ARIZONA DAILY STAR: Old motels, new ideas part of blossoming vision for Tucson's 85705

By Patty Machelor, Arizona Daily Star September 29, 2019

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Something far more wholesome than by-the-hour rentals could be in store for the No-Tel Motel.

At least that’s the wish of Tom Cowdry, who works just a block or so up North Oracle Road overseeing a housing community for low-income residents, many of them elderly, living with a disability or both.

People call and stop in Miracle Square regularly, asking Cowdry if there’s space at this one-time motel that became a small apartment complex in the early 1980s.

Cowdry — who has run Miracle Square as a nonprofit for about 20 years, along with volunteer Lynn Sagara — wants to help more people than they can right now.

And buying both the No-Tel Motel, at 2425 N. Oracle Road, and the nearby Tiki Motel, at 2649 N. Oracle Road, would allow Cowdry and Sagara to say “yes” to at least 37 more people who need safe, affordable housing.

Owner Bity Patel said he would like to sell both properties, but making that happen is far from simple.

Cowdry met last week with officials from the city and the Tucson Fire Department to talk about zoning, fire safety and other logistical issues.

What’s next is finding enough money to buy, if not these properties, then other sites near Miracle Square, 2601 N. Oracle Road.

Such efforts are part of one of the larger areas of focus for Tucson’s “Thrive in the ’05” revitalization project: to improve existing structures and create more affordable housing.

The city’s 85705 ZIP code area includes several small neighborhoods that are among Tucson’s most distressed due to poverty, high unemployment, crime and scant resources. The crime rate in the area is more than double that of other Tucson neighborhoods.

About 12,000 people live in the area and the median household income is $23,354, says a 2018 study by the University of Arizona’s College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture. That’s significantly lower than Tucson’s median income, which is $32,889.

The unemployment rate is 8.9%, nearly double that of the city overall, and about 74% of the people are renters instead of homeowners. About 65% of the households do not have a vehicle.

The project, still in its planning phase, encompasses a 2.6-square-mile area in 85705, loosely bounded by Miracle Mile to the north, Speedway to the south, Stone Avenue to the east and I-10 to the west.

The effort, a collaboration between the city, the Tucson Police Department, Arizona State University and Pima Community College, includes $2.3 million in funding so far through grants from the U.S. departments of Justice and of Housing and Urban Development.

Part of that initial sum includes a Choice Neighborhoods $1.3 million planning grant for housing, with another $35 million the city can apply for next fall to carry out its plan.

An asset to the neighborhood

Corky Poster, a lead architect with the firm Poster Mirto McDonald, is helping the city with one of the largest parts of this transformation: restoring the Tucson House, the high-rise public housing building at 1501 N. Oracle Road, while also planning for hundreds of new affordable and market rate housing units in the area.

This sort of challenge isn’t new for Poster’s firm.

About three miles south of the Tucson House is another area the firm redesigned about 20 years ago: Posadas Sentinel, a neighborhood that replaced the demolished Connie Chambers Public Housing.

The area now includes 120 affordable-housing town homes as well as 60 units for people with low to moderate incomes including two- three- or four-bedroom layouts, as well as a recreation center, library and a Head Start school. The adjacant Santa Rosa Park is no longer an imposing barrier between poorly maintained low-income housing and more upscale homes.

Instead, the new colorful town homes, the park and other offerings have made it into an attractive neighborhood hub.

And that’s exactly what Poster envisions re-creating around the Tucson House. A grocery store could be built on adjacent property, he said, or a daycare center. Or both.

“We want to make the Tucson House an asset to the adjacent neighborhoods,” he said.

Poster is fond of the old 17-story building, once luxury apartments that sat in the middle of the former gateway into the city. The property, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places, became public housing for the elderly in the 1970s.

Over the years, keeping up with maintenance has become a challenge.

By the mid-1990s, Poster said, chunks of concrete were falling from the balconies. His firm oversaw about $10 million in fix-ups in 1997, but today about $50 million is needed to provide a new electrical system, new plumbing, upgrades to the heating and cooling systems, and new elevators.

Some of the flooring also needs structural reinforcement, he said.

In order to carry out these repairs, the city can supplement whatever it has, or gets from HUD, with low-income-housing tax credits, which offer dollar-for-dollar credit for affordable housing investments. The program, which was created under the Tax Reform Act of 1986, gives incentives for people in the private sector to help provide affordable housing.

“Nearly all of the quality-of-life concerns that my staff and I hear regularly from Tucson House residents relate to the fact that this is an aging building that has not received the amount of maintenance funds necessary to keep it in tip-top shape,” said City Councilman Paul Durham.

