The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: Affordable Housing & the Promised Land

Proposition A and Austin’s Affordability Predicament

By Michael King, October 5, 2018, News

"Everybody wants to go to heaven," eloquently sang Albert King many years ago, "but nobody wants to die." I think of that line often when I hear Austinites talking about "affordable housing." We're all willing to admit – to proclaim – that "affordability" is our political mantra, and that more affordable housing is high on our list. If you want somebody to sign a petition virtually on any subject, just ask, "Do you support affordable housing?" and hold out a blank form.

It's a reflexive public presumption that Austin needs more housing of every type, size, and kind, and needs it here, there ... but not quite everywhere. When it gets down to particular cases – especially, for example, neighborhood zoning cases – more housing would be just great over on the other side of town, but not in this neighborhood, not too close to where I want to drive or park my car, and definitely not on that intersection, and especially not on this block. ... Despite what we might like to presume, in varying degrees that's essentially true citywide, east as well as west, at least when City Council is hearing from homeowners associations and neighborhood contact teams.

Getting down into the weeds of just how much new housing we need, and how much of it needs to be "affordable" (by varying standards), and how much of it we can preserve via existing affordable housing stock, are all arguments for another day (or for my colleague Sarah Marloff, who's been doing the grind work on this beat). But next month, wherever you happen to stand on the nuts, bolts, and bearing walls, all of us who like to proclaim our support for affordable housing have a real opportunity to put our literal money behind our collective mouths.

A Piece at a Time

I'm thinking, of course, of Proposition A, the headline item on a slate of Props (A-G) that would also invest in health care services, parks and recreation, libraries/cultural facilities, flood mitigation, public safety, and mobility. Of the $925 million in all (spread out, as bond sales are, over several years), Prop A is the largest, at $250 million. It's not a lump sum, but includes land acquisition ($100 million), rental housing assistance projects ($94 million), a home ownership program ($28 million), and a home repair program ($28 million).

Each of these pieces will underwrite a distinct aspect of creating or maintaining affordable housing throughout the city, ranging from literal construction of new units on the acquired land (primarily through the Austin Housing Finance Cor­p­or­ation) to the city's Go! Repair program, under which nonprofit city subcontractors are able to repair and maintain older housing for homeowners who can't afford to do so on their own.

The $94 million for rental housing development has a related purpose, in fulfilling the city's strategic housing goals by either constructing or maintaining affordable rental housing even as the city's market-priced housing becomes increasingly unaffordable for too many working-class residents. In Austin as elsewhere, there is no one solution to the affordable housing crisis, and the bond programs encompass a range of approaches.

Voting for Affordability

The politics of the bond campaign, thus far, seem to represent a broader public consensus than has been characteristic of our weird local debates over the last few years. For example, the audible split on the Council dais over CodeNEXT and its implications – e.g., "greater density" vs. "neighborhood protection" – has been mostly muted. Council members who often pull in different directions on those subjects – e.g., Greg Casar and Kathie Tovo – are pulling together on this one, and there is broad support across the dais on the need for these bonds, with a relatively minimal residential cost spread over several years.

The same appears to be true in the election campaign, where the similar split on comprehensive revision of the land use code – e.g., Steve Adler vs. Laura Morrison – has largely disappeared over the direct need for more affordable housing. It is possible that a few candidates will see opposing the bonds as a wedge for a particular anti-tax portion of the electorate, but over the years, with some exceptions, Austin voters have been supportive of bond initiatives. One such exception was the narrow 2012 rejection of a $78 million housing bond proposition – followed the next year by resounding approval of a $65 million proposition.

Once again next month, voters will be faced with a smorgasbord of propositions, all of them worthy individually, but raising the question whether Austinites will work their way down to the bottom of a lengthy midterm ballot, and then be persnickety about ranking the bonds along the lines of a restaurant menu. The main course will indeed be the $250 million for Prop A. On Prop A and affordable housing – like going to heaven – if we want to get there, we'll need to pay the entry fee.

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