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City's SMART Housing initiative

Wednesday, August 30, 2000 by

Results of the city's SMART Housing initiative–an effort to encourage the inclusion of low and moderately priced housing units in residential construction–have exceeded all city estimates this year, a housing official reported told the Planning Commission last night.

More than 1,700 SMART Housing units are currently in the works, well ahead of the 500 units the city projected for the program's first year, SMART Housing coordinator Stuart Hersh said. Those units are scattered across Austin and include developments such as Fort Branch Landing, Southwest Trails, West Park and Tannehill. Both single and multi-family projects are included in the program.

“The demand for this product is much greater than any of our stakeholders told us,” said Hersh, referring to the interest of developers in the initiative. "If you go back to any of the boards or commissions that we spoke to, all of them said it was going to take a long time and a lot of marketing. But the interest was already there, he said. ”

City officials initially estimated they could hope for 500 SMART Housing units this year and increase the number each year, reaching 5,000 per year by 2005. But Hersh said those estimates are likely to be revised if interest continues to remain high. The 1,700 units added in the affordable housing category this year are roughly 5 to 10 percent of the total housing construction in Austin, Hersh said. The city budgeted $1.4 million for SMART Housing this year and requests have already topped $4.5 million.

The city's combined initiatives to encourage affordable housing sit at approximately $70 million this year, Hersh said. Austin City Council approved the SMART Housing initiative last April. SMART stands for Safe, Mixed-Income, Accessible, Reasonably-priced and Transit-oriented.

Under the SMART Housing program, the city agrees to defray a number of costs — water and wastewater capital recovery fees, development review and inspection fees and public works construction inspection fees – to developers who are willing to set aside affordable housing units within their development. The city's review and inspection process also is expedited.

The amount of defrayed fees is based on a sliding scale: the more affordable units the developer adds to the project, the greater the savings in fees. A developer willing to devote 10 percent of his units to affordable housing can see a 25 percent reduction in fees. All fees are waived if 40 percent of the project, or more, is devoted to affordable housing. City officials estimate a developer could save roughly $1,500 per house by utilizing the SMART Housing program.

Some commissioners said the city's efforts did not go far enough. Commissioner Sterling Lands said the city had done a yeoman's job on the development of the SMART Housing program but pointed out the city still had little to offer a family living on a minimum wage income. For that family, even $70,000 was not an affordable price on a house. Rent, in those cases, is often 60 percent of an income, Lands said.

Hersh told Lands the city's Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department had struggled over that issue but worried that subsidizing some families too much would decrease the number of affordable housing units the city could offer. Sometimes it is unrealistic to put a family into a house with a mortgage payment that is too high for the household’s income. Hersh suggested alternatives such as putting the family in an apartment and working toward a mortgage account that could help a family become ready for home ownership.

“That’s a very good argument—and it’s very cerebral,” Lands said, but it doesn’t help people living on the verge of being homeless. Land said he knows Hersh is personally a very practical person, but he wanted to urge the department to make its guidelines more practical too. He said there are breadwinners earning $6 an hour who need $40,000 to $60,000 houses—not just entry level homes, but houses they will have to live in for a long time. Even one additional unit, Lands said, would be an improvement for one family. "It’s an emergency right now," he said. "The house is on fire right now. And somebody needs to go in and get the baby out right now."

Hersh replied, “I couldn’t agree with you more.” He said he had been working with the Texas Manufactured Housing Association to see if they might be able to fill in some of the gaps for the poorest families.

After several years of planning, the Austin City Council is ready to release the first significant funding toward development of the 363-acre Colorado River Park off Montopolis Drive in East Austin.

Austin voters approved $10 million in bonds toward the park's development in November 1998. The park was planned four years ago–and then re-planned two years ago–with the help of San Francisco-based Hargreaves Associates. The Austin Parks Foundation underwrote the consultant's fee. The latest incarnation of the Colorado River Park, which is larger than Zilker Park, is more environmentally sensitive, with an emphasis on preserving the natural flora and fauna of the area.

The new plan gets high marks from community groups. Daniel Llanes, the Colorado River Park coordinator for People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources and a member of the River Bluff Neighborhood Association, praised a number of aspects of the park at the last night's Planning Commission meeting.

