Density, traffic and stigma threaten much needed affordable housing in Phoenix area

Three workforce housing developments proposed in the West Valley could help solve the region’s growing affordable housing crisis, but a lack of political will and backlash from residents has already thwarted one development and could jeopardize the two others.

Minnesota-based housing developer Dominium, which recently opened a regional headquarters in Phoenix, proposed apartment complexes in Buckeye, Goodyear and Surprise that would provide a combined 1,570 units to individuals or households earning between $27,000 to $51,000 annually.

As West Valley cities grow and attract more businesses along the Loop 303 corridor and elsewhere, affordable housing advocates say area leaders must be proactive in encouraging housing for a larger, economically diverse workforce.

The proposed complexes could help people like Dysart Unified School District teachers, entry-level employees at Luke Air Force Base, Walmart managers and first responders, said Dominium Vice President Owen Metz.

But the affordable apartment plans have faced repeated hurdles. Concerns over density and proximity to up-and-coming neighborhoods already blocked one of Dominium’s proposed developments in Buckeye.

Dominium’s proposed complex at Waddell Road and Cotton Lane in Surprise was indefinitely delayed after traffic concerns arose and some area residents started a petition to block the “low income” and “high density” apartments.

It’s unclear how Dominium’s Goodyear proposal, which is in the earliest stages, will be received.

Affordable housing desperately needed in West Valley
Dominium’s proposed developments west of Phoenix would put only a small dent in the 136,000 units needed for Arizona’s extremely low income renters, according to The National Low Income Housing Coalition — and technically, the apartments wouldn’t fill that gap.

Potential Dominium residents would need to make incomes at least 2.5 times the cost of rent, or at least $27,000 to rent a one-bedroom unit at one of the proposed developments. Extremely low income renters, who by comparison make 30% or below the area media income, or about $15,000 annually in Maricopa County, wouldn’t qualify.

But in a state where rental prices have increased 60% the past 10 years, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, city officials and housing experts say the need for more affordable rental housing extends beyond people with extremely low incomes.

Workforce housing, the type of housing proposed by Dominium, would provide units to those living at 60% or below the area median income ($51,000 for Maricopa County). So tenants would have to meet both minimum and maximum income limits to qualify.

At least 18% of Surprise households said they lived below the area median income, according to the city’s 2021 National Community Survey.

In Goodyear, 14% of households said they made below $50,000, according to its 2021 National Community Survey.

The U.S. Census said in 2019 that 28.1% of Buckeye residents made below $50,000 according to a five-year estimate.

Some housing experts say the need for affordable housing is so crucial that municipal leaders should seize the opportunities as they come.

Concerns over traffic or density are “short-sighted,” said Joan Serviss, the executive director of Arizona Housing Coalition, an organization that advocates for affordable housing and an end to homelessness.

“Local municipalities are already adjusting to infrastructure needs,” Serviss told The Arizona Republic. “We’re such a hot growth state, this is what local municipalities need to gear up for.”

Serviss said building affordable housing will help cities meet the needs of a diverse workforce and help students thrive academically.

“We’re further harming our children by not having that safe, attainable housing for them. When rents rise, families have to make sacrifices and they may find housing that might not be safe,” she said. “Make the short-term investment now and it’ll pay off later.”

Backlash in Surprise
Surprise Mayor Skip Hall said residential backlash to Dominium’s proposed complex on the southwest corner of Waddell Road and Cotton Lane has been unlike anything he’s seen in his 13 years on the City Council.

Some area residents have launched petitions to stop the “low income and high density” apartments and have taken to social media to spread the word.

Council members have been “hammered” by misinformed residents who believe the project will offer Section 8 housing, which it does not, Hall said.

Skip Hall
Section 8 Housing provides low-income renters with housing vouchers, allowing them to pay only 30% of their monthly income and access housing they couldn’t afford otherwise.

Rents for one-, two- and three-bedroom units would range from $900 to $1,200, according to Dominium’s website, and would be restricted to households that make no more than:

$33,180 for a single person.
$37,920 for a two-person household.
$42,660 for a three-person household.
$47,400 for a four-person household.
$51,240 for a 5-person household.

The 44-acre complex would include a 392-unit family section, 221-unit senior section, plus an area where restaurants and shops could potentially open.

Surprise Human Services Director Seth Dyson would not comment on the proposed development but told The Republic that more affordable housing options were needed in the northwest Valley and that the city was “very interested” in workforce housing.

