December 6, 2006 - The average worker in Pima County earns $13.24 an hour - not enough to buy or even rent a home, according to the Arizona Department of Housing.

A resident of Pima County needs to earn more than $30 an hour to buy a house, statistics show.

In the face of these numbers, town of Marana officials plan to take an aggressive approach to affordable housing. Initial plans include 75 to 100 affordable homes in Honea Heights, by federal definition a Colonia or low-income neighborhood.

Since the inception of the town's affordable housing program about a decade ago, the town has sold 13 new homes to families in middle- to low-income neighborhoods. That won't do, officials have said.

"We needed to take a much more aggressive approach to affordable housing," Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat said in late September, after the town fired its affordable housing director. "You can't do that by just building two homes a year."

The town has run into trouble finding lots on which to build homes, stunting its affordable housing program. Luckily, the town owns the 34 acres studied for this new project.

The town has hired T. Vanhook to oversee its affordable housing program. Vanhook inherited the Honea Heights project and set her sights higher, planning for up to 75 more homes than originally planned.

The town hired the University of Arizona's Drachman Institute to assist it in developing an embankment along the Santa Cruz River, behind the existing Honea Heights subdivision.

"The plan has changed a lot," said Laura Carr, a graduate student who worked on the project.

Still in conceptual stages, the plan calls for two-, three- and four-bedroom homes of up to 1,200 sq. ft. The size of the homes probably will increase, Vanhook said.

The town hopes to offer the majority of the estimated 100 homes at an affordable price through subsidies and by partnering with community non-profit organizations and developers. No partnerships have been formed, but the town has discussed its plans with groups like Habitat for Humanity and Chicanos por la Casa.

The town and Old Pueblo Community Foundation jointly have applied for state funding to build about five or six homes a year. The town also will seek county and federal funds, which make up the majority of the affordable housing budget.

"This is more innovative," Vanhook said. "It's not about building projects. It's about building a nice neighborhood."

The project will help tremendously to revitalize Honea Heights, one of Marana's oldest neighborhoods. Mayor Ed Honea's family developed the subdivision, where about 200 families live today.

The existing neighborhood consists of site homes, mobile homes and modular homes. A lot of residents have kept up their homes, while others have not. Some yards look like junkyards.

A search of Pima County records shows many homes in Honea Heights have assessed values of less than $50,000, some even less than $20,000.

"There are some beautiful houses in Honea Heights," Vanhook said. "There are also some houses that need some help."

Pima County is currently installing a sewer line through the neighborhood. When that is complete, the town will re-pave the streets and add a sidewalk. The town hopes to begin that project the middle of next year, Town Engineer Keith Brann said.

The new homes in Honea Heights probably will include duplexes and triplexes but the town will do its best to keep them from looking out of place, officials said.

"This will not be old Honea Heights and new Honea Heights," Vanhook said.

The town will tie the neighborhoods together through a series of walkways and parks. When completed, the project will play an integral and aesthetic role in the town's linear park, a chain of recreational areas stretching along the Santa Cruz River.

The mayor likes the idea of using Honea Heights to provide more affordable housing but stressed the fact that nothing has been drawn up professionally.

"It's a long ways from any official approval," Honea said. "I think there definitely will be houses there, but any finalized plans remain to be seen. It's a tremendous opportunity to help some of our folks out."

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