As the neighborhood requested, the park's major road would use impediments to discourage through traffic, Llanes told commissioners. Light pollution will be minimized on the ballfields, and native plants and animals will be preserved. Llanes urged commissioners to declare the entire park a nature preserve. He also told the commission that the upstream development of hundreds of apartment units on Pleasant Valley Road drove the Colorado River out of its natural banks.

River erosion will be a key issue in initial funding. Stuart Strong, division manager of the Parks and Recreation Department, told the Planning Commission last night that the park would be developed in three phases. This year's funding–approximately $3.5 million–will get the Colorado River back in its banks, add a dirt nature trail along the river's edge and extend the existing road to the ballfields in the park's interior.

The city has already spent $500,000 to upgrade the ballfields at the Montopolis Recreation Center, located at the east end of the park. When the remaining $5.5 million is released–which is expected almost three years from now–a pavilion area, senior center with parking lot, picnic areas in the lower meadow, and possibly a botanical garden, will be added on the site. Federal funding will also provide a more significant trail through the interior of the park, somewhat similar in construction to the trail along Town Lake.

A third phase will finish out the western half of the road through the park, add more picnic areas, provide for children's playscapes and add an educational demonstration area in the meadow. Strong says it's likely that more funding will be needed to complete the park's master plan. .

Last night the Planning Commission asked for details on Austin Energy’s proposed Capital Budget of $791 million for 2001-2005, and after getting those details voted 6-0 to recommend approval of the budget to the City Council.Then the commission had more questions for Elaine Kuhlman, the utility’s budget wizard. Commissioner Robin Cravey said he was pleased to see that the utility has “some budget items like environmental stewardship.” He said, “We are very fortunate to have this asset (the utility) where they come and report to us. In California, where they had deregulation, they are now reaping the harvest of that in soaring electric rates.” Cravey then warned fellow commissioners, “We are going to have to be very careful,” about deregulation. He asked Kuhlman how the city could avoid some the problems faced by Californians.

She said that California power companies made no investments in new power plants within the state for several years before deregulation. As a result, generating facilities were not built close to the places where energy is needed. “So the combination of not investing in the load, as well as not investing in their grid, means they can't get their electricity to where the load is.” She said that was especially problematic in Silicon Valley. “We believe we are taking all the steps we need to protect the city’s investment,” Kuhlman said. Austin Energy is learning from California’s mistakes. “We do have some protections…the City of Austin does have the option to opt in (but) we do not have to compete. We do not have to take the steps that the investor-owned utilities have to take in the next two yrs. All of our load is local and we are close to the load,” she said. Commissioner Jim Robertson was absent. Commissioners Susana Almanza and Sterling Lands left before this item was discussed.

©2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Downtown desires…Charles Betts of the Downtown Austin Alliance was at last night's Planning Commission meeting, lobbying the city's Historic Preservation Officer, Barbara Stocklin for relief for

AMLI Residential and Bonner Carrington, who were stymied in their efforts to get a demolition permit from the Historic Landmark Commission Monday to tear down the Tips Warehouse on 2nd Street… Oh, Susana… Planning Commissioner Susana Almanza told Acting Chair Betty Baker last night that she would not be on the commission by the time the group meets again on Sept. 12. Asked how she could be so sure, Almanza said she had "inside information." Almanza applied for reappointment, but since her appointment was by consensus, she has to get four votes. The City Council is unlikely to make appointment this week because of the mayor's absence… Smart Growth samba… Mayor Kirk Watson is in Curitiba, Parana, Brazil this week, attending a conference on international technology policy. As part of the conference, the mayor gave a speech on the globalization of Austin and the importance of Smart Growth in the global economy… Rock'n'Roll condos moving fast…

The Planning Commission voted on consent Tuesday to recommend a zoning change for a development called the Sutton Ice House at 901 Red River along Waller Creek. A change from commercial zoning to CBD-CO would allow development of up to 120 apartment or condo just across the street from Stubb's Bar-b-q. Only Commissioner Jim Robertson was absent.

© 2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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