But Dominium delayed presenting its proposal to the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission on Aug. 19 — the first step before getting final approval from City Hall — instead seeking an “indefinite” delay, according to the city.

Metz said Dominium would work more on outreach and educating Surprise residents about its project, adding that opposition has centered around fears over what type of people would move in and that the complex would become “the projects,” referring to publicly subsidized housing.

The company also will work to address traffic concerns, Metz said.

National affordable housing developer Dominium has proposed three workforce housing developments in the West Valley. They’ve faced repeated hurdles from city staff and residents.
Surprise vice mayor: It’s about traffic, not stigma
Surprise Vice Mayor Patrick Duffy, whose district the development would be located in, said he is opposed to the apartment complex for now out of concern for how it would affect traffic, which he said has been an ongoing frustration for residents since he joined the council in 2017.

The problem is Waddell Road, Duffy said.

Multiple junctures of the east-west extending road offer only a single lane in each direction, resulting in morning and afternoon traffic congestion from nearby schools, Duffy said.

Dominium has offered to pay for street improvements that would add a second lane on the south side of Waddell Road and west side of Cotton Lane in front of the development, plus turn lanes, sidewalks, streetlights and landscaping, a spokesperson for the company told The Republic.

Surprise Councilman Patrick Duffy
But Duffy said the improvements wouldn’t fix the single-lane issues further west, and that the city’s hands are tied because the land is owned by private individuals and Maricopa County.

Adding potentially 1,000 residents when there’s no solution for such bottlenecks would only exacerbate the issue and add to existing residents’ frustrations, Duffy said.

Metz said he thought Dominium’s originally proposed improvements would address the traffic concerns, but the developer will search for more solutions to appease the council.

Duffy said his opposition has nothing to do with stigma against affordable housing, adding that he would have qualified for such housing earlier in his career and still would if being a council member were his only job. Surprise City Council members are paid $26,700 annually. The mayor makes $46,800.

Dominium scraps Buckeye plans
Dominium pulled out of its plans for a 17-acre apartment complex in Buckeye and canceled its purchase of the land due to “a lack of political support” to rezone the area, Metz said.

The Residences at Thomas and Jackrabbit, proposed for the northwest corner of Thomas Road and 195th Avenue, would have included 300 one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments among 10 three-story walk-up buildings.

“It was primarily neighborhood opposition” and concern over density, Metz told The Republic.

Buckeye backlash focuses on crime, threat to rural lifestyle
Public records obtained by The Republic show Buckeye residents wrote to council members saying they were “totally against” the apartment complex, mostly pointing out how it could increase crime, lower home values and destroy the city’s rural reputation.

Buckeye, which is routinely one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S., has 91,000 residents, according to the 2020 census count.

One resident told Councilmember Clay Goodman, whose district the development would have been located in, that his neighbors were discussing moving out.

National affordable housing developer Dominium has proposed three workforce housing developments in the West Valley. They’ve faced repeated hurdles from city staff and residents.
Another said she “left New Jersey four years ago to come to the great red state of Arizona” and that low-income housing built on former farmlands is what destroyed New Jersey.

One resident said he was a police officer and knew firsthand how low-income complexes contribute to higher crime and bring drug problems. In his view, housing like this shouldn’t be anywhere in Buckeye.

Another resident said it would be “unethical” to bring in low-income housing to the area.

Only two residents wrote in support of the development, with one saying the support was contingent upon eviction policies that would keep dangerous residents out and safeguard those trying to better their lives.

Council members ask whether project is low income, about Section 8 possibility
Buckeye Mayor Eric Orsborn said the city took neighborhood feedback into account but that attitudes against low-income workers and accusations over increased crime did not play a role in the city’s opposition.

“That’s an unfair stigma that goes around,” Orsborn told The Republic, adding that the city’s opposition was solely a matter of density.

A review of emails between the council and city staffers obtained through a public records request, however, show staff acknowledged residential pushback and that council members were at least interested in who potential residents would include.

Buckeye Mayor Eric Orsborn and his wife, Tina, finish their bike ride around Verrado on Feb. 19, 2021, in the Verrado neighborhood in Buckeye, Ariz.
City employees passed around residents’ concerns and social media posts against the development, then crafted standard responses. When neighbors created a petition against the complex in April, Development Services Director George Flores responded, “This is getting pretty nasty!”

