A new, widely supported program to waive compatibility and design standards and other regulatory barriers to affordable housing developments could be adopted as city law in May.

Dubbed “Affordability Unlocked,” the program marks an ambitious attempt to allow, through relaxed regulation, the multiplication of affordable housing development throughout Austin as population growth continues to up the pressure on the city’s limited housing supply. District 4 Council Member Greg Casar introduced the plans earlier this month.

The strict qualifications for the program aim to narrow availability to housing developers dedicated to creating deeply affordable housing, such as nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity.

“This is going to reduce the cost of building affordable housing, and we’re going to be able to leverage our [housing bond dollars] to build more affordable units, and that’s what’s so exciting about this resolution,” District 3 Council Member Pio Renteria, a co-sponsor on the resolution, said at a press conference the morning of Feb. 21.

'Building smarter, not harder'

The program, as initially approved by City Council on Feb. 21, would allow for at least six housing units on essentially any feasible lot by waiving certain density, setback, height and parking regulations. To qualify, projects need to have at least three units and reserve at least half the units for renters at, or below, 60 percent of the median family income or homeowners at, or below, 80 percent of that income threshold.

Unless the affordable units are for seniors or are permanent supportive housing, a quarter of the affordable units also need to offer more than one bedroom. The program restricts new projects from exceeding impervious cover limits.

Projects that go beyond the baseline criteria, such as offering between 75 and 100 percent of its units as affordable, reserving 10 percent of the units for residents at 30 percent of the income threshold or located within a quarter-mile of a transit corridor can achieve even greater density and height entitlements.

Megan Lasch, a representative of the for-profit affordable housing-focused Saigebrook Development, said the program would allow developers to build smarter, not harder. She thanked city leaders for the “wisdom and insight” to push it forward.

With the exception of industrial zones, the program avails all lots throughout the city—from single-family to commercial—for these dense, deeply affordable housing projects. The program is key to the city realizing its commitment to building 60,000 income-restricted housing units by 2027—it could increase affordable housing in the city by 600 percent, Casar said at the Feb. 21 press conference.

Jim Templeton, a North Central Austin resident and realtor at JB Goodwin Realtors, said the program flies in the face of the directive set forth in Imagine Austin—the city’s 30-year comprehensive plan—to protect legacy neighborhoods from overcrowding. He said he and neighbors were concerned such affordable housing projects could block the natural sunlight neighborhoods enjoy today. He also criticized the program as a “workaround” of the state’s prohibition of inclusionary zoning.

Moving forward

The directive comes as the city prepares to make another attempt at rewriting its outdated land development code, which has been largely criticized for much of the development-related affordability woes facing Austin.

Last year, City Council cut the lights on a five-year, $8.5 million rewrite effort dubbed CodeNEXT. City Manager Spencer Cronk is scheduled to present a new path forward by late February or early March.

Following council’s Feb. 21 resolution, Cronk will also be tasked with developing the affordable housing program into law for City Council to vote on no later than May 9.