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Council approves interim affordable housing policy

Friday, February 1, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

City Council approved an interim policy on affordable housing benefits at last night’s meeting, overruling the objections of the Downtown Austin Alliance in favor of creating some type of policy that will end up putting affordable units downtown.

The proposal is a hybrid of the Affordable Housing Incentive Task Force and the work of the Design Commission. As Council Member Jennifer Kim pointed out, participation in the incentive policy is entirely voluntary. Any developer who does not want to be involved in the program is welcome to take his chances at Council. And, as Mayor Will Wynn alluded to in his comments, those developers who may require great density on a downtown city block are probably a finite group.

As approved by Council, the policy would apply to all residential, mixed use and commercial projects. A fee would be set at $10 per square-foot over entitled density. Half of that amount would go to community benefits and half would go to affordable housing.

Kim noted in her motion that the city budget has limited the cap on such fees to $750,000. Anything larger would have to come to City Council.

The motion for the affordable housing incentive fee passed unanimously.

Discussion of the fee was surprisingly brief. The DAA made its case that the fee could hamper downtown development. The affordable housing incentive task force, represented by Cathy Echols, spoke of the benefits of the fee. Echols noted that the fee was limited to Greenfield sites in order to discourage tearing downtown existing lower-rent apartments.

In addition, the fee would apply the only to downtown property, Echols said. Eventually, the Affordable Housing Incentive Task Force would like to see the fee spread to projects across the city. That will come after Council decides how to protect neighborhoods and provide compatibility with other city ordinances, such as the vertical mixed-use ordinance.

Affordable housing advocate Frank Fernandez, who co-chaired the incentive task force, said it was a rare day when developer Tim Taylor could offer a more zealous argument on affordable housing incentives, referring to his co-chair’s arguments in favor of the incentive. The committee approved the incentive proposal unanimously.

Although the incentive program might need some changes, Fernandez said, no one could disagree that it was not needed. There was a sense of urgency to this program, given the fact the housing market is getting tighter and aff housing is getting more difficult to find.

“We need to act sooner, rather than later,” Fernandez said.

Passage of the ordinance on three readings, as it was last night, would indicate that affordable housing incentives was a community value, just like roads, libraries and public safety. To not pass the ordinance would make such a promise of affordable housing options ring hollow with many residents, Fernandez said.

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