Public Notice: Good Change Is Good
Greg Casar’s affordable housing resolution
Greg Casar is first out of the gate in City Council's new year, with an ambitious affordable housing proposal aimed at cutting the Gordian Knot in which the Austin land development code debate is snarled.
The Affordability Unlocked resolution, unveiled Monday night on the Council message board, and discussed at Tuesday's work session, proposes to create a new affordable housing bonus program, which would waive many key development standards (except impervious cover limits) for any residential development, anywhere in the city, that offers at least half its units at deeply affordable rents or sales prices. It aims to facilitate and encourage affordable housing construction on a wide range of scales: To grease the wheels and maximize the efficiency for large, established developers such as Foundation Communities or Habitat for Humanity, but also to insert affordable housing into the infill projects that are being built across town, and that are having a more direct effect on the fabric of neighborhoods.
On its face, the proposal looks like a big win for the density/deregulation side: For a qualifying development, in any residential or commercial zoning, the city would completely waive parking requirements, compatibility standards, maximum floor-to-area ratios, and residential design standards, increase building height by 25%, reduce front and rear setbacks by 50%, and increase the number of units allowed by 50%, or to six units, whichever is greater. But on the other hand, keeping those increased entitlements strictly tied to genuine affordable housing (an average of 60% MFI, with at least 25% of the units being two-bedroom or larger), could be a big win for neighborhood interests, who have argued that blanket upzonings – not tied to affordability – do nothing but increase property values, and cause displacement. That was a point Leslie Pool – perhaps the most "neighborhood" of the CMs – made on the message board Tuesday afternoon in asking to join as the unlikely fifth sponsor on the resolution: "I definitely support revising our development bonus program so that we require developers to provide more affordable units when the city gives development bonuses, and I'm glad the conversation is focused on looking for ways to use our leverage for community benefit rather than on giving it away."
It's a bold move that Council has been awaiting for years, but it does by its sweeping nature envision some startling outcomes. For example, one could build a six-unit, three-story apartment building on any lot in the city, provided that three of the units were affordable. Now, that will sound like a great idea to some, and a horrifying one to others. And most of you, even if you've read this far, may be struggling to decide whether you care one way or another. But however tired the public is with zoning law right now, I promise you, the first time someone starts putting up an apartment building on a lot in Pemberton Heights, folks are going to notice, and it will be loud.
Then there's the issue of monitoring: Various studies and reports have noted that the city already doesn't really keep useful track of the affordable housing it requires to be built. And one can only imagine how much harder that job becomes if this program succeeds in creating a new generation of affordable units scattered in small buildings across the city. The recent Strategic Housing Blueprint update proposed that the city create "a 'real-time' database of available affordable housing units, services, resources, and incentives." Perhaps that requirement could be tied in as a part of this.
Austin is changing, all right. Today's tech hub may seem nothing like the outlaw country/hippie enclave it was a generation ago – but somehow we got here from there. And next Wednesday evening Joe Nick Patoski will explain how that happened, at the launch event for his 10th book, Austin to ATX: The Hippies, Pickers, Slackers, and Geeks Who Transformed the Capital of Texas, which for now stands as the definitive history of the city's remarkable cultural transformation over the past 40 years. Patoski has been in the thick of it throughout, writing and observing in his trademark trenchant yet detached manner; tonight he'll be talking with Statesman writer Michael Barnes, followed by Jon Dee Graham performing songs from different eras of Austin music. It's 7pm Wed., Feb. 13, at the Austin Central Library, 710 W. Cesar Chavez, as part of the Library Foundation's At Central series, presented with BookPeople (where you can pre-order a copy).
See the full Affordability Unlocked Resolution here.