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Director, Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department

Wednesday, November 1, 2000 by

Austin is facing the most serious housing crisis it has ever faced, says the head of the city's Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department. And if that housing crisis isn't resolved soon, it could have a serious impact on the city's future growth, Paul Hilgers says.“Housing is probably one of the top three issues that this community faces for its future sustainability because housing is fundamental when it comes to quality of life,” Hilgers adds. “Housing impacts every aspect of individuals, of families, of neighborhoods.”

Hilgers has been at the helm of the city's 50-member housing and development department for the last three years. The native Austinite and one-time aide to Congressman Jake Pickle says the old concept of affordable housing as subsidized housing is a misconception of the city's range of housing programs.

The combination of block grants, federal funds and housing subsidies will add up to a budget of approximately $70 million in Hilgers’ department this year. That includes more than $45 million in bonds managed by the Austin Housing Finance Corp. AHFC, a separate non-profit corporation created by the State of Texas, can issue tax-exempt bonds to developers to stimulate the construction of both single-family and multi-family affordable housing.

Although the city does subsidize, the ultimate goal is to encourage developers to step forward to create self-sufficient affordable housing, Hilgers says. He cites Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corp., American YouthWorks and Habitat for Humanity as initiatives that work. This Thursday, the City Council will meet as the board of the AHFC to consider a number of loans to assist in housing acquisition. The city plans to provide a total of $1,371,000 to the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation, American YouthWorks, the Mary Lee Foundation and the Texas Reinvestment Corporation. Hilgers said, “Our dollars are not the only dollars that are going into the deal. They’ve got bank financing and in some cases their own money.”

Most people think affordable housing is synonymous with Section 8 federal housing. There is a substantial need for that kind of housing in Austin, Hilgers agrees, but affordable housing issues stretch far beyond those who live in the cycle of chronic poverty. Today, middle income families who work in Austin are finding it hard to find a place to live. Those are the families who are forced to move out to Pflugerville, Round Rock, Buda and Hutto and commute to Austin.

That vacuum leads to its own set of problems for Austin: traffic congestion, air quality problems, and the abandonment of Austin's public school system.

“It's all intertwined, and that requires a different type of an approach for us,” Hilgers says. “We need initiatives that can adjust market demand through regulatory reform and SMART Housing.”

In other words, Austin must take a more active hand in encouraging the right mix of housing construction for the city. Through incentives—and minimal public investment—the city is using concepts like SMART Housing to encourage more mixed-income housing development.

Hilgers is especially pleased by the response to SMART Housing, which lowers or eliminates city fees for those developers who promise to implement some mix of affordable housing. More than 1,800 SMART Housing units are currently in the pipeline, well in excess of the 500 units the city's had predicted. Hilgers credits City Manager Jesus Garza and the City Council with the popularity of the program.

“We’re really excited about the number of developers who want to get certified for Smart Housing and go through expedited review,” Hilgers said. The city has created an expedited review team that is operating “on a pilot basis.” Hilgers said the team includes members from the Development Review and Inspection Department (DRID), the Fire Department, the Water and Wastewater Department and Austin Energy. Alice Glasco, director of the DRID, is coordinating the effort.

“I think the city has shown a strong commitment to addressing the problem,” Hilgers says. “The city manager and the City Council have pushed this agenda much farther than we anticipated, and they’re responding to what they see as a real community need. They’re ready to address the problem with real programs that can help people.”

The initiative was spurred by last year’s Community Action Network“Through the Roof ”report that analyzed the serious need for affordable housing in Austin.

The department's goal is to stimulate the construction or rehabilitation of 5,000 housing units a year. Affordable housing is not just subsidies, Hilgers says. It's the right infrastructure development and the strategic investments and community collaboration and neighborhood planning. They all play a part.

