Several housing projects recently proposed by public and private entities aim to prevent Austin’s artists, musicians and educators from being priced out of the city.
City officials have recognized the lack of adequate affordable housing in Austin for years, but efforts to address the issue have ramped up in recent months with a Dec. 17 city council vote to more than double the tax revenue put toward the city’s housing trust fund and Mayor Steve Adler’s commitment to affordability in his State of the City address.
“If we do not do big things now, we’ll end up with the housing costs of San Francisco and the traffic congestion of Los Angeles,” Adler said during his Feb. 16 State of the City address. “We’ll be immobilized, crippled by growth, isolated from each other, stuck in our neighborhoods.”
Now two proposed multiuse projects are showcasing the range of options needed to provide Austin’s diverse population with affordable housing.
The Grove at Shoal Creek, a 75-acre, mixed-use community proposed off 45th Street and Bull Creek Road, is planning to offer affordable homes for Austin ISD teachers.
South of downtown, the city is researching the feasibility of a development that would cater to Austin’s artistic community through integrated affordable housing and creative workspace.
Although many housing-assistance programs focus on very low-income individuals or those at risk of being homeless, there are many demographics that find it challenging to purchase or rent in the Austin market, and a successful approach to affordable housing will address the diverse population, said Mandy De Mayo, executive director of affordable housing advocacy program HousingWorks Austin.
“Historically when we said ‘affordable housing,’ it was public housing or [similar programs], but there really is a wide range of groups and people and household types who need something we call affordable,” De Mayo said.
Housing Austin’s educators
Affordable housing is typically defined as housing costs equal to or less than 30 percent of a household’s income, according to Austin’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department. For an Austin-area elementary school teacher, that would be a maximum of about $1,194 in monthly housing costs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The average Austin-area teacher makes above 80 percent of the median family income, which is often the cutoff for affordable homeownership programs.
David Potter, a program manager with Austin’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department, said national standards typically designate rental program funding for households with incomes of up to 60 percent of the local median family income and homeownership program funding for those who earn up to 80 percent.
That means some Austin-area teachers will not qualify for affordability programs, although they may be unable to afford a market-rate home.
This is one issue addressed by The Grove at Shoal Creek, which is one of the only communities planning affordable housing in west Central Austin.
The Grove plans to offer about 19 below-market-rate homes to AISD teachers in addition to as many as 180 rental and for-sale units that will serve families of various income brackets.
“Congregating housing around employment centers and making sure that that housing can have a diverse set of price ranges that it meets is absolutely critical to Austin in the coming years in terms of how we grow,” said Garrett Martin, co-owner of ARG Bull Creek LTD, which owns The Grove project.
The Grove developers said they worked with AISD to create the model for the teacher housing program, which will cater to educators earning between 80 and 120 percent of the local median family income in an area of Austin where market-rate homes are affordable to buyers earning about 217 percent of the area median family income.
“We really wanted to focus on people who do good for our community and give them some additional opportunity for affordable housing,” Martin said. “Like many people, they’re being squeezed out of the urban core, and the benefits of living close to where you work can’t be overstated; they’re tremendous.”
Housing Austin’s creative class
Austin City Council passed a resolution March 3 to explore new ways of supporting Austin’s music and art community, including initiatives to provide new studio spaces and affordable housing for creatives.
“We’re going to need all our creativity, ingenuity and vision to deal with the crisis that faces the musicians and artists alike who are getting priced out of homes and studio space,” Adler said in a statement. “The work they are producing is as vibrant as ever, but this city has never been more unaffordable for them.”
Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said the resolution lines up with a proposal she brought to council in February regarding the reinvention of a city-owned property at 4711 Winnebago Lane as a live-work community for local artists in collaboration with art nonprofit Artspace.
Although a variety of affordable housing solutions are needed in the city, the Winnebago property, currently zoned for industrial use, could provide a unique solution for Austin creatives in need of both affordable living space and studio space, Tovo said.
“Artists and musicians [...] are the backbone in many ways of Austin’s unique culture, so we have a stake in targeting some projects and some initiatives to our creative class,” she said. “This [Winnebago] tract just seemed like an opportunity to address one segment of Austinites finding it challenging to stay.”
Austin resident Jules Esh is leading another project she said will address Austin’s housing needs specifically for the city’s creative class.
Esh brought the idea for Earphoria: Austin, a cooperative housing community for musicians, from Chicago to Austin in 2014 and is now looking for a permanent location for the live-work collaborative.
Esh said affordable housing is a need for Austin musicians, but so is practice space and a creative, collaborative environment—all of which are addressed in co-ops such as Earphoria, which contains bedrooms for permanent and temporary residents, a music studio and performance spaces all in one complex.
“We know the housing is dwindling for artists and people of lower income; we think living collaboratively is a chance for us to share assets,” Esh said. “I think there are a lot of groups like us around Austin looking for spaces ... where you don’t have your husband and three kids but you have your band you live with.”
Esh and her colleagues ran into the challenge of the city’s occupancy limits when searching for a site for Earphoria. Occupancy limits restrict the number of unrelated people who are allowed to live in the same house.
Austin plans to address occupancy limits during its land development code rewrite, called CodeNEXT, currently underway but voted March 3 to indefinitely extend its current occupancy limit law, which allows no more than four unrelated adults—or six in some areas—to reside in the same single-family home and no more than three in the same duplex.
Joe England, a board member of nonprofit Austin Musician Housing Initiative who said his organization’s mission is to develop more group housing downtown, said Austin will need to think innovatively if it wants to retain its creative class—and that means revisiting regulations such as occupancy limits.
“[City code] needs to be redefined. It’s designed as ‘let’s get back to “Leave it to Beaver” [single-family housing]’ as a model,” England said. “We need to think outside the box.”
Affordable housing definitions
The U.S. government regards housing costs at or below 30 percent of one’s income to be affordable. Affordable housing may be at market rate or below market rate, depending on the market.
Housing in which part of or all expenses are paid directly by the local, state or federal government is referred to as subsidized housing.
Housing typically owned, managed and maintained by a government agency, such as a public housing authority, is called public housing.
Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program:
The LIHTC program is a primary method for financing affordable housing in Texas and provides tax incentives for the construction or rehabilitation of affordable housing. The program is administered by the IRS and does not directly subsidize housing costs.