Council: Our House, in the Middle of the Corridor

Council considers strategic housing … again

It looks like plenty of déjà vu all over again at City Council today (April 13), with at least three headline items returning for continuing discussion and potential action. Council received a briefing last week on a proposed economic incentive agreement for Merck & Co. (Item 41), including brief public testimony pro and con, but the formal public hearing occurs today and could affect the equation. Council members had some pointed questions about the deal – hoping to tweak details, and perhaps procure firmer commitments from Merck on job pipelines, etc. – but on the whole the dais sounded impressed with Merck's outreach and the potential local partnerships, and inclined to approve its first such program since the inception of the 10-1 Council ("Merck in Austin?" April 3).

Also returning today is the proposed Strategic Housing Plan (Item 10), in principle establishing a minimum goal of 135,000 new housing units (of all types) over the next 10 years – a target that council members agree would at this point only keep pace with population growth. They were still chewing this conundrum at Tues­day's work session, brainstorming ways to incentivize even more housing supply (that might in some future universe exert downward pressure on prices), though they remain divided on the best ways (and places) to build that supply. There was also some division over whether the plan is simply "aspirational" or should be integrated into the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, in theory by ordinance. Since CodeNEXT is also on the way – ordinance revision by definition – that resistance seemed to be weakening, suggesting that the Housing Plan – by contrast, a heart-cry that "we need more housing" – will probably endure some muttering but find enough votes to pass.

“PUDs are one strategy that affects one piece of the puzzle.” – Mandy de Mayo

Council Member Ann Kitchen, hoping to overcome some of that inertia, is also offering a resolution (Item 24) that would establish interim housing goals and maintain Plan monitoring; another resolution (Item 25, sponsored by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo) would apply specific affordable housing goals to the existing "corridors," and coordinate with the mayor's "Strike Fund" efforts to preserve existing affordable units.

Lurking in these shadows is another, more imminent controversy over housing – i.e., just how much of it might be included in the Austin Oaks planned unit development, scheduled to return for its third reading today (Item 36). Council has approved the PUD on two readings (7-4), not yet by the nine votes that would be required to overcome the existing valid petition by neighboring landowners against the PUD. The war of words has devolved somewhat into a war of numbers, with CM Alison Alter continuing to insist that the city is not getting sufficient dollar return in community benefits (affordable housing, traffic mitigation) for the entitlements (e.g., square feet, height) provided via the draft PUD agreement. Staff has been kept busy providing additional breakouts of the changes to reflect new financial terms.

CM Greg Casar made the successful motions at second reading, and said that within the voluntary structure of a PUD, Council needs to balance community benefits with the developer's interests. He said he would have preferred using all the benefits for affordable housing, but yielded to Council sentiment (from CMs Alter and Leslie Pool) for traffic mitigation. "I didn't want to water down the deal on second reading," he told the Chronicle last week. "We'll see if we can pass it [on third reading], or have to postpone and continue negotiating."

Curiously, research done by affordable housing advocates HousingWorks has been wielded on both sides of the arguments. Michael Whellan, representing developer Spire Realty, noted that HousingWorks reported that only 1% of the city's subsidized housing (a category that includes all income-limited units) is located in District 10. Pool and others have pointed to a 2014 HousingWorks study that reflected more than 4,500 "market-rate affordable" units in the ZIP codes near Austin Oaks, indirectly making the argument that Austin Oaks' 46 units won't make much difference.

HousingWorks Executive Director Mandy De Mayo said that the organization continues to advocate for subsidized or mandated affordable units throughout the city, and she wouldn't necessarily rely on a 3-year-old study because of the constant pressure of rising rents, while local wages haven't kept pace. "I don't have any idea whether the Austin Oaks PUD is good or bad," De Mayo said, "but the value of getting the affordable units as part of the PUD agreement is that they're class A [units], brand new, and legally restricted as affordable for 40 years.

"PUDs are one strategy that affects one piece of the puzzle," De Mayo continued. "We have to deploy every program and tool that we have, in order to get units in high-opportunity areas where we otherwise wouldn't have affordable housing."

Elsewhere on the agenda:

Spice Crisis: In response to a series of K2/spice casualties near the ARCH, Mayor Steve Adler proposes a resolution (Item 26) directing staff to find additional resources to address the public safety problem.

Managerial Advice: Item 27 would establish the City Manager Advisory Task Force, provide nominees, and presumably confirm their specific charge, currently described as developing a "preferred profile" for the job candidates.

Fees Rising: Wanting more info, Council punted to this week a staff proposal (Item 2) adjusting procedures and fees for code violations; it will likely make it through today.

Among proclamations, it's Small Business Festival Day and Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and the musical honorees feature the lilting harmonies of The Belle Sounds.

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City Council, Steve Adler, Ann Kitchen, Alison Alter, Greg Casar, Leslie Pool, Kathie Tovo, Merck & Co., CodeNEXT

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