While participating in the HKS Design Fellowship last weekend, our design team addressed the need for middle-income housing in downtown Dallas. This need was specifically recognized in the Dallas 360 Master Plan. Like most automotive based cities that are now going through a sort of downtown Renaissance, downtown Dallas is lacking in both middle-income housing and amenities (i.e. schools, grocery stores, etc.) Emerging downtown cities are depending on a significant middle-class demographic to add to the social and economic vibrancy of the city. But as developers continue to pursue the more lucrative deals found in low-income housing tax credits or luxury residences, cities have found that growing a downtown middle-class is a difficult and complex task . Downtown land values typically price out the middle-class. These families may want to live downtown, but when considering the negatives of cost, poor schools, and residence size, they often turn to the suburbs. This demographic has often been criticized for their suburbanization and automotive dependency; yet, it is clear that automotive-based urban design strategies and economics have compelled this demographic toward the suburbs rather than it simply being a matter of preference. The Dallas plan addresses the problem this way: "Without some form of subsidy, it frequently is infeasible to build new housing units in Downtown, and in many cases to rehabilitate older buildings, that then are sold or rented to middle-income households. To fill in the market gap, accelerate the area's revitalization, and support the housing needs of Downtown businesses, the City of Dallas should identify sources of funding to subsidize construction of units for middle-income households..." The 360 plan recognizes that even if subsidies for middle-income housing were provided, this would still only yield 25% of housing for middle-income households (see graph below). This, however, is better than "recent production of housing in Downtown, which has skewed toward the upper income levels." The recommended percentage of future downtown housing accounts only for new construction, and not for existing units that "may become more affordable to middle-income households as the units age."
The plan goes on to prescribe generic programming and construction recommendations to reduce construction costs and make this type of subsidized housing more feasible. Nonetheless, it is clear that Dallas, as well as other cities, are willing to make a bet that middle-class suburbanization is more about economics than the lifestyle suburbs offer. Their argument is that people will readily sacrifice residence size and parking availability for the attributes offered by downtown living. This leaves us with one important question: will the bet pay off?