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City to speed zoning, give incentives for developers to build affordable housing

Monday, April 24, 2000 by

SMART Housing Initiative aims for 5,000 units by 2005

Developers have become wearily familiar with Austin's zoning process, including battles in which neighbors of a proposed project pack the room for hearings before the Planning Commission and City Council. Now the council is proposing that city staff make decisions on zoning when "reasonably priced" housing is involved. Reasonably priced housing would be homes available to families that earn no more than 80 percent of median family income and spend no more than 30 percent of their monthly income on housing. In Austin in 1999, this was housing for a family of four earning no more than $44,300, according to city reports.

Mayor Kirk Watson said at the April 20 council meeting, "If affordability is going to be a community goal, we ought to look at a different way to look at zoning. Some folks may not even try (to build an affordable project) because they don't think it will get through the zoning process."

Watson suggested that either the director of the Development Review and Inspection Department or City Manager Jesus Garza approve zoning changes for projects that meet the goals of the city's SMART Housing Initiative. SMART is an acronym standing for safe, mixed income, accessible, reasonably priced and transit oriented.

The council also approved incentives for builders who meet SMART guidelines, including lowering or waiving capital recovery and other city fees. For example, if 10 percent of a project meets SMART standards the city will reduce fees by 25 percent. If 40 percent of a project meets SMART standards, the city will grant a 100 percent waiver.

Paul Hilgers, director of the Department of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development, said, "The SMART Housing policy is based on a premise that preferred housing should get preferred treatment." Hilgers also said affordable developments should not be restricted to the Desired Development Zone. However, he said any proposal for SMART Housing projects claiming House Bill 1704 exemptions from current water quality regulations, such as the Save Our Springs Ordinance, would go through City Council review.

Hilgers said his staff would be assisting those involved in SMART developments through the entire development review process. He said his department has projected costs and taxes for SMART housing and believes that tax revenues from the projects will more than pay for the fee waivers within five years.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, who served on the Planning Commission before being elected to council, suggested that a new commission or board be formed to look at long-range planning issues, as recommended by former Planning Commission Member Dave Sullivan. Goodman told In Fact Daily she believes it is difficult for the current commission to work on policy questions because of the large number of controversial cases the group must hear. Also, hearings frequently are postponed, adding more cost to the process. Sometimes the delay means the opposing sides are trying to reach an agreement that everyone can live with. Sometimes it just means the Planning Commission had too many hearings scheduled for one evening.

The commission not only makes recommendations on zoning, but also makes decisions on site plans and subdivisions. In addition to three regular meetings, the commission holds once-a-month work sessions to discuss policy matters and cases that raise unique questions. Other items are often put on the work session agenda. All nine commissioners belong to one or more or the commission's subcommittees, adding to the workload. Subcommittees sometimes study policy questions and ask city staff to make changes, which lengthens the process. SMART Housing got stuck in a commission's subcommittee for several months.

In conjunction with the SMART Housing Initiative, the Austin Housing Finance Corporation will be granted right of first refusal on any city land that is determined to be surplus. Watson said he wants to make getting more multifamily housing a high priority throughout the city. "We have to get over some instinctive reactions, some might say knee-jerk reactions, to (apartment complexes) in neighborhoods," he said. Hilgers said his staff would allow neighborhoods to review SMART Housing projects when city property is being rezoned.

Goodman said she wants to make sure that a neighborhood advocate is added to the city budget for next year. Will Bozeman, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, said Hilgers and Stuart Hersh, compliance services manager, had gone to some lengths to make sure ANC was advised on the SMART Housing issue (In Fact Daily, March 29).

The housing initiative was reviewed by the Water and Wastewater Commission, Building and Fire Code Board, Community Development Commission, Mayor's Committee for People with Disabilities, Save Barton Creek Association, Sierra Club, Texas Capital Area Builders Association, Real Estate Council of Austin and Austin Association of Remodeling Contractors, according to Hilgers.

The City Council voted unanimously last Thursday to put $1 million into a Housing Trust Fund Grant Program for creating and preserving affordable housing. (In Fact Daily April 21.) Hilgers told the council his department plans to have 5,000 new or retained affordable housing units by 2005.

Former Austin Neighborhoods Council president picked to be Griffith's new aide

Architect Jeff Jack brings new kind of experience to aide's job

The new executive assistant to Council Member Beverly Griffith starts work today and he's a fierce advocate for neighborhoods. Architect Jeff Jack, as reported by In Fact Daily April 21, was among several qualified applicants being interviewed. Griffith tells In Fact Daily she is very pleased that Jack will be joining her staff. She said he meets her top three priorities: business experience, years of work in urban construction and design, and strong ties to both the environmental and neighborhood communities. Jack is president of the Zilker Neighborhood Association and former president of Austin Neighborhoods Council.

Jack tells In Fact Daily he will be starting employee orientation with the city this morning. As for his architectural business as a sole practitioner, Jack says, "I have to wrap up with a few clients." He does not intend to keep practicing, he said. "This (aide's position) is a full-time job," he says. One thing Jack says he wants to do in the new job is to "facilitate communications between the city and neighborhoods. I've been a teacher before and getting the message across has to do with how you deliver the message."

The new aide had nothing but praise for his predecessor, John Gilvar, who starts his new job today in the city's community health clinics division (In Fact Daily April 13). "John Gilvar's been a big help," Jack says.

Protect AISD tax base… Mayor Kirk Watson and a long list of prominent Austinites have issued a press release urging voters to support both propositions relating to the Austin Independent School District on the May 6 ballot. If both propositions fail, "The state will permanently de-annex $2.3 billion from AISD's property tax base in fiscal year 2000-2001," Watson said. "This would be a devastating loss for Austin schools and for the entire community."… Key to success… Austin Municipal Court Judge Karrie Key, who is the Democratic nominee for the 390th District Court bench, is holding a fund-raiser Tuesday, April 25, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at Cedar Street Courtyard, 208 W. 4th St. Parking will be available after hours at the state lot, Guadalupe at 4th. Restaurants and caterers donating the edibles include Barr Mansion, Clay Pit Contemporary Indian Cuisine, Cooking by Design, Jean-Luc's French Bistro, La Cocina Catering, Malaga Tapas & Bar, and 34th Street Café. Margaret Wright will entertain on the piano. For info call 453-3128 or e-mail campaign@karriekey.com… Noontime Blues…Boogie down or munch your lunch at noon Tuesday with Ponty Bone & the Squeezetones in Regents Plaza, at the northwest corner of 6th and Colorado. It's part of the free concert series sponsored by the Downtown Austin Alliance… Burger man… Council Member Willie Lewis gets a salute from Hill-Berts Hamburgers Tuesday, April 25, 6-8 p.m. Host Hilbert Maldanado, who is Lewis' campaign treasurer for this reelection bid, will welcome guests to his place at 5340 Cameron Road. For more info, call Lewis' campaign at 933-0644… Wynn wants you…Place 5 City Council candidate Will Wynn will hold a fund-raiser Thursday April 27, 5-7 p.m., at El Arroyo, 1624 W. 5th St. For more info call Frederick Lopez at 472-2313… Front-porch democracy…Keeping up a long-running tradition, Rolando Piña and Galindo Elementary Neighborhood Association hosts a Patriotic Porch gathering Thursday, April 27, 4-8 p.m., welcoming mayoral and council candidates, as well as folks running for the boards of ACC and AISD. The event's at 807 Cumberland. For info call Piña at 441-2062 or e-mail rolandopina@aol.com.

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