Similar initiative failed to pass by narrow margin last year

For the second year in a row, the city of Austin is asking voters to approve an affordable housing bond.

Austin City Council unanimously agreed in August to place a $65 million affordable housing bond referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot. A similar $78.3 million bond failed last year, with 51.42 percent of voters siding against the initiative.

This year's bond proposal would cover the cost of affordable housing projects for the next six years, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole said.

"We have recognized as a council the need for affordability, and affordable housing is just a piece of that," she said. "I think we've made the commitment to support affordable housing, especially in light of the need in our community for our veterans, our disabled, our women and children and the homeless."

Affordable housing is defined by the federal government as costing less than 30 percent of a household's monthly income. The city has run out of money from the last affordable housing bond passed in 2006, Cole said. This year's bond amount, if approved, would not require a property tax rate increase, she said.

The $65 million in bond money would go toward partnerships with outside organizations to create more affordable homes for rent and ownership and help preserve existing affordable housing, according to the city of Austin website. Eligibility for programs created by the bond money is based on income. For example, an Austin family of four earning $58,550 or less annually in 2013 could qualify for funding. Other programs intended for very low– income families are geared toward families of four making $36,600 or less this year.

The bond proposal has garnered mixed reaction since becoming official. Keep Austin Affordable, a coalition of community leaders in support of the $65 million bond, plans to ramp up campaign support through ads and one-on-one interactions, spokesman Norris Deajon said. Endorsements from the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and various real estate leaders will be particularly useful in the final weeks before the election, he said.

"We want to make sure people understand this is money boosting our economy that we wouldn't get if we didn't make this initial investment," Deajon said. "That's why we're trying to get business leaders talking about the economic benefits the affordable housing bond brings."

Travis County Taxpayers Union has been the most notable opponent against the bond. Formed in 2012, TCTU successfully advocated against last year's affordable housing bond proposal, but this year campaign money has been too lopsided in the opposition's favor, spokesman Don Zimmerman said.

"Everybody that has money and power is backing [the bond proposal]—how do we beat it? How do we get the message out?" Zimmerman said.

Aside from an Oct. 21 rally on the first day of early voting, TCTU does not have the funding for any more protests against the bond proposal before Election Day, he said. That is in contrast to his opponents, he said, most notably those he claims would benefit from the bond's passage.

"If you're in the business of buying and selling real estate this whole industry of development has a vested interest in donating money because they think it will generate revenue for their business—and maybe it will," he said.

Additional reporting by Peter McCrady and Joe Olivieri

Exact bond language:

Proposition, city of Austin

The issuance of $65,000,000 affordable housing bonds and notes for constructing, renovating, improving and equipping affordable housing for low-income persons and families; acquiring land and interests in land and property necessary to do so; and funding affordable housing programs as may be permitted by law; and the levy of a tax sufficient to pay for the bonds and notes.

What could be funded

Rental housing development assistance

  • Funding could be used to create affordable rental housing by providing grants and loans to qualified entities.
  • Grants and loans could be used to acquire property, design and develop infrastructure, construct new rental housing stock and rehabilitate existing rental housing.
  • Funding may be targeted to areas of preferred investment, including areas intended to provide access to employment opportunities and public transportation.

Home ownership programs

  • Funding could be used to create affordable housing ownership opportunities by providing grants and loans to qualified entities.
  • Funds could be used to acquire property, design and develop infrastructure, and construct new housing or rehabilitate existing housing to be purchased at affordable prices.
  • Funds may be used to support development of community land trusts to preserve long-term affordability.

Home repair programs

  • Funds could be used to address substandard or hazardous housing conditions.
  • Funding may be used to allow seniors and people with disabilities to make minor accessibility modifications that may include widened doors, wheelchair ramps, and installation of grab bars and handrails.

Source: City of Austin