Austin councilwoman hosts affordability meeting to discuss housing for low-wage workers

TownHallD10Although many of its residents earn well above the federal minimum wage, District 10 is not immune to Austin's affordable housing shortage.

Nonprofit developer Foundation Communities is proposing subsidized affordable apartments in the district, but some residents worry more crime will accompany the units.

District 10 City Councilwoman Sheri Gallo hosted a town hall meeting April 1 to discuss affordable housing in the district, which is the wealthiest district in the city.

Gallo said District 10 faces affordability issues for seniors on fixed incomes and workers who service the area, including teachers and employees who work in grocery stores and pharmacies workers.

"We create more jobs in Austin than any other city in our country," she said.

But, she added, 60 percent of Austin workers cannot afford to live in city; instead, they move to the suburbs and commute.

"So what does that mean? More cars on the roads than there are already," Gallo said.

Frances Ferguson of HousingWorks Austin—an affordable housing research, education and advocacy group—said District 10 is home to nearly 2,800 minimum wage jobs.

At the heart of the town hall discussion is the Cardinal Point Apartments, a proposed 125-unit complex proposed near Four Points Drive and RM 2222. Walter Moreau, executive director of Foundation Communities, told the nearly 50 meeting attendees potential residents in the complex would have to undergo credit and criminal history checks.

"We have a zero-tolerance policy around criminal activity," he said.

Moreau said Foundation Communities began in Austin 25 years ago, and it owns and manages 15 similar affordable communities in the city.

"We are homegrown," he said. "We've never sold a property, [and] we never plan to."

Many residents who live at Foundation Communities's properties are seniors, veterans and people with disabilities, but most housing is occupied by working families who earn between $20,000 and $50,000 per year, Moreau said.

"Our families, by and large, are working folks," he said.

Less than 10 percent of Foundation Communities's residents use Section 8 housing vouchers, and the crime rate in the communities is consistently lower than the area around them, Moreau said.

Cardinal Point would be located on land already zoned for apartments, he said.

"We build to the highest green standards," he said. "We want to be part of the community."

Moreau said the proposed complex would not only offer housing for workers within walking distances of H-E-B, Target and Walgreen's, but also health and financial education programs for adult residents and after-school programs for children to help families be successful.

A common myth about affordable housing units is that they are unsightly in appearance, but Moreau said Foundation Communities blend into their neighborhoods.

Gallo said she regularly drives by an affordable development on Steck Avenue near her own home, and it blends in so well with the surrounding community, she could not tell it was not a market-priced complex.

Theresa Ebner, a representative of LBG Development, which has 2,200 affordable housing units in Texas, said most affordable housing units do not show as much wear and tear after 10 years as other rentals.

"Those properties look as good if not better than most market-rate houses," she said.

The properties undergo annual inspections from lenders and equity providers, she said. Every three years, representatives from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs physically inspect 20 percent of its units, Ebner said. The department checks for bug infestations, trip hazards on sidewalks and working community gates as well as providing a score, she said.

Ebner said it is important to score high because noncompliance means financial penalties for the developer.

River Place resident Kelley Clark said she is skeptical about what affordable housing units would do to her community. She has met privately with Gallo and Moreau to discuss the subject, and Moreau invited Clark to tour his M. Station apartment complex on East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

"It was gorgeous," she said. "I really appreciated that."

Clark said she suggested Gallo hold a town hall meeting on the subject to dispel myths about what affordable housing is.

Moreau clarified Cardinal Point is not a done deal; he said he will know whether the TDHCA approves his application for housing tax credits, which aid in covering the cost of construction, in July and that his odds are high for receiving credits.

If the complex is approved, Foundation Communities would then have to go through the city's permitting process, after which it would take about one year to build the complex.

Gallo's next town hall meeting will be April 18 from 1-3 p.m. at Austin Board of Realtors at 4800 Spicewood Springs Road to discuss traffic safety in District 10.