The Austin Chronicle

“Affordability Unlocked” With More Density, Casar Hopes

Proposal aims to make the city’s money go farther by making projects larger

By Mike Clark-Madison, February 8, 2019, News

Now that they can no longer use "Let's put it in CodeNEXT!" as the answer to any city land use policy question, City Coun­cil has gotten cracking on some long-overdue moves to respond to Austin's housing affordability crisis. On Tuesday, Feb. 5, Council Member Greg Casar released his "Affordability Unlocked" proposal, which would relax existing site standards to make it easier for developers to create more units in affordable and mixed-income projects, both for rent and for sale, regardless of their location in Austin, for low- and moderate-income residents. Casar's draft resolution was discussed in work session Tuesday, and will be considered by the full Council on Feb. 21.

Casar's approach is explicitly targeted toward developers who are already in the affordable housing business, as opposed to enticing market-rate projects to tack on a smattering of units at affordable prices or, more commonly, pay a fee-in-lieu that in theory will be spent to build real housing somewhere else. It's intended to work in concert with other housing subsidy programs, such as Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, whose potential is currently not being maximized because of restrictive site development standards that can only be waived through long and costly entitlement changes, if then. (The draft resolution includes several examples where relaxed height restrictions, setbacks, and such would have allowed more homes to be built.) "The proposal would allow more height, density, and floor space for developments where at least 50% of the homes are affordable and set aside for low income families," Casar told his colleagues on the Council message board. "A segment of the affordable homes have to be multi-bedroom, or for seniors, or for those coming out of homelessness. We can increase the number of affordable homes in a location by 25%, 100%, or even 500% in some cases through a citywide program such as this one."

At next week's meeting, Council is expected to give its legally required blessing to dozens of LIHTC projects, many of which may also be in line for funds from the $250 million affordable housing bond (Proposition A) approved overwhelmingly by voters in November, which Casar would like to see go further by allowing these projects to get bigger. He asked his fellow CMs east of I-35 – Natasha Harper-Madi­son, Pio Renteria, and Delia Garza – to co-sponsor the resolution, since Districts 1-4 contain the bulk of the city's current affordable housing, but the intent of the proposal is to get more units in other places. To that end, CM Leslie Pool, generally seen as an anti-density ally, nonetheless offered Casar her support as a co-sponsor, noting that it's key that "this approach applies equitably across the city. ... I'm glad the conversation is focused on looking for ways to use our leverage for community benefit rather than giving it away." Assuming Casar's resolution garners the support of the full Council, as is likely, it instructs City Manager Spencer Cronk to return with an ordinance to make the program a reality by early May.

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