Border Patrol’s Arizona Housing Project: Bargain or Boondoggle?

How many workers who face a long commute would wish for an affordable home close to work — built just for them by their employer? That’s just what the government gave U.S. Border Patrol agents working along the Mexican border, according to a newspaper report, at a cost far exceeding the price of local homes. The colorful new development was created in the small Arizona town of Ajo for Border Patrol personnel, offering them brand-new homes for rent ranging from 1,276 to 1,570 square feet.

The government has paid $15 million for the development of the two- and three-bedroom homes, plus 20 park-model trailers, according to The Arizona Republic. The newly constructed homes have an open-concept floor plan for the living and dining areas; a master suite; two full bathrooms; a two-truck enclosed garage; and a covered front and back porch or patio. This new development in the desert town includes a centrally located recreational space with multiple open-air pavilions for family picnics, according to a GSA press release.

According to the newspaper’s calculations, the homes in the new development cost $600,000 each. “It’s just another multimillion-dollar waste,” Tina West, a member of the Western Pima County Community Council, told the Phoenix newspaper. “You could buy any house in town for $100,000.”

But a review of websites that list homes for sale in Ajo showed, at best, only about a dozen homes currently for sale, most of them foreclosures, and even fewer rentals. (AOL Real Estate’s database of listings, along with others such as Zillow and Trulia, returned similar results.) The inventory has always been quite low, according to General Services Administration documents, and of some of the homes for sale haven’t been that suitable for living.

Prior to construction, the Ajo-Why-Lukeville areas of Arizona included four apartment complexes (three in Ajo, one in Lukeville). There are typically no vacancies, and a long wait list, stated the government report.

But renovating existing homes might have been a cheaper way to provide better options, U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz), whose district includes Ajo, told the Republic. “I thought it would be good for agents coming in to be integrated into that part of the community,” Grijalva said. “It would revitalize part of Ajo.”

However, the government found that it would actually be more expensive to renovate than to build new, plus it could provide more housing units. Officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection‎ told Finance & Commerce magazine that it considered renovating 21 separate properties within the community but, after the cost of environmental assessments and appraisals, that would be more expensive than starting from scratch. The Republic quoted the CBP as saying in letter to an Ajo-real-estate agent that the cost of constructing the individual homes actually averaged at about $167,000 each, with the rest of the funds spent on other costs — such as infrastructure — necessary to create the housing development.

The new housing could encourage CBP employees to move to Ajo, Bety Allen, executive director of the Ajo Chamber of Commerce, told the magazine. Allen moved to Ajo from Montana with her husband, who is a Border Patrol agent, and said that finding suitable rental housing was stressful. “If those houses would have been there, it would have been so much easier,” Allen said.

The new homes also focus on sustainability. Each home in the new community has a three- or four-kilowatt photovoltaic solar array on the garage roof to generate power, with a goal of achieving net-zero energy consumption. With other key features, such as the use of environmentally preferred construction materials for concrete and fencing, very high efficiency water fixtures and HVAC systems, and Energy Star-rated appliances and lighting, this project achieved a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Platinum rating the week following its official opening. It’s the first housing development in Arizona and the first known Federal Government housing (according to the U.S. Department of Interior) to get the highest achievable rating under LEED for Homes.

Before the new units were built, Border Patrol officers had to compete for limited housing in hotels and boarding homes with contractors who were in the area constructing new fences, according to a GSA report. A GSA survey of staff found that the workers preferred long-term residential housing as opposed to hotels or boarding houses. The previous lack of available or suitable housing in the area resulted in staff commuting more than 100 miles one way to the metro Tucson area or up to 175 miles one way to the metro Phoenix area, according to the GSA report, and that unreasonably long commute resulted in staff retention issues.

“This project is unique in that it greatly differs from the typical infrastructure projects GSA normally constructs,” Ruth Cox, GSA’s Pacific Rim Regional Administrator, said in a press release. “Building these homes not only allows us to support CBP in meeting a broad range of their operational requirements, it also gives us an opportunity to positively affect the quality of life for their families.”

But a local real estate agent says that she has doubts about how many will end up living there full-time anyway. “Most of them are young,” Linda Sharp, who handles properties renting to Border Patrol personnel, told the Republic. “They want a nightlife, and there’s no life in Ajo.” (1616)



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