While the latest draft of the CodeNEXT land development code at least tries to create some affordable housing for people who make 60-80% of the median family income ($81,400 a year for a family of four), Austin residents who fall below that figure will find little solace in the proposed rewrite. "CodeNEXT is not going to take care of housing for all income levels," confirmed Greg Guernsey, the executive project lead, in March. "The code can only do so much."
Limitations set, City Council Members Greg Casar, Delia Garza, and Pio Renteria have stepped forward to address the housing shortage and growing displacement issues. On April 3, as part of the city's Fair Housing Summit, the three introduced their Housing Justice Agenda, seven initiatives they're pushing to enact in the coming year. Six don't involve the code rewrite whatsoever:
• Approve a $250-300 million housing bond for the November ballot (and an additional bond to address displacement caused by flooding);
• Boost renter protections by requiring developers responsible for tenant displacement to cover relocation costs;
• Develop an "affordability multiplier program" via tax abatements to deepen affordability of density bonus program units;
• Create a list of low-income households seeking income-restricted homes;
• Provide homeowner education to protect lower-income families from "predatory" investors and lenders;
• Encourage colleagues to "aggressively" pursue the creation of affordable housing within their districts.
The seventh initiative suggests that the zoning rewrite expand density bonus programs, create anti-displacement zoning to preserve existing affordable multifamily properties and mobile home parks, create affordable housing corridors within a quarter-mile of all corridors, allow smaller homes and smaller lots, and create new Imagine Austin corridors west of MoPac.
Casar hopes the land use commissions tasked with shepherding CodeNEXT to the Council dais will incorporate these objectives into their recommendations. Otherwise, he said, the push will "come from us," referring to Garza, Renteria, and in all likelihood Jimmy Flannigan, who has aligned with his three colleagues on this issue before. Casar emphasized how their agenda details six action items that could be implemented regardless of CodeNEXT.
Asked whether the CMs would approve the code if it did not include their recommendations, Renteria said it would be "very hard for us to vote for it"; he doesn't want to support something that won't alleviate affordability issues. For Renteria, creating income-restricted housing along high-traffic corridors and using city land to build affordable units (which the housing bond would very likely help with) are the two biggest priorities. He called the Mueller development a "prime example" of using city-owned land to build a "community," which he would like to do throughout Austin.
Talking past the CMs is Fred McGhee, a staunch opponent of CodeNEXT, who called the Housing Justice Agenda a "Trojan horse" to carry the rewrite (despite CMs insisting it's an independent initiative), which he believes will hurt neighborhoods and uproot families. McGhee advocates for his People's Plan, co-written with Susana Almanza and Jane Rivera, as an effective means to thwart displacement. And last Friday, the city's Anti-Displacement Task Force recommended it go to Council, noting that parts may require legal analysis. For it to arrive there, one or more members would need to sponsor the proposed plan, or each of its points individually, as is also the case with the Housing Justice Agenda.
The People's Plan, outlined in our March 9 issue, is also largely independent of CodeNEXT; it details six housing strategies, some of which are similar to the CMs' agenda. Both call for new income-restricted housing to be built on city-owned properties, which could provide subsidized housing for lower-income residents than the typical 60% MFI limit. The two plans would also address flooding, a growing concern that has exacerbated Austin's displacement issue – specifically in Garza's District 2. The agenda, however, looks at keeping middle- and low-income families in homes they already own and discouraging developer displacement by requiring tenant relocation fees, while the People's Plan recommends starting an independent Housing Trust Fund for low-income units, to replace the one the city currently runs, and helping displaced families return. (Coincidently, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo sponsored a broad Right to Return resolution several weeks ago, which passed unanimously.) Adopting the plan, or aspects of it, will largely rely on what the city can afford, and legally enforce.
Meaning affordability moving forward comes down to a game of Ifs. If all points of the Housing Justice Agenda are adopted along with CodeNEXT, the two could work harmoniously. If neither it nor the People's Plan gets adopted, but CodeNEXT somehow does, it significantly increases the city's overall density bonus areas to cover about 30,000 acres throughout the city, as opposed to the 5,600 acres covered today. That won't create the full 60,000 affordable units the city currently seeks, but it could prove better than where we are today.
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