It took Suzanne Young a full year to learn the landmarks and find her way around the Washington-Escobedo neighborhood.
Young, who became legally blind following a roller blading accident, moved into the city-owned, low-income housing facility a year ago because it was more affordable. She gets around with the help of a cane, and she’s learned the routes to throw out her trash, walk to the city’s housing office and visit her friend across the street.
But Mesa’s budget woes have made it more difficult for the city to pay for the costs of running the 101-unit Escobedo apartment complex on University Drive near Mesa Drive. Now the city plans to sell the property.
During the past year, Mesa’s staff has been approached by about a dozen nonprofit and for-profit developers, many of whom are interested in projects with an affordable housing component, said Kit Kelly, the acting community revitalization and housing director.
But Escobedo residents are worried.
“I’m very happy here, and now, the rumors are flying that the situation will change and it’s got me scared,” Young said. “If I’m displaced to another environment, I’ll have to start all over again.”
But the clock is ticking. City Manager Chris Brady told tenants and several members of the City Council at a Community and Neighborhood Services Committee meeting Monday that there a currently no funds budgeted for much-needed capital improvements on the property. During the next three years, he said, city funding for Escobedo’s operating expenses will be siphoned off.
“The city is not making any money,” Brady said. “It’s having to take the funds from somewhere else.”
That leaves Mesa leaders with the question of what would happen to the residents of the complex if it were sold. The city has the option of selling the property with the leases still in place and working with developers to ensure the residents have access to relocation assistance. But the city also could choose to sell the property to the highest bidder and leave the residents in the hands of the private sector.
In addition, city staff has recommended documenting the area’s historical significance before anything is torn down. The apartments are located in Washington Park, which is home to the city’s Washington Recreation Center and was once the site of a segregated school.
City Council members said they want to ensure that the residents are fully involved in the discussion, but some tenants believe cash-strapped Mesa is looking to make a buck on the sale.
Opening up the property to private development would be a risk to the tenants because rent increases could force most of them out unless they can obtain federal Section 8 housing subsidies to pay their rent. Section 8 vouchers are portable, so residents can use them to pay rent at another complex if they move.
But right now, 55 households in Escobedo are among the 1,722 households in Mesa still waiting for Section 8 vouchers. Applicants typically sit on a waiting list for two to three years before gaining approval.
Residents say that’s too long to wait if the city decides to sell the complex.
“I think it’s a done deal,” said Pam Wilson, a tenant in the Escobedo apartments. “I think they’ll try to sell it to the highest bidder.”
The Escobedo rental units date back to World War II and were used to house defense workers before they became homes for low-income families. They were modernized in the 1970s, but they have since become outdated. Evaporative coolers are used primarily in the summers, although residents can obtain window air conditioning units for $15 a month.
Although Mesa used to receive subsidies from the U.S. Department of Housing, the city pulled out of the program in 1981. The city can technically apply for federal grant money to pay for capital improvements in the neighborhood, but that could require major renovations to bring it up to code. If those renovations required people to move and federal funds are used, then the city would be required to pay for relocation assistance.
Housing Our Communities, a non-profit developer that specializes in affordable housing, has shown interest in acquiring the property.
John Smith, the organization’s chief executive, said he wants to meet with city leaders to discuss a $55 million proposal to develop a complex that would include senior housing, affordable and market-rate rental units, condos or town homes and a retail component. He said he would like to work with residents so that many of them would be able to move into the new units once they were completed.
“If we were the developer, we will make sure that every effort is made to place those families in safe, decent, affordable housing,” he said.