Sprucing Up, Scaling Up Affordable Housing on Lamar Square

June 24, 2024 | Posted in Affordable Housing, Housing, Uncategorized |

Just steps away from the buzz and bustle of South Lamar Boulevard, is a city block called Lamar Square. The Mary Lee Foundation has been growing and operating a campus on that square since 1974 providing people with physical and intellectual disabilities rehabilitation services, and empowering them to live independently as part of a supportive, affordable and accessible community. In recent years, the nonprofit itself has been forced to seek support.

The majority of residents in the eight-acre square have extremely low incomes and special needs. Due to its very low rent revenue, Mary Lee Foundation has had limited funding for maintenance and repairs on the more than 200 housing units and lacked the capital to replace the housing. As a result, most of the housing on the Square was well past its useful life, or in very poor condition. The situation seemed overwhelming for an organization whose expertise is serving people with special needs.

Two years ago, Mary Lee’s Executive Director, Russ Walker reached out to Foundation Communities’ Executive Director Walter Moreau. Walker said, “In talking with Walter just about low-income housing, I just realized that we were way out of our field, and we didn’t have the resources, the manpower, the connections, the funding to turn this around quickly enough.”

The talks then pivoted to how the two organizations could work together to reinvigorate Lamar Square. Last month, a partnership was finalized. On a campus now named Lamar Square, Mary Lee Foundation is continuing to provide physical therapy services and some affordable housing for people with disabilities and Foundation Communities has taken over the management and redevelopment of most of the affordable housing.

“We are excited to partner with Mary Lee to create a new community that will be designed for their clients and for new families in the heart of central Austin,” said Moreau.

The nonprofits have outlined a redevelopment plan to rebuild the oldest buildings, relocate current tenants on-site, preserve the buildings that require minimal rehab. The planned construction of 400 new apartments will create much needed affordable homes for more than 500 people – families, single adults and residents with disabilities. They will be able to live in a transit-rich, high-opportunity part of Austin. All apartments will be for households making at or below 60 percent of the area’s median family income (MFI) with most deeply affordable. Lamar Square will include a Learning Center for youth after-school and summer education, adult education and fitness classes. Also, on-site case management, a Healthy Food Pantry, and a park area with outdoor amenities.

Not surprisingly, talk of these changes has reverberated among residents of the Square for months. That’s especially true for residents whose homes were designated for demolition, like Don Jones. Jones has lived on the Square since 2016 and he had been concerned that residents might be displaced, or relocated into substandard housing. He now feels reassured. “A big key thing that y ‘all (Foundation Communities) have done very well was follow up with communication, sending out letters about this, that, and the other and answering questions,” said Jones. “That was a confidence builder.”

Jones is also a member of the Mary Lee Foundation’s Board and a veteran. He wants to be sure that the two organizations will work well together to form a “crucial social family” where all residents can feel they belong. He says so far residents have been given every indication that that will take place. For more than 30 years, Foundation Communities has been striving to support the success of residents through a business model of creating affordable housing plus services.

Click on the video below to hear Don Jones talk about what he believes is the most important goal for the Lamar Square partnership from a resident perspective.