Feb. 25--MCALLEN -- The City Commission approved a formal resolution supporting Auburn Village -- the controversial low-income apartment complex proposed by the local Housing Authority -- and an accompanying $2.1 million loan on Monday night, over objections from several hundred North McAllen homeowners.
The Housing Authority proposal sharply divided McAllen, where the nonpartisan City Commission usually governs through consensus. Controversy started brewing in mid-January, when the Housing Authority proposed building the 160-unit apartment complex near North 23rd Street and Auburn Avenue.
City Commissioner Scott Crane immediately and vehemently opposed the proposal. Neighbors revolted. Roughly 320 people signed a petition against the low-income apartment complex.
"I think that from looking at the letters that Commissioner Crane wrote to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, it really is not about density. It's not about the way they look. It really is about that he's carrying with him the stereotype of what low-income people are like," said Ann Williams Cass, the executive director at Proyecto Azteca, which advocates for affordable housing. "I'm sure if they were condominiums that were going for $200,000 or $300,000 apiece, people wouldn't care how many kids they had in those condos or the effect on the schools. It's the fact that they're working poor people."
Called Auburn Village, the low-income apartment complex would have eight buildings with 160 units, according to documents provided by the Housing Authority. The gated community would have a private entrance on Auburn Avenue.
Nearly 90 percent of the apartments would be reserved for low-income people, including the elderly, handicapped and working poor, according to documents provided by the Housing Authority. A four-person family with an annual income below $31,120 would qualify.
"You don't put low-income housing in a middle-class neighborhood. It's just not going to work," said Anthony Cavazos, 52, a real estate investor who lives four houses away from the proposed apartment complex. "You heard the City Commission. What happened to our voice? I'm the one paying taxes."
The City Commission seemed to jam the Auburn Village resolution through without adequate public input, Cavazos said.
"My property value is going to go down," Cavazos said. "And the crime rate is probably going to go up."
Tax credits awarded by the Department of Housing and Community Affairs would make Auburn Village economically viable. The Housing Authority must submit the formal proposal by Feb. 28.
Neighbors urged the City Commission to block the formal resolution and $2.1 million loan, which bolster the Housing Authority proposal. Without the formal resolution, the Auburn Village probably wouldn't win tax credits and stall.
Crane and Commissioner John Ingram voted against both items, which passed 4-2. They said the Housing Authority provided insufficient information about the proposal and didn't answer basic questions.
Crane and Ingram also said they were blindsided by the Housing Authority's request for the $2.1 million loan. The City Commission never publicly discussed the loan before Monday night.
"You know what? To me, that sounds pretty shady. You agree to give a loan so that someone can get a development. And then you're even not really sure if you're going to give the loan, but you're doing it so they get the development," Ingram said, when the City Commission majority assured him the actual loan paperwork would follow later -- and offer McAllen wiggle room to reject the deal. "I think you're doing it so they can get the project done and you're putting the cart before the horse. We're not building a house. We're spending $2.1 million of taxpayer money without discussing it."
How the City Commission approved the loan sparked controversy, too.
With a standing-room only crowd watching, Mayor Jim Darling moved up the resolution and loan deal -- originally among the last agenda items -- to accommodate people concerned about Auburn Village. The City Commission approved the formal resolution, but tabled the loan and requested further information.
Most people concerned about Auburn Village left.
In the hallway, Housing Authority board Chairman Leo Lara talked with City Attorney Kevin Pagan and several other people.
About 50 minutes later, the City Commission removed the loan from the table. Over Ingram's objections, the City Commission majority approved the $2.1 million loan with another 4-2 vote.
City Commissioner Aida Ramirez said both votes simply allowed the Housing Authority to submit a strong application for tax credits. If approved by the Department of Housing and Community Affairs, the property would go through the regular development process, including rezoning from agricultural-open space to multi-family residential.
"Now it has to go through Planning and Zoning. At that point, the citizens have a right to come and contest and object," Ramirez said. "But this was not the venue for that."
The vote authorized City Manager Mike Perez to make the $2.1 million construction loan for Auburn Village. Documents provided to the City Commission show the five-year loan would carry a maximum 3 percent interest rate with no penalty for paying early.
Former City Commissioner Marcus Barrera, who attended the meeting, questioned how City Hall and the Housing Authority handled Auburn Village.
"I do want to tell you, I think you all do a great job. Nobody ever tells you that. And you had to make some tough decisions today," Barrera said, adding the City Commission works hard for McAllen. "However, tonight I'm a little disappointed. And the reason for that is I think Auburn Village is a mistake."
The apartment complex may harm property values, would exacerbate overcrowding at surrounding schools and would occupy valuable property better suited for retail, Barrera said. He also criticized how the City Commission approved the $2.1 million loan.
"I'm kind of upset at the way that this particular tabling and un-tabling happened," Barrera said. "You've got a large group of people who are going to be very angry because they were here and they wanted to listen. And they were already upset they couldn't speak."
How the City Commission approved the loan also irked local banker and former Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Ronnie Tavarez.
"Today was, I think, about the public trust being broken," said Tavarez, the treasurer for Crane's re-election campaign. "I want to thank commissioners Crane and Ingram for your fiscal discipline -- $2.1 million is a lot of money. Lots of questions were unanswered, yet the vault was opened. The signatures of 300-plus residents seemed to be thrown out the window. The impact on our schoolchildren seemed to be thrown out the window."
Asked about the potential impact on schools and the surrounding neighborhoods, City Commissioner Hilda Salinas wasn't convinced.
"I guess everyone has to find a way, a politically correct way, to voice their concerns," Salinas said. "And there's more than one way to skin a cat."
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