From 2005 through 2007, Killeen claimed the title of “Most Affordable Housing Market in the U.S.” on Coldwell Banker’s Home Price Comparison Index.
At the same time, about 25 miles downstream, monitors for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality began finding “suspended bodies” — construction dirt — in Trimmer Creek.
The many dense housing developments, which have popped up south of the city over the past decade, have made dreams of owning one’s own home a reality for thousands of families and brought millions of dollars into the local economy.
But as Killeen grows south, preserving the area’s natural resources without squelching the local housing boom may be an impossible feat.
By 2008, the Brazos River Authority, the TCEQ monitoring contractor, had two sites in the Lampasas River Watershed, one on Trimmer Creek and another at Pleasant Branch Cove, where the creek spills into Stillhouse Hollow Lake.
“Our field crew just happened to start seeing it,” said Tiffany Morgan, environmental services manager at BRA.
Morgan said the lake is one of the most pristine bodies of water in the Brazos River Basin, which stretches from Muleshoe, on the New Mexico border, to Brazoria, on the Gulf Coast.
“At Stillhouse it was so clear that we could visibly see a change in the water,” Morgan said. “Usually when you see stuff like that it is the result of development.”
Morgan said the pollution is slow and hasn’t affected the lake as a whole but, without protection, the lake’s water quality could change in as little as five years.
“If left unattended I would not doubt that it would affect the lake,” Morgan said.
Not only is the lake a popular recreation spot, but in a state that has a predicted massive population growth, readily available fresh water is a hot commodity.
A small solution
In the last two months, the Killeen City Council has adopted two ordinances designed to mitigate stormwater drainage pollution in future land developments: the post-construction manual and the infrastructure design manual.
On Tuesday, five council members voted to stop a new project to build residential homes on a 76-acre development owned by Purser Construction Inc., because the property is zoned as an estate (minimum one-acre lots), according to the city’s Comprehensive Plan.
The move was seen by many as the council standing up to one of Killeen’s most powerful real estate developers for the sake of responsible growth and preserving natural area resources.
An argument was made Tuesday, by Councilman Jared Foster, that once the land south of Killeen is developed, no new land will come to take its place.
Interest rates are at a record low, which for developers means they can only go up.
Garrett Nordyke, a local developer, said he fears the timing of the cost of construction increases, caused by the new environmental regulations, and the inevitable rise of interest rates will shake an already fragile market.
“If these converge at the same time it could be very bad for the economy,” Nordyke said. “If we agree to spend an extra $1,000 per lot let’s make sure it has an effect.”
The scientific method
Scott Brooks does not look like a lobbyist.
A skinny young man with a wild handlebar mustache, he drives a beat-up Subaru and planned to be an engineer before he even entered high school.
“The developers have a really bad rap and there’s no doubt they are profit driven, but none of them want to make Killeen a bad place,” Brooks said. “The developers have to proceed at a rate that works with the economics.”
Members of the council have encouraged developers to build more up-scale housing developments in Killeen.
Higher-end housing means larger lots and less impact on the environment, but most developers say the market just isn’t there for it.
As a professional engineer, Brooks said, when faced with a challenge, he always resorts to the scientific method: gather and review the data and find the best course of action.
Brooks questions the method used by the city to come up with the new regulations, saying officials did not weigh the environmental benefits of the new regulations with the heavy costs that will transfer over to the consumers through rising construction costs.
According to a 2012 study released by the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University, the median or average home price in Killeen is $125,000.
According to a second study released by A&M the same year, a $125,000 home on a 30-year fixed rate mortgage at a 4.25 percent interest rate (the 2011 national average), would require an average annual income of $49,648 per household to afford.
If interest rates return to 8 percent — as they were in 2000 before the housing bubble burst — homeowners would only be able to afford a $102,000 home — an 18 percent decrease in price.
“You can imagine that it would be very difficult to build the same house for 18 percent less,” Brooks said. “That is how sensitive the housing market is to interest rates.”
Cost of regulations
While the cost increase of the new drainage regulations on construction have not been estimated, Brooks said home builders are projecting an increase in the thousands per lot.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that it will have an effect on the local economy and hurt the market,” Brooks said.
According to the second study, 42 percent of Texas households can afford a $125,000 home.
If the price of homes is increased by $5,000, 1.7 percent of Texas families who could have afforded a $125,000 house would no longer be able to.
Adjusting for Killeen’s census population of 127,921, at 2.68 people per household, Brooks estimates 811 homes would suddenly be out of reach to consumers.
“At $125,000 per home, that’s potentially $101 million in homes affected by a change of just $5,000 in price,” Brooks said.
Killeen has a low cost of living compared to the rest of the nation, something most developers have chalked up to the need to provide soldiers with affordable housing.
Over the past decade, the population of Killeen has risen 47 percent, from 86,000 people in 2000 to 126,000 in 2010.
Troop levels, however, have stayed relatively level, hovering between 40,000 and 50,000 during the same time period.
Mayor Pro Tem Michael Lower said Killeen is the host city of Fort Hood and for that reason it owes a huge part of its success to the real estate developers.
However, he said he hopes to see responsible growth as the city inches its way toward Stillhouse Hollow Lake.
“We are always going to have affordable housing for the soldiers,” Lower said. “But I think we have an obligation to continue to provide opportunities for all levels of income to live here.”