The mayor attended numerous meetings on the proposal and made note of a few residents’ concerns. He asked one question about the development itself over email: “Is this apartment project low income?”

Councilmember Craig Heustis told city staffers he was concerned “with it becoming future section 8 housing,” Economic Development Manager Suzie Boyles wrote in an email, though she noted Heustis’s primary concern was traffic.

Boyles suggested the city look at other locations for affordable housing “in an effort to better direct and steer these projects clear of Verrado,” in an email months earlier.

The master-planned community north of Dominium’s proposed development is billed as a “self-contained small town” designed to mimic the Midwest. Verrado homes have spacious front porches, and there’s a quaint “main street” with a grocer, coffee shop, restaurants and other small businesses.

Orsborn once joked about the community’s manicured aesthetic, saying people compared it to The Truman Show or The Stepford Wives.

Buckeye leaders: Too dense and too high
The vast majority of communication between city staffers and elected officials focused on density.

The first problem was the three-story buildings. The development would need to be two stories, not three, so it wouldn’t intrude on incoming neighborhoods, city staffers said.

The developing Arroyo Seco neighborhood would have abutted the complex on the north and west sides. Another neighborhood south of the proposed complex across the street on Thomas Road was being built, too.

The next problem was density. The project would increase traffic on Interstate 10.

The main concern, however, was that it was located in Luke Air Force Base’s flight path, where the base suggests cities follow “graduated density.” The concept sets parameters for how many housing units should exist within an acre, increasing residential density further away from “high noise” and “accident potential areas.”

Buckeye doesn’t mandate compliance with the concept through city regulations or in its general plan but publicly pledges to support the base, and by extension the density concept, as a policy.

The city offered to help Dominium find a different location, perhaps south of I-10, outside of the flight path. Dominium, however, picked its location specifically because it was designated a “difficult development area” by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The company needed the designation to qualify for federal funding to make the project viable.

Dominium representatives proposed several changes to build support. They suggested cutting down from three stories to two and “reducing density by roughly 25%” Metz told Councilmember Patrick HagEstad.

Later, Metz told Buckeye how Surprise city officials had worked with Luke Air Force Base to build leniency on the graduated density concept and suggested Buckeye do the same.

‘Maybe they finally got the message’
Buckeye leaders remained staunchly opposed.

“We aren’t going to push Luke (Air Force Base) at all on this project,” City Planner Adam Copeland wrote in an internal email a week before Metz’ request. “We shouldn’t push apartments in my opinion … (the city) supports Luke’s mission.”

Dominium proposed another idea. It could layer its development with a border of one-story units on the outside and two-story units on the inside. It would still exceed Luke’s graduated density concept, but it would provide a less abrupt transition for surrounding neighbors.

Plus, if Buckeye spoke with base officials, maybe this would be in compliance, representatives from Dominium pleaded.

“Our view is that we are working hard to garner support from staff,” Dominium analyst Rodrigo Madrigal wrote. “We would really appreciate any support you could lend in figuring out if staff or council would be open to having a conversation with Luke about the GDC.”

Copeland said the city remained “firm” in its opposition to the project.

“We made a lot of changes … to try to get something we could get political support for and we just couldn’t quite get there,” Metz told The Republic.

By July, city staffers said in an internal email that it was “radio silence” from Dominium.

“Maybe they finally got the message,” Deputy City Manager David Roderique replied.

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Goodyear effort
In Goodyear, Dominium is in the early stages of proposing a 658-unit workforce housing complex at Loop 303 and Van Buren Street, south of I-10.

The 19-acre development would be separated into a family section on the south side and senior section on the north side. The 396-unit family section include 17 three-story buildings, and the 262-unit senior section would include at least one four-story building but possibly two, according to documents provided by the city.

Goodyear Mayor Georgia Lord
The development will need initial approval from Goodyear’s Planning and Zoning Commission to rezone the area to allow for multifamily housing before securing final approval from the City Council.

Metz said Dominium is working to connect with area residents to discuss the project and address any concerns that may come up.

Homeowners Associations from neighboring communities did not respond to The Republic’s request for comment.

Goodyear Mayor Georgia Lord said she has no opinion on the development yet but that council would listen to residential feedback and “weigh out what we think the city needs at that time.”

Reach reporter Taylor Seely at or 480-476-6116. Follow her on Twitter @taylorseely95 or Instagram @taylor.azc.


AUTHOR:Taylor Seely

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