Real Estate Council of Austin Wraps Its Mind Around Affordability
Developers group to learn about peer city challenges
Long a bugbear in the "Weird" parts of town (and often within these pages), the Real Estate Council of Austin has in recent years tried to reposition itself as less of a developers' lobby and more of a thought leader on Austin's growth and land use. Its annual RECA Exchange event being held today (Thursday) involves plenty of networking but also a Longhorn good time with UT athletic director Chris Del Conte previewing plans for the campus sports complex post-Erwin Center, updates from smaller cities around the region, and a roundtable of peer city leaders from Minneapolis, Seattle, and Nashville to talk about the challenges they and Austin face – mobility, affordability, you know the list.
The luncheon speaker, Spencer Levy – chairman of Americas Research and senior economic adviser for CBRE, the largest commercial real estate firm in the world – is a frequent talking head on the business cable channels on a variety of economic subjects, but for Austin, he's focusing on Topic A for the development community and policymakers here. "Real estate professionals are asking how they can make a difference" in addressing local and global concerns, he says, "and affordable housing is that answer. We can't solve every issue, but we can solve this one."
This applies to both "good guys" building subsidized income-restricted housing and "bad guys" building market-rate units – as Austin's political influencers have traditionally seen the field – since they're ultimately doing the same job and delivering similar products. "You won't have any trouble, anywhere, finding developers who want to do density and walkability," he says. Austin is among the cities "doing the right thing," he says, in making its codes, regulations and policies amenable to producing the housing that the industry is ready to provide.
Levy's advice, to be sure, is something Austinites, including developers, have long heard but have yet to fully heed. For all the grief and frustration Austin feels about its rising costs and housing scarcity, "it's not nearly as severe as in other places" on the coasts. "Austin is certainly not a secondary market anymore," he says. "It's easier to build there, and there's a lot of land outside Austin if it wants to grow out" – officially, of course, it doesn't – "but the infrastructure is not at that level. But it does have the ability to grow up; it's much easier to go vertical in Austin than elsewhere, and it can solve its [affordability] issue through urban density."