Planning Commission Leaders Step Down to Chart Housing Waters

Conor Kenny and Fayez Kazi look to bring more affordable housing to Austin

Fayez Kazi (l) and Conor Kenny of Civilitude (photo by John Anderson)

The top two leaders of the city's Planning Commission – Chair Conor Kenny and Vice Chair Fayez Kazi – stepped down from the high-profile city board on Aug. 25 and will begin working together at Kazi's firm on projects to bring more affordable housing to Austin. (Commissioners Todd Shaw and Claire Hempel will replace Kenny and Kazi at the helm of the PC.)

Kenny and Kazi hope to utilize their combined expertise to both navigate the complex development processes for income-­restricted housing – including zoning changes, site plan reviews, and applications for density bonus programs – and help city staff make those processes smoother for others. Kazi's Civilitude Group will serve as the banner under which his various companies will tackle engineering, planning, construction, and property management for infill housing built under Afford­ability Unlocked. Adopted in May 2019 as the first citywide density bonus program, AU waives some height and setback restrictions and allows for more units and lower parking requirements for projects in which at least half of new units are affordable for people earning 60% of Austin's median family income (that's $52,700/year for a family of three).

"We think that we have the capability to navigate those waters and produce these projects, but it's harder than it should be," Kenny, who is leaving a job in state government to handle public affairs at Civilitude, told the Chronicle. "Some of my time will be spent talking to City Hall about our experience and how we think policies could change in order to help folks like us, but also others, produce these small, house-scale projects."

“We think that we have the capability to navigate those waters and produce these projects, but it’s harder than it should be.”–Conor Kenny

In July, a North Austin development that Civilitude is working on – known as "The A at Lamppost" – became the first AU project to break ground (40 other AU projects are either under review or have been approved by the Planning and Zoning Department). The Lamppost development will bring 17 townhomes to a primarily SF-3 neighborhood, and as is often the case with denser infill projects, it was an uphill climb through the city process.

First, Capital A Housing (the development arm of Civilitude Group) spent four months rezoning the site to SF-6, which allows for townhome construction, then another 10 months in purgatory awaiting site plan review and approval, all while applying for AU certification and financing assistance through the 2018 affordable housing bond. The end result: for-sale, income-restricted two- and three-bedroom townhomes.

According to Kazi, the project would not have been possible without AU. He also noted that the year-plus of pre-­ground­break­ing approvals, for a type of project that already has thin profit margins, will pose a significant barrier to most developers. "I like to say what we're working on is processes unlocked," Kazi told us. "We might produce 200 affordable housing units in a good year, but we might unlock the process to help others produce the remaining affordable units per year to meet the city's goals." (The Austin Strategic Housing Blue­print, adopted by City Council in 2017, calls for the construction of 60,000 housing units reserved for people making under 80% of MFI by 2025.)

Kazi and Kenny hope to do more than just small-scale infill developments. They're also part of the team working on the Colony Park Sustainable Community Initiative, which will develop 208 acres of city-owned property in Northeast Austin as the type of "compact and connected" community called for in the Imagine Austin Com­pre­hen­sive Plan. And they're also eyeing tracts in the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction, where they hope to develop properties that support multimodal transportation.

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affordable housing, Planning Commission, Conor Kenny, Fayez Kazi, Todd Shaw, Claire Hempel, Civilitude Group, Affordability Unlocked, The A at Lamppost, Capital A Housing, 2018 affordable housing bond, Austin Strategic Housing Blueprint, Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan

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