Council: Too Little Affordable Housing, or Too Much?

Two southeast projects divide dais; APD’s state grants OK’d


Council approved zoning 4400 Nuckols Crossing for this senior living affordable housing project. (courtesy of Thrower Design)

At its Aug. 27 meeting, City Council voted to accept several state grants to the Austin Police Department in relatively short order that will provide additional funding for victims services, the mental health first responders program, and processing evidence for sexual assault cases.

All but one of the 10 grants were approved on consent, although Council Members Jimmy Flannigan, Paige Ellis, and Natasha Harper-Madison abstained from voting on an $88,750 grant that would help pay for an attachment to an APD helicopter that would allow it to carry more passengers. The grant does not require any city matching funds. Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, who ultimately voted against the grant, raised questions about it at Council's work session Aug. 25, pointing out that the STAR Flight helicopter, which is operated by EMS, typically handles aerial rescue missions.

Council spent most of its time wrestling over two zoning cases. Both would take single-­family greenfield lots in low-income East Austin neighborhoods and upzone them for modest increases in the number of units, and so drew opposition from growth skeptics and neighbors citing gentrification concerns and threats to sensitive environmental features.

The first case, located at 508 Kemp Street in Montopolis, would take a vacant 2-acre SF-3 lot to SF-6, which allows for town­homes and condos. Initially, the developer proposed a market-rate project, which Council was uninterested in. The revised plan would use the Affordability Unlocked density bonus, with just over half the units (17 of 33) to be sold at 60% or 80% of Austin's median ­family income.

Drenner Group has pledged to form a restrictive covenant with Habitat for Human­ity and price homes at around $140,000 on the low end, compared to the market rate of $325,000. Still, neighbors feared displacement pressures from the 16 market-rate units. (If the zoning were left at SF-3, the larger homes that could be built on the lot could cost more than $800,000.)

The debate on the dais reflected the same strategic differences on land use and affordability seen in the work on revising the Land Development Code. Council Member Ann Kitchen suggested it wasn't enough: "I would just challenge you all to do better," Kitchen told the applicant. "How are we assured that we've gotten as much affordability as we can? I'm not sure we have that here."

Other CMs expressed fears of pushing developers to avoid the lengthy and expensive rezoning process altogether and just build to existing entitlements, producing fewer units and without any affordability measures. "I get a little worried about votes like this, because developers might just say, 'Why should we jump through these hoops?'" Harper-Madison said. "My hope is moving forward, we don't make the barriers too steep for entry to achieve affordability."

“There’s a fine line between a vision and a hallucination.”–CM Jimmy Flannigan

The case was approved on first reading, with CMs Kathie Tovo and Alison Alter voting against and CMs Leslie Pool and Kitchen abstaining, indicating they'd be willing to support the project if it includes more affordable units when it comes back for second and third readings.

The second case would take nearly 10 acres of SF-2 greenfield at 4400 Nuckols Crossing and convert it to MF-4 for a project developed under the city's longstanding SMART (Safe, Mixed-­Income, Accessible, Reasonably Priced, Transit-Oriented) affordability program. Like the Kemp Street project, this one has taken a winding road to Council; it was first proposed as market-rate condos back in 2017 before morphing into a 100% affordable rental project for residents age 55 and older.

In the latest plan from Thrower Design, most of the 179 units' rent would be calculated for people making 50% of MFI, at $836 a month for a one-bed/one-bath apartment. Ten units would be locked in at 30% MFI, with 1-bed/1-bath rents at $470/month, less than half the median rent for that census tract. Opponents primarily cited dangerous conditions on that stretch of Nuckols Crossing (a sharp curve and no sidewalk), showing a video at the meeting complete with a dramatic score. Garza, whose District 2 includes the site and who supports the project, secured agreement from the Austin Transportation Depart­ment to mitigate these concerns – prohibiting left turns out of the development (into the blind curve) and connecting existing sidewalks to surrounding amenities.

"The community has been asking for affordable housing and we are delivering that," Garza said of the project. "There is no perfect site, especially when we're talking about affordable housing, because ... [then] you're going to get market-rate [units]. It's not the perfect one and we have worked really hard to mitigate every single concern in this project." The case was approved 8-2-1 on all three readings, with Pool and Tovo voting against and Alter off the virtual dais.

What’s Next

Council meets today, Sept. 3, to take up a brief 47-Item agenda. Three more state grants for the police department will be considered, including two that would provide $620,000 to replace the rifle-resistant body armor officers sometimes wear. A $128,019 grant to fund a program called "Project Safe Neighborhoods," which was postponed from last week, has been withdrawn. The Governor's Criminal Justice Division decided not to award the grant to APD; activists and Council members alike were skeptical of the program, ostensibly designed to reduce violent crime Downtown and in the East Riverside area, because of the potential for discriminatory arrests.

The marquee item was set to be approval of a new vision plan for Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park in Northeast Austin, but CMs quickly poured cold water on that idea at their Sept. 1 work session. The plan outlines $800 million in projects that would transform the 3,700-acre regional park (that's more than 10 times the size of Zilker Park) to include an amphitheatre, campgrounds, and even a Ferris wheel. The price tag was already eye-popping, but given the need to brace for continued economic turmoil, Council wants to slow down the process. "There's a fine line between a vision and a hallucination," CM Flannigan said of the plan, suggesting the need to reevaluate some of the proposed projects in the plan. Approval has been postponed by staff.

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