Austin struggles to maintain affordability in growth

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The question of how to keep Austin an affordable city in the face of the city’s tremendous growth was central to the discussion at the last Engage Breakfast of 2013.

“That’s what I mean about this growth thing being a challenge,” said Frances Ferguson, discussion panelist and president of the board of HousingWorks Austin. “We’ve got to not just protect the affordability of housing but also figure out some mechanisms to create inclusion of local retail and local creative businesses, or this city is not going to look like Austin anymore.”

The breakfast was Dec. 18 with a panel also including Brian Kelsey, principal at Civic Analytics LLC and Chris Bradford, who serves on the advisory group for the revision of the City of Austin’s Land Development Code.

Some of the points discussed by the panel included securing more supply in Austin’s housing and ways to help wages match cost of living increases.

Ferguson said one way to preserve Austin’s affordability is by retaining existing multifamily properties.

“There actually is a remarkable supply of multifamily housing all around the city, in ways that some cities don’t have,” Ferguson said. “We need to have a way of preserving that.”

Ferguson added that new housing developments serve the top end of the market while retaining existing structures would provide housing to those with lower incomes.

Bradford also talked about housing in terms of Austin’s affordability and brought up the idea supporting small infill projects including garage apartments, duplexes, fourplexes and sixplexes.

“Those can be added all over the place and provide a sort of invisible density that will be an important source of new supply,” Bradford said.

Bradford said this is an older style of development that used to be popular in neighborhoods and thinks it should have a resurgence to help increase Austin’s housing supply.

Raising the minimum wage and focusing on workforce education were two solutions Kelsey pointed out to help wages increase along with cost of living.

“We need to figure out ways to make education and workforce work better for more of our residents,” Kelsey said. “But really, if you wanted to tackle this, we’d have a different conversation about the minimum wage.”

Kelsey said that 48 percent of the job growth in region is in occupations that pay at least $19 an hour—the rate that allows a family of one adult and one child to meet basic needs. Kelsey continued to say that 72 percent of those jobs require post-secondary degree and only 23 percent of Austin residents in Latino, Hispanic and African American demographic categories have that level of education.

The next Engage Breakfast is Jan. 8 on the subject of “Leading through Change and Challenge.” For more information on the breakfasts, visit www.leadershipaustin.org/programs/engage/upcoming.

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