Expanded affordable housing development planned for Alpine, raising infrastructure concerns

A site plan depicting the upcoming Skyway Gardens II development. Image courtesy of Investment Builders, Inc.

ALPINE — When a developer came before Alpine City Council last week seeking approval for a new affordable housing complex, officials found themselves caught between two imperatives equally vital to the city’s future — the need to create more housing, and the need to swiftly address the ailing infrastructure that could be further strained by development.

Ultimately, Council opted to pursue both goals concurrently, giving the proposed development a verbal green light while initiating a feasibility study to identify potential infrastructure issues. The discussion around the intersecting topics underscored the challenges facing Alpine as it seeks both to attract growth and to address persistent, unaddressed maintenance problems. 

Developer Investment Builders, Inc. plans to expand its Skyway Gardens development on Lechuguilla Road by nearly double, adding an additional 44 units of housing to the existing 49-unit complex. While two to four of those new 44 units will be rented at market rate, said Investment Builders Senior Vice President Roy Lopez, the rest will be below-market-rate units set aside for low-income renters. 

But while there was no debate as to the value or necessity of more housing options in Alpine, immediate support of the proposal was halted by concerns over the aging water system that would service the development. City Manager Megan Antrim explained that it was not a question of whether Alpine could provide water to the development or to other residents but whether increased service at the Skyway Gardens site would worsen water pressure issues for residents who live further south.

In the absence of a feasibility study, said Antrim, it was impossible to predict how the expanded development would impact water service — if at all.

“I know that you are willing to work with us, but I don’t know what’s going to happen once you do,” Antrim told Investment Builders representatives at the February 7 meeting. “We don’t know if we’ll have issues with water pressure … it’s unfortunately a ‘what if’ game.”

In an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel, Antrim explained that the “what if” game is due to the city’s poor history of data-keeping. It is known, anecdotally, that the south side of town has suffered water pressure issues — perhaps due to the city’s use of a gravity-fed water system — but there is not enough information to determine whether those issues would be exacerbated by development further north. It is unknown, for instance, whether the water lines currently installed are large enough to carry a sufficient amount of water across the city.

“There’s not enough data that’s easily obtainable to know what the impact of a new development would do,” said Antrim. 

A feasibility study to gather that data was set in motion last week, said Antrim, and will take between 30 and 90 days to complete. Information gathered through that study will be used to direct engineers tackling upgrades throughout the city. Antrim plans to apply for grants to help cover necessary upgrades.

As the new development will not be completed for about two years, Antrim said the hope is that any identified issues can be addressed before the units are filled.

In the meantime — following a prolonged discussion — Council gave Investment Builders verbal confirmation that it would support the new development, called Skyway Gardens II. Senior Vice President Lopez explained to officials that he was up against a March 1 deadline to apply for a 9% housing tax credit through the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA).

Through the TDHCA Housing Tax Credit program, the federal government allocates tax credits to the state government, which then awards the credits to developers of below-market-rate rental properties through a competitive process — the chosen developers then sell the tax credits to private investors for funding. The idea is to incentivize developers to create below-market-rate housing by offsetting part of their tax liability.

In order to be eligible for below-market-rate units in these developments, a renter’s income must fall under a certain amount, determined by the area median income (AMI) — Skyway Gardens II will include units available for those earning up to 30% of Alpine’s AMI, units for those earning up to 50% of the AMI, and those earning up to 60% of the AMI. Exact dollar figures are difficult to determine in advance, said Lopez, because Alpine’s AMI may change in the roughly two years it will take for construction to wrap up. 

A unit in the existing Skyway Gardens development. Developer Investment Builders, Inc plans to build an additional development at the site, roughly doubling the number of units. Photo courtesy of Investment Builders, Inc.

The most recently available census data indicates that Alpine’s area median income, as of 2021, was $43,583 — rounding up to the nearest dollar, 30% of that figure would be an income of $13,075, 50% would be $21,792, and 60% would be $26,150. If a family moves into one of the units, their combined income could not exceed the prescribed AMI percentage.

Lopez said the affordable units would go for an average of 25% below market rate. At the existing Skyway Gardens property, which has the same AMI constraints, a one-bedroom goes for $743 to a renter earning 60% of AMI, $610 to a renter earning 50% of AMI, and $342 to a renter earning 30% of AMI, according to Lopez.

Councilmember Judy Stokes, while still expressing support for the development, impressed upon fellow council members that the requirement of such low income levels would exclude certain professions that Alpine was attracting or seeking to attract — namely, teachers and Border Patrol agents.

“They’re making too much money. So we have a limited population that we’re helping out,” said Stokes. “I have a Border Patrol son — he couldn’t have gone down there and rented.”

Antrim — who said city employees would also not qualify for the below-market-rate units — said she saw the housing as creating the opportunity for lower-income residents to leave their current homes for a more affordable option, and in the process creating more available housing for those earning closer to the area median income. 

Lopez told The Sentinel he sees a demand for the units in Alpine — there is currently a waitlist for units in the existing Skyway Gardens, he said, which hovers near at-capacity.

“It’s affordable housing, and that’s what people need over there,” said Lopez. “We know the demand is out there — our market study shows that the demand is out there, our waiting list shows that the demand is out there. And that’s why we said it’s a good fit to do a second phase out there.”

Mayor Catherine Eaves, in an interview with The Sentinel, agreed, adding that the increased availability of affordable housing could help fill positions at local businesses.

“We need the housing — we need it desperately,” said Eaves. “This particular development will help Alpine’s current needs. We have a lot of positions available for people to work, we just need the workers, and the housing will help that.”

The developer will have to return to council for a set of approvals beyond the verbal endorsement. First, council will have to vote to annex the land, currently outside city limits, into the city. Council will also be asked to provide a written letter of support and a “will serve” letter, pledging to provide gas and water to the site.

At last week’s meeting, Antrim noted that the lingering, unanswered questions around the development’s potential impacts could, in part, be attributed to the fact that the city had not planned for such developments to be brought into the city. “The city didn’t plan for development,” she said. “This is looking farther out into the county areas and annexing these properties.”

Councilmember Chris Rodriguez argued that the need for housing was so dire, the city would have to take on the potential risks — and pointed to the recent, controversial annexation of the property on which Alpine’s third Dollar General will be built.

“That’s the chance that we’re taking and we can’t stop just because of that,” said Rodriguez. “We just let Dollar General in not knowing what it was going to do. I understand we’re talking about more usage of water, but I have questions on whether we can actually afford to wait.”

Rodriguez went on to say that Alpine was absorbing some of the population from neighboring Marfa, where housing is scant. “We have people that are trying to come in from Marfa, and of course Marfa’s getting just as bad on having affordable housing available,” she said.

The existing Skyway Gardens development was completed in 2021, said Lopez. Prior to that, Antrim estimated that a below-market-rate developer had not come knocking on Alpine’s door since 2013, when the city turned them down due to concerns over “what type of clientele” it would attract. 

Eaves hypothesized that developers had been hesitant to build in Alpine due to its infrastructure issues.

Whatever the reason, it was clear from council members’ discussion that 44 new units of housing did not come across their desks frequently — and all agreed that such an opportunity should not be turned away.

“A new community has not opened up in Alpine in a very long time,” said Rodriguez. “We’ve had issues trying to get anyone to take a chance on Alpine.”