Public Notice: The Two Sides of “More Housing”
“More at all costs,” or “more that’s not costly”?
This City Council came into office with an electoral mandate to do something about housing costs and housing availability. And amid various other crises they've faced, they have been at work on the housing conundrum over their first six months in office. They've put a number of changes in motion, ranging from departmental reorganization to doing away with parking requirements, but today's Council meeting (Thursday, June 8) seems like a watershed moment, with a number of proposals, all of them seeming likely to pass, that have the potential to seriously move the needle on housing. What directions that needle may swing in seems less certain.
As Austin Sanders details this week, there are three significant proposals on today's agenda: Two of them are focused on expanding affordable housing construction through density bonus programs – allowing a denser development if some portion of it is made affordable for people at lower income levels – and the other is Council Member Chito Vela's proposal to slash compatibility regulations, which currently limit height and other elements within as much as 540 feet of a single-family house. The issue with that, if you're trying to encourage affordable housing, is that the extra height and density that his resolution would allow property owners to build by right are the very same elements that the city could otherwise use as incentives to get a developer to build low-cost housing instead of high-end condos.
Vela has always been pretty clear where he stands: He's pretty much a real estate libertarian, who'd like to see the city get out of the way and let the builders do their job. But the thing is, builders are already working at full capacity. Even as population growth has begun to level off, Austin has been adding way more housing units per capita than any other major city in the nation, each year for years now. With all sections of the construction industry already stressed, it seems unlikely that housing can actually be built any faster than it already is.
But it can be built differently than it is. As it stands, there's actually lots of available housing in Austin – for a price. And that's because, when left to its own devices, the market will always tend to build high-end condos; those are simply the most profitable option for a prospective developer (even if many of them become short-term rentals or investment second homes). And that's where the density bonus programs come in: If you get the incentives just right, you can make it so it's actually in a property owner's best interests to build the sort of housing that the city needs for its citizens. If I have a piece of property that I want to redevelop, and I can make it twice as big if I make some of it available to people making under $60,000 a year, I'll likely do that. But that only works if you haven't already increased entitlements for all properties, in the vain hope that the market will somehow take care of things.
So, two steps forward, one step back?
The George Washington Carver Museum, Cultural and Genealogy Center is hosting the fourth annual Stay Black and Live Juneteenth Festival next week, with speakers and performers each evening starting Monday, June 12, a community cookout and music festival that Saturday afternoon, and ending with a Community Revival and Remembrance in partnership with Austin Justice Coalition on Monday evening, June 19. See the full schedule at juneteenthatx.com.
The city's Housing Department will host Black Land Matters, the Symposium next Thursday, June 15, 10am-2pm at the Austin Central Library Special Event Center – a "symposium on the continuing challenge of land loss, land theft and displacement in the African American community. Registration is free, including lunch, at bit.ly/blacklandmatters.
C&C Cares, the Cofer & Connelly law firm's charitable program, is asking for people to nominate their favorite group to receive a $10,000 grant. This round is for "Environment, Open Space, and Parks" organizations, and nominations close on June 20. Vote at coferconnelly.com/c-c-cares, and look for new categories every three months or so.