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Strong support for affordable housing, but devil is in details

Monday, June 25, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

Everyone who participated in the city’s latest affordable housing discussion could agree they wanted to see affordable units all over town; moving forward, however, has resulted in more disagreement than consensus.

 

Council charged the Community Development Commission late last year with the job of coming up with a policy for where to put affordable housing units: Should the number of units be capped? Should some areas of town accept more affordable units than others? Should East Austin finally be off limits for affordable housing, particularly controversial projects like Permanent Supportive Housing units at the Marshall Apartments on East 12th Street?

 

The city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department uses the Kirwan opportunity map, which ranks locations based upon the resident’s potential access to education and housing.

 

Intending to move the discussion forward, NHCD added three options for the CDC and its stakeholders to consider: goal-based siting by area; capacity-based siting by quota; and strategic-siting by efficiency.

 

Agreeing that affordable housing should be scattered across Austin was easy. Everything after that was hard. For instance, at last week’s CDC meeting, Commissioner Gilberto Rivera spoke of the strong viable East and Central Austin neighborhoods of his childhood, when the area of downtown between Rainey Street and the Radisson Hotel was known as “Mexican Town.”

 

“We’ve been moved from there to East Austin,” Rivera said. “Now I see Rainey Street is a vibrant bar district, and to me that’s just sickening. We used to live in those houses. Now we have kids who say, ‘I can’t go to my grandma’s house. Now it’s a bar.’ We’re being moved further and further east.”

 

Rivera bought his own house for $39,000. Today, with the house valued at $250,000, property taxes are nearly beyond what Rivera and his wife, who live in a fixed income, could afford. East Austin was once shunned. Now its tiny neat neighborhoods are prized, but Rivera said his own children and grandchildren can’t afford to buy on the streets that Rivera has known and loved.

 

“My wife and I have been discussing if we’re going to have to move, but I personally feel as my dad says, ‘I’m not leaving unless it’s feet first,’” said Rivera, who predicted East Austin would soon just be another part of downtown Austin. “I’d never support anything that restricts affordable housing. It would never be my opinion to say ‘no’ to affordable housing.”

 

 

But there are plenty who do want some limits placed on affordable housing units, especially those that are subsidized by city or federal dollars. The opening of Marshall Apartments as one of the city’s first Permanent Supportive Housing projects lit a fire during the affordable housing discussion, pitting newer homeowners against long-time residents being priced out of East Austin.

 

For those like Tracy Witte, the president of the Swede Hill Neighborhood Association, East Austin has accepted more than its share of affordable projects. Neighbors were especially critical of Marshall Arms because it catered to those recovering from drug addiction and yet was located only a block from the most notorious corner in Austin, known for drug sales and prostitution.

 

Betsy Spencer, director NHCD, said the Marshall Apartment project has been completed. She said the city has had no reports of problems at Marshall, which was renovated with city funds.

 

Rivera said he would never support restrictions or caps on affordable housing, which by his definition is what most can afford in Austin. Other commissioners who have lived for generations in East Austin agreed with his assessment. The city of course, has a more complex definition for different levels of affordability.

 

After the meeting, Spencer admitted that the group had landed on some thorny issues over affordable housing. But she also described the conversation as “young,” one that began in earnest at the beginning of the year and likely would carry on through the end of 2012.

 

Affordable housing has never been an easy policy discussion. Even revision of the incentives for affordable housing in the University Neighborhood Overlay area near UT took well over two years to complete. Even then, stakeholders acknowledged the process had required compromise on all sides.

 

Commissioner George Morales said his family started in East Austin. Current housing prices, however, had pushed them out to Dove Springs. The Dove Springs area is often viewed with some derision by outsiders, but it was a neighborhood full of tradition, a neighborhood where it’s now hard to find a rental house, he said.

 

The policy group will continue to meet on the topic of affordable housing through year’s end. For more information on the affordable housing discussion, more information can be found on the city website at https://austintexas.granicusideas.com/all/discussions/4ed658b22f4180000100001b/page/1.

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