Downtown Oklahoma City apartments set for replacement
The Oklahoma City Housing Authority is preparing to replace the aging Towers Apartments, the only public housing downtown, as it begins an overhaul of its properties.
The first step begins with construction of Thrive, a 316-unit, five-story apartment complex to be built at NW 10 and Classen. Once completed, the complex will include ground floor retail, 38 affordable apartments, 140 assisted living units, and 138 one-bedroom replacements for the Towers Apartments.
Ian Colgan, assistant executive director of the housing authority, said the two projects are part of a plan drawn up in 2016 to overhaul and expand affordable housing in Oklahoma City.
“The goal on the Towers is that all of that will be moved to what is being built at NW 10 and Classen,” Colgan said. “So once that has started construction, and that will take a while, our focus will move to the Towers.”
The Towers is part of an inventory of public housing that has stayed stagnant since the early 1970s.
The property at 135 NW 9 was promoted as luxury apartments in the heart of downtown when it opened in 1961. It was sold to the housing authority nine years later as downtown was being turned into a demolition zone as the Urban Renewal Authority set out to implement the I.M. Pei Plan.
Public housing fell into disfavor in the 1970s and the federal government stopped building new stock in 1979. Colgan said the city has faced additional challenges with declining federal funds for repairs and improvements.
“We get a very small portion of money to fix up and renovate,” Colgan said. “There are billions and billions of capital improvements needs deferred all over the country.”
The Towers and the Will Rogers Courts are on the top of the strategic plan for redevelopment.
Will Rogers Courts, south of downtown, was built in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration as the first major public housing in Oklahoma City. A Propublica investigation in 2019 found the property was given a failing grade by HUD on standards for being decent, safe and sanitary, and in good repair.
Funding for some of the redevelopment as well as affordable housing being built elsewhere in the city come partially from a $10 million bond issue approved by voters in 2017. Voters approved another $50 million for affordable housing and housing for the homeless as part of MAPS 4 in 2019.
Cathy O’Connor, president of The Alliance for Economic Development of Oklahoma City, said while housing costs in Oklahoma City are affordable compared to other cities, income levels don’t always match up in that calculation.
“We still have a low per capita or household income and that contributes to our affordability issue,” she said.“They are more heavily cost burdened in Oklahoma City than in other places. We have a significant amount of our population that is cost burdened by the federal standards for affordability.”
As part of the focus on affordable housing, the Urban Renewal Authority has set it as a preference in new development with units included in the Steelyard in Bricktown and the upcoming 700 West being built by Ron Bradshaw at NW 4 and Shartel.
Bradshaw also is building affordable housing east of downtown as part of redevelopment of the former Page Woodson school campus.
The development, now in its third phase, is a mix of market rate housing, and housing for those at 65% of average median income.
“We need to do more mixed income and that’s what he’s doing,” O’Connor said. "It’s been very successful.”
Colgan sees the city’s funding approved by voters as giving a much needed boost for expanding affordable housing.
The $10 million for affordable housing has already provided financing for a public housing purchase of apartments near NW 23 and Ann Arbor, $2 million for 700 West, and $1 million for the third phase at Page Woodson.
The money isn’t enough, O’Connor said, but it’s a start.
She sees ongoing “NIMBY” — Not in My Backyard arguments — as remaining one of the top challenges to addressing the need for affordable housing.
“For the most part the people who live in these projects work, have jobs, have children and grandparents,” O’Connor said. “They are a part of our community.”