“Whether we are talking about elevator issues or antiquated security systems, it all relates to needing additional funding to keep this historic building serving its residents well.”

Before the work begins on the building, Poster will first focus on creating new affordable housing where Tucson House residents can live while the work is completed. Then the new housing will be used for other people in need of help.

“What we’ve been emphasizing to all residents during these conversations is that no one will be left without housing,” said Alison Miller, lead planner with Tucson’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

“The most likely option will be to renovate each of the two (adjoining) towers at a time, moving residents either out to new housing or across to a vacant unit in the other tower, depending on preference.”

Options for the Tucson House

Since the mid-1990s nationwide, more than 200,000 public-housing buildings have been lost, said Will Fischer, a senior policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

In order for the city to get the money it needs for the Tucson House, HUD has to like the plan that’s currently being formulated, a plan that will eventually be presented in exhaustive detail as the city tries to secure more funding.

Who lives there, and how it benefits the residents and the city, are all significant factors.

One option would be to leave the population as it is, with 41% being elderly, 48% being non-elderly people with disabilities and 11% being formerly homeless people.

Leaving the population the same, however, is highly unlikely to get HUD’s attention.

The other extreme would be to sell the Tucson House to a private investor who could rehabilitate it and rent it out at market rates.

In between those options would be having the formerly homeless people move to other suitable housing and, instead, bringing in assisted-living services.

Or the city could stop having non-elderly people with disabilities live there in order to provide other housing choices.

Perhaps mixed-income housing for elderly people, including assisted living?

The community conversation continues and, ultimately, will be decided by Tucson’s mayor and City Council.

Up the way, meanwhile, the much smaller Miracle Square was converted to housing for low-income elderly and people living with disabilities back in 1982 with money borrowed from the local industrial development authority.

Originally a project of Tucson Metropolitan Ministries, it’s now operated as a nonprofit.

Cowdry became the director in 1990 after finishing a 25-year career with the American Red Cross in Tucson. He earns $10,000 a year for his dedication, and that amount doesn’t seem to bother him.

Helping people is his current mission. He dreams of building tiny houses on the property so more people could live there, and have a place to cook a meal or watch a show.

Housing that helps vulnerable people

About a year ago, nursing students with the University of Arizona began to help out at Miracle Square and soon discovered that about 54% of the people living there were malnourished.

Over the last year, with some medical advice and more attention paid to what’s in the small food pantry next to Cowdry’s office, residents have learned better ways to make higher quality, low-budget meals.

Attention to the issue has paid off: A recent reassessment found about 32% of the people are not getting proper calories and nutrients now.

And the work is continuing.

Those are similar to the objectives that Carmen Noriega, director of development and marketing for the St. Elizabeth Health Center, said they have in mind at the Tucson House.

As part of the revitalization effort, a satellite clinic is being planned for the first floor of the Tucson House, with appointment hours available one or two days per week to start. The clinic should open sometime in 2020.

About half of the residents at the Tucson House are already registered as patients at St. Elizabeth’s main clinic, at 140 W. Speedway.

The goal will be to help more residents with nutrition and prevent them from turning to vending machines for their daily calories.

With the help of the Tucson House residents’ council, there is a plan to restart a food pantry there soon.

The majority of the people who live in the Tucson House are elderly or disabled, or both. About 57% of the residents take in less than $10,000 per year while 39% have between $10,000 and $20,000 available per year.

Becky Dupree was living in a camper without heating or cooling when she got a call, about three years ago, that a Tucson House apartment was available.

She was thrilled.

“I love it here,” said Dupree, who served in the Air Force in the 1970s. She said she has great neighbors “as well as the same issues you might have in any neighborhood.”

She lives on the 10th floor and said she enjoys amazing views from her living room couch. Fireworks displays and thunderstorms are her favorite things to watch.

Dupree says that despite of the ZIP code area being known for crime, the residents she knows are interested in building community and looking out for one another.

“You get to know the faces and you get to know who belongs here and who doesn’t,” she said.

The Community Food Bank delivers monthly food boxes to Tucson House and several local church groups also deliver food donations. The Pima County Library Book Mobile is a frequent, popular visitor.

The residents and council have been organizing more events to bring people together, and this includes helping neighbors out with a meal.

“Through Thrive in the ’05, we’re developing a leadership training curriculum with residents and planning monthly community-building (events),” said Liz Morales, the new housing director for the city.

Norma Adame helps run the resident council and has lived at the Tucson House for four years. Since February, she said she’s noticed a shift, with more involvement from the city and her community. She feels safer now than she has in several years.

“We take care of each other more than before, we communicate much better about who does and who does not live here,” she said. “It’s becoming more and more of a community.”

In the news, ChoiceAlison Miller