Austin at Large: Time for the Bonus Round!
Trusting ourselves to allow the housing that will change the city
Today, Feb. 21, the City Council will likely endorse Greg Casar's "Affordability Unlocked" citywide density bonus program – because who, in this city in 2019, wants to vote against more affordable housing? As written, the resolution gives City Manager Spencer Cronk a little more than two months to draft an ordinance that will allow developers of affordable housing to ratchet up the number of units, and the attendant size and height of their buildings, as a matter of right throughout the city, without seeking Council approval or the blessings of their neighbors. (They would still need to get city staff approvals.)
Casar's resolution is designed first of all to prime the pump for developers who build subsidized, income-restricted housing, whether in large complexes or as scattered infill, that meet the resolution's criteria regarding income levels, number of bedrooms, years of affordability, and so forth. That niche of the real-estate world argues, with evidence, that it could get more Austinites into stable housing if it had relaxed entitlements, and Casar and his allies think it's fitting for the city to at least make its own dollars – like the ones in the Proposition A housing bond voters approved with gusto in November – go as far as they can.
But this density bonus program is not reserved for subsidy housing (nor could it really be, since entitlements run with the land, not the owner), and it could, as my colleague Nick Barbaro wrote several weeks ago, lead to new, dense infill development in places where people aren't really expecting it and without the usual means of recourse. Now, for those of an urbanist bent this might not be a bug but rather a feature, but the resolution presents an opportunity for both neighborhood NIMBYs and urbanist tankies to call each other's bluff, and for both camps – and everyone in between – to think hard about how much we really trust the City to change our city, as we sweep away the ashes of CodeNEXT.
You Said That's What You Wanted
First, the bluff-calling. Infill developers say they could really fill the evanescent "missing middle" and bring down the price points of their currently boutique-y product if they had a less restrictive code. Well, here's their chance! Now, in reality the rigors of producing (as an example) two-bedroom family units for households making 30% of Austin's median income that are guaranteed to be affordable for up to 99 years will be not worth the bonus for Joe Infill and his spec homes on some random East Austin lot, but it would for an established nonprofit like Austin Habitat for Humanity. The difference between "affordable housing," as a real estate term of art, and "a house I can afford" from a civilian's perspective is real.
On the flip side of that, though, neighbors say they'd be just fine with those bougie boutique infill projects if they were affordable. Well, here's their chance! But (as another example) as the resolution is written, the new four-unit project across the street from my own house – built to the absolute max of SF-3 development rights (it's two very large duplexes), and selling for more than half a mil per unit – could instead be 12 units, and four stories tall, with the stroke of a pen, as long as it was affordable. Would my neighbors, who fought multiple attempts to upzone the property, really let that happen? (Would the neighbors in West Austin environs that have lacked income-restricted housing for generations?) Would they really care who the owner was, or what the subsidies were, or who the tenants were? How will the good vibes of the successful Prop A campaign translate into the realities of such a case? That's going to be the test.
Someone's Gotta Make the Rules
Hence the question of trust. Remember the oft-mouthed axiom of recent weeks that "change comes at the speed of trust." The magic words behind the proposed bonuses in Casar's resolution are "without further discretionary action" by the Council – in other words, by right. So the people we need to trust are the same city staffers who for decades have gotten the lion's share of the blame for everything about Austin's growth that makes people unhappy. (And sometimes deservedly so!)
The Development Services Department – historically, the most beleaguered and least beloved of all city employees – just about got finished implementing the literally hundreds of fixes needed to make it a functional enterprise (see "Public Notice" for more on that). They now get to run this program in a way that engenders the trust of neighbors, who accept as gospel that units and height are treasures that the city should not "give away," and of developers, who are tired of being faulted for the disappointing results that are guaranteed by our defective processes and policies.
And it'll be up to the city housing department, which with Prop A has seen its budget roughly quadrupled, to make promises of 40-year or 99-year affordability – the closest thing Austin'll ever get to rent control – be meaningful to neighbors (and residents!) and tenable for future owners. Those are all details that can't be worked out in advance; we'll just have to see how the program gets used, and by whom, over time. Our job is to stay focused on how we want to use these tools, and the money attached to them, to change our city.