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  • Writer's pictureTalia Hill

City Council backs resolution boosting affordable housing

Updated: May 8, 2019

The Austin City Council approved a density bonus program Thursday that could dramatically change how affordable housing is built in Austin.

The resolution, which Council Member Greg Casar introduced recently as the “Affordability Unlocked” initiative, calls for waiving many of the city’s land-use codes that council members have come to believe are roadblocks to the creation of low-income housing in a city whose residents face increased affordability problems.

“Oftentimes our own rules prevent affordable hosing from competing with luxury developments,” Casar said during a City Hall news conference that preceded the council’s meeting.

Chief among those cumbersome rules, some council members have said, is the so-called McMansion ordinance, which created compatibility standards designed to ensure a neighborhood’s character is preserved as it is redeveloped.

Real estate agent Jim Templeton was one of the few at Thursday’s meeting to speak against Casar’s resolution. Templeton said it tramples upon years of carefully crafted city codes, including the McMansion ordinance, which was passed in 2006.

“It seems to me the target here is established neighborhoods that are already built out,” Templeton said.

The council’s approval of the resolution paved the way for staffers to begin writing land-code ordinances based upon it. The results will be reviewed by at least one city commission before they come before the council May 9 for a vote.

The resolution calls for trading relaxations on building size and parking restrictions for the inclusion of affordable housing. The city already has several similar programs in place, but unlike those geographically isolated density bonus programs, such as ones downtown and in West Campus, Casar’s proposal would apply to the entire city, including West Austin, where affordable housing projects have been few and far between.

A recent presentation by Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department staffers emphasized the need for more affordable housing in the western reaches of the city.

Several council members have bemoaned the current patchwork of density bonus programs because, in some cases, developers rarely build on-site affordable units and instead pay fees in lieu to the city’s housing trust fund. The downtown density bonus program, for instance, has produced zero on-site affordable units since it was adopted in 2014. Unlike the existing density bonus programs, the resolution passed Thursday requires developers to construct on-site units to qualify for bonus options.

The resolution represents the council’s first major action on housing policy in a year that promises to be dominated by affordable housing initiatives. Neighborhood Housing and Community Development, the city department in charge of doling out funds for affordable housing projects, is suddenly swollen with cash after voters approved a $250 million affordable housing bond in November.

Casar has said the resolution is not intended to entice new builders to begin developing affordable housing projects. Instead, Casar said he wants to free current affordable home builders from bureaucratic red tape and building codes that restrict them in how many affordable units they can include on a property.

For a new rental housing project to qualify for the program, at least 50 percent of the units must be affordable to households with an annual income at 60 percent of median family income. At least 25 percent of those units would have to include two or more bedrooms. Eviction protections also would have to apply.

In exchange, the city would allow the developer to build 25 percent higher than generally allowed at the site. Parking requirements not related to the Americans with Disabilities Act also would be waived. And the project would be allowed to have 50 percent more units on site.

For projects that exceed participation requirements, building restrictions would be further eased.

“This is a big step to extend those affordable housing dollars that we are very proud that the community gave to help solve this problem,” said Eric Goff, a board member of the urbanist groups AURA and Evolve Austin. “This is a great way to start the new year on housing.”

Posted Feb 21, 2019 at 7:58 AM

Updated Feb 21, 2019 at 7:13 PM

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