“So you’re left looking for funding to fill that gap – that gap is what the home would appraise for versus what it cost to build,” Zehr said.

Presley-Cowen said the solution is recognizing that while the immediate need may be for affordable housing, the long-term need is for education and jobs.

“When thousands of jobs moved out of the central city, A, transportation became an issue because now these are jobs they can’t get to; and B, they are jobs they can’t win even if they can get there,” she said.

The city has to focus on a broader look at the problem, Presley-Cowen said, and deal with everything from economic development to bring jobs to the area to making sure people are qualified to hold those jobs.

The city also needs to improve the housing stock so people can get loans to improve properties and ensure that property values rise so they are a good investment.

The study results were shocking and depressing, she said, but also good to have.

“On the positive side, when you can quantify the need, you can put your action plan together to address it,” Presley-Cowen said.

Zehr agreed that as troubling as the results of the study are, they are good to have.

“I’m so glad we did it, because we’re all looking at southeast and wondering what’s happening. This confirms for us what we suspected and gives us a good road map to fixing it,” Zehr said. “The study gives us the tools to analyze exactly what’s happening and figure out how to strategically deal with it.”

Strategies are likely to include Renaissance Pointe – the site of a recently completed 66-house rent-to-own project – and the former McMillen Apartments site – where the city purchased and tore down 216 crumbling apartments – Presley-Cowen said, and the study will definitely have a large influence on those strategies.

“I see the McMillen site as being mission-critical for this,” she said. “And I especially like (Whitmyre’s) approach of go slow and study the effects.”

dstockman@jg.net

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