When Hilgers isn't on the job, he spends his time with his wife Nancy. Both graduated from Austin High School 28 years ago and their two children attend Austin public schools. Hilgers graduated from Whittier College in California and has a graduate degree from the LBJ School of Public Affairs. Before he joined the city, Hilgers was on the staff at the Lower Colorado River Authority.

Hilgers says there are some similarities between his job in Pickle's office and his job with the city. “I think in both jobs you're making a difference in the community,” Hilgers says. “We affect people's lives as much as any department in the city. It's a lot like it was in the Tenth Congressional District. You're responding to people's needs and the needs of the community.”

Griffith, Slusher weigh in on

Swapping Mueller for Stratus

Griffith says Stratus should go through RFQ

Council Members Daryl Slusher and Beverly Griffith responded Tuesday to comments made by Council Member Danny Thomas on Monday that he could not support any settlement with Stratus Properties that includes a swap for land at Robert Mueller Airport.

Slusher, who put out a memo suggesting the swap last week, said, “I just believe we should at least explore the opportunity. I see no harm in talking about it. We want Mueller to be developed and we would prefer that the area over the aquifer not be developed—or developed very sparsely. There is the possibility of implementing two longstanding city policies. Stratus has already said if the swap were to happen they would follow the Mueller Master Plan.”

In a memo to her Council colleagues, Griffith said, “The redevelopment of (Mueller) can be the most powerful economic engine in East Austin. . . The only way to ensure that the City gets a top master developer is through an open request for qualifications that solicits proposals from the nation’s best.”

Griffith concluded that Stratus should have the opportunity to participate in the RFQ process. However, she said, “I cannot support the sale or trade of land at Mueller before the RFQ process is complete because it is not in the best interest of the city or the surrounding neighborhoods.”

Thomas’ memo said the choice of Stratus would mean losing the opportunity of changing master developers if necessary. In addition, he said there would be “no guarantee of full MWBE (minority & women’s business enterprise) participation” in the project.

Slusher says he too wants a developer of national stature. Stratus has promised to abide by the Mueller master plan and other city requirements, he said, including use of minority and women’s businesses as contractors and sub-contractors. He concluded, “I agree (Mueller’s redevelopment is) critical to the future of East Austin. Rather than once in a decade, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, but I think we should discuss the possibility of an arrangement with Stratus.”

Jim Walker of the Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition said, “I agree with Danny Thomas. The main thing I’m reacting to is it’s moving very fast.” Asked why he believes the movement toward a swap is moving fast, Walker said the question appears “in one or another news periodical two or three times a week. And all of this in the context of Mueller Airport (not appearing) anywhere in the term sheet—but its getting as much attention as anything in the term sheet.”

Walker added, “I think everybody’s on the same page with the principles of completing the (master planning) process, (but) I think some people are on different time lines.” It will take months to complete the master plan and get that plan adopted by the City Council, Walker said.

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

Freewheeling debate promised . . . Council Member Daryl Slusher will face off with former Council Member Max Nofziger in a live debate over the merits of light rail tonight at 7 p.m. on Channel 6. Austin Chronicle political editor Lou Dubose is scheduled to moderate . . . What if light rail fails? . . . Michael Aulick of CAMPO, the area’s transportation planning group, says I-35 would have to grow to 10 lanes from Ben White to “at least Airport” . . . ABIA cargo continues to soar . . . So far this year, air cargo is up nearly 30 percent over last year, with more than 258 million pounds shipped. September’s shipments were 49 percent higher than last September. Austin Bergstrom spokesperson Jamy Kazanoff says a lot of the shipments are computer parts and chips. Austin, she says, “is no longer just a dusty stop on the prairie” . . . International Infrastructure task force . . . The Mayor’s new advisory board on coordination of international resources will hold its first meeting today. Earl Maxwell of Maxwell Locke & Ritter is chair of the board, which has 30 members. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, Council Member Raul Alvarez, Hays County Judge Jim Powers, John Doerfler, Williamson County Judge and Sonia St. James, president and CEO of the Technical Business Network, are among the members.

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

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