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OUTING INFILL

Quail race across a secluded Phoenix street where Gretchen Freeman and her husband will soon break ground on a new home. Their future backyard affords a view of Camelback Mountain's Praying Monk. Neighboring houses sprawl across roomy, desert-landscaped lots.

Home prices in this development, Biltmore Alta Vista Park, start at about half a million dollars. You'll pay more if you want to live in a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright or Will Bruder. Freeman has hired Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the architects who designed the new Phoenix Art Museum.

Judging from the home construction under way nearby, people are eager to live in this part of town.

Now there's another incentive to move into the neighborhood: government subsidies.

Last March, Mayor Skip Rimsza and the Phoenix City Council unanimously approved the Infill Housing Program, a $100,000 pilot project designed to promote inner-city development. The program waives fees on building, fence, water and sewer permits to those who build new homes in central Phoenix neighborhoods that are 20 years old or older. The waivers average $2,000 per home, with larger homes getting larger waivers. The builders also are treated to an expedited city review process.

But the Infill Housing Program isn't doing much for the "inner city." Nearly a quarter of the city--about 120 square miles--qualifies for infill subsidies. The program's boundaries stretch to 43rd Avenue, 64th Street, South Mountain and Cactus Road.

There is no cap on the expense of qualifying homes, or on the amount of waivers a home can receive. In the past six months, Phoenix taxpayers have subsidized home construction in tony areas like Arcadia, Squaw Peak and North Central Avenue.

And in Gretchen Freeman's neighborhood. She already had decided to build in Biltmore Alta Vista Park when she read about the infill program in the daily newspaper. She applied and was accepted. Her fee waiver comes to about $2,800.

So when the dust from building her 4,700-square-foot home settles, Freeman and her family will move into government-subsidized housing, designed by New York architects.

Last fall, Skip Rimsza stood on an empty lot in the warehouse district of downtown Phoenix and campaigned for mayor with the promise that he'd promote infill.

The concept is simple: Build houses and businesses on vacant land in the center of town, and you'll revive dying neighborhoods, increase the city's tax base and discourage urban sprawl at the city's boundaries. Now Rimsza's seeking reelection--although few voters seem aware there's an election October 3--and infill is one of the issues he's touting. Rimsza fancies himself a visionary. He intends to leave his mark with infill, the way Terry Goddard did with his vision for a vibrant downtown cultural community--$1 billion in bonds that engendered a new city hall, waste management plant, library and science museum.

John Meunier, dean of the College of Architecture and Environmental Design at Arizona State University, agrees that with new cultural amenities in place, housing is the next step. He says no downtown is revitalized until people live there.

But Meunier says the city is not doing enough.
"Everything now is completely market-driven, to the point where talking about it any other way is almost heresy," Meunier says. ". . . The fact is that without significant pump-priming, we are going to be faced with exactly the same thing that every other American city has been faced with, which is the continuing decline of the inner city."
Rimsza has gotten a lot of political mileage out of his infill shtick, taking credit for the $5 million in construction the program has abetted.

In a guest column in the September 17 Arizona Republic, Rimsza suggests infill can cure everything but dandruff. He writes glowingly of the city's "real, honest-to-goodness infill program to encourage development in older, established neighborhoods." He opines that infill will improve schools, transit opportunities and, curiously, "offer job opportunities to our central city kids."

"Infill is that important," Rimsza declares. "I've made it a priority. I've led the charge."
But the pilot Infill Housing Program--Rimsza's first stab at promoting infill--couldn't help but succeed, at least on paper. It's a no-risk, low-cost, feel-good program that offers waivers to people who were--for the most part--already planning to build within its boundaries. Few of them actually need government help, which means that city subsidies in many cases merely add to builders' profits.

In fact, many builders who have taken advantage of the infill subsidies tell New Times that the program had no bearing on their decision to build.

Mark Stapp, who will receive subsidies for the 22 houses he's building at Mitchell Place, a development at Third Street and Osborn, says, "I'm not a fool. I mean, I'll take [money] if it's given to us. But I think it's fair to say that the Infill Housing Program had no effect on developability, feasibility or success of this project at all."

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.