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  • Writer's pictureMolly Becker

City Council enacts building bonuses to boost affordable housing

The Austin City Council has enacted a citywide program that encourages developers to build more affordable housing by allowing them to operate under relaxed building codes on some projects.

A density bonus program, the Affordability Unlocked Bonus Program — named after a resolution the council passed in February — will be applied citywide to qualifying properties.

Affordability Unlocked requires that 50% of a development’s units be dedicated for people earning less than Austin’s median family income, which was $86,000 for a family of four in 2018. The requirements for on-site affordable units are far steeper than the 10% to 20% generally required by the city’s patchwork of density bonus programs.

“It is really going to make our affordable housing dollars stretch much further,” said Council Member Greg Casar, who spearheaded the effort. “I think benefits will be felt by Austinites almost immediately.”

The ordinance, approved Thursday, trades relaxations on building size and parking restrictions for the inclusion of affordable housing.

In the case of a development with all its units dedicated to affordable housing, the builder would be allowed to develop a building that was 50% taller than allowed under current code.

While the council approved the program unanimously, there were some bumps on the way to the vote. Language related to housing cooperatives tripped the council up for about two hours, with some members fearing the wording opened loopholes for the creation of “stealth dorms.” That was ultimately resolved after an impromptu closed-door session, and a provision regarding housing cooperatives remained in the ordinance.

“I am concerned that if we have loopholes, for-profit developers are going to use those in ways we don’t anticipate,” Council Member Kathie Tovo said.

Some council members also bristled at the ordinance’s lack of prohibitions on short-term rentals at qualifying properties. Tovo attempted to put in a short-term rental ban for participating properties, but her amendment failed by a 7-4 vote, with Tovo and fellow Council Members Alison Alter, Ann Kitchen and Leslie Pool voting for it.

“It makes no sense to me to not include this kind of ban,” Kitchen said.

By Philip Jankowski

May 10, 2019

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