Widely supported affordable housing program could bring more dense, subsidized developments into all Austin neighborhoods

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As the pressure on Austin’s affordable housing needs increases, a new plan that waives zoning and design standards could carve a path for dense, subsidized housing on lots in high-opportunity single-family neighborhoods throughout the city.

The program, introduced this week by District 4 Council Member Greg Casar, has gained initial support on City Council. It does not target traditional housing developers. Instead, it involves organizations and nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity that aim to produce deeply affordable and subsidized housing for low-income residents, but often run into restrictions baked into the city’s land development code.

The program as proposed would waive parking requirements, compatibility standards for height and setbacks. It would also allow at least six units on a lot—if feasible—for projects of three units or greater where at least half of the units are reserved for renters at, or below, 60 percent of the median-family income or homeowners at, or below, 80 percent of the median-family income. For projects under three units, 100 percent of the units would have to be affordable to qualify for the program. Existing impervious cover limits would remain in place.

Casar said the program could produce as many as six affordable units on current single-family lots. Larger multifamily developments could see “dozens more” income-restricted units, he said. The program aims help carry Austin to its goal of building 60,000 affordable housing units by 2027.

“This isn’t about getting [developers]who don’t build affordable housing to suddenly start doing so,” Casar said. “The program requirements are so high that, really, this is when someone is building affordable housing and meeting our affordable housing goals…we want to unlock that affordability.”

Dense, affordable housing throughout Austin

According to a draft resolution Casar posted to the City Council message board on Feb. 4, much of the city’s subsidized housing is located in East Austin and “low-opportunity” areas. The other three council members from East Austin, District 1’s Natasha Harper-Madison, District 2’s Delia Garza and Pio Renteria from District 3, have all co-sponsored the resolution with Casar. District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool and District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan have also offered to co-sponsor.

The new program would allow high-opportunity neighborhoods throughout Austin to welcome denser, income-restricted housing units. Greg Anderson, director of community affairs for Austin Habitat for Humanity, said the program’s provision to allow at least six units on lots where feasible opens the city’s affordable housing potential.

“This allows us to build in areas where we’ve been prohibited from building because the costs were too high,” Anderson said. “It’s a big deal.”

Anderson offered an example: Right now, on a lot for sale at $400,000 in a single-family neighborhood, zoning and land use rules, such as parking requirements and minimum setbacks, allow him to build only up to two homes. At such a high land cost, it is not feasible to buy the lot and subsidize one or both units. However, if he could build six units, that $400,000 property in a high-opportunity neighborhood suddenly becomes an option for an organization like Habitat for Humanity.

Although the plan would open up dense, affordable options in Austin neighborhoods, Anderson and Casar emphasized the plan in no way supplants the city’s need for a new land development code. City Manager Spencer Cronk said this week he would bring back a process to rewrite the code by the end February or in early March.

Leveraging the $250 million housing bond

The program would also allow maximum leverage of the $250 million affordable housing bond money passed by voters in 2018, said Rachel Stone, assistant director of the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation.

Stone used the example of parking requirements, which frustrate developers by eating up money and space. If the city purchases property to build an affordable housing development with 20 income-restricted units, a lot of the space right now must go toward the 30 to 40 required parking spots. Under the proposal, the ratio could be switched. The property could see 30 to 40 affordable units and 20 or fewer parking spots. In this scenario, the city’s money is being leveraged more efficiently to produce more affordable housing.

“It would really liberate a lot of land and allow us to do more,” Stone said. “Coupled with the bond, it starts to maximize what we can do. It’s way more efficient.”

City Council will vote on the resolution at its Feb. 21 meeting. Since the resolution will require land code changes, those would go through the planning commission before coming back to City Council for a final vote.

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Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and USA Today. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
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