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Affordable housing bonds could be back on November 2013 ballot

Monday, January 14, 2013 by Kimberly Reeves

A trio of City Council members wants to take another swing at the affordable housing issue in Austin, asking City Manager Marc Ott to put together a possible bond package proposal for November.

Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole,  joined by Council Members Chris Riley and Bill Spelman, has placed a lengthy resolution on this week’s agenda outlining why the city ought to again pursue affordable housing bonds. The affordable housing proposal, Proposition 15, was the only proposition to fail in the bond election last year. The $78.3 million proposition failed  by a small margin.

However, Council Members Laura Morrison and Mike Martinez say it may be too soon to ask voters to approve another pricey bond issue.

Joining the three Council members in calling for the election are Jennifer McPhail of ADAPT Texas and Terry Mitchell of Momark Development, as well as Safe Sleep Shelter for women. According to the resolution, almost a third of the city’s residents are living below the federal poverty line of $22,350 for a family of four.

“We have a critical need for temporary and long-term housing needs, for our seniors, our veterans, our women and children and our homeless,” Cole said this weekend. “That will go unmet unless we take that action.”

Cole considers the ability to match city funds with state and federal funding to be one of the most attractive features of an affordable housing bond package. The $55 million in bonds approved for affordable housing in 2006 leveraged another $196.2 million in additional funding, which provided, 3,417 new home and apartment units.

“We walk away from opportunities like that and we get nothing,” Cole said. “We need to focus on the face of the homeless in Austin. It is women. It is children. We have approximately 2,000 children in the Austin Independent School District who are homeless. About 28 percent of our homeless are children who are living below the poverty line.”

Morrison told the American-Statesman last week that she wants the city to find a way to pay for affordable housing without bond money, calling a November 2013 bond election “premature.” Martinez agreed, saying the Council should look for alternate sources of funding for affordable housing.

The resolution directs Ott to report back to Council by Feb. 14, outlining a timeline for public input and a potential bond election. Ott’s work will estimate the city’s available bond capacity; a return on investment for various housing categories; best practices and peer practices across the country; a needs assessment of housing needs; and any existing project scoring matrix.

Part of the benefits that the city could reap would come from the federal government’s Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act, which was passed in 2009. That act provides additional avenues for government to partner with private industry in order to move people out of homelessness and into housing units.

Austin’s affordable housing bonds failed by a margin of 48-52. That failure does leave that $80 million or so in bonding capacity available for use without raising the city’s tax rate. Cole expects Ott to draft a long-term needs assessment to bring back to Council with enough specifics to provide voters with sufficient information to vote for additional bonds.

Suburban voters, more than the central city, defeated the affordable housing bonds. Mitchell, who has developed a number of affordable housing properties, said he often pitches the idea of affordable housing in terms of priorities for every Austinite. The lack of affordable housing has pushed families into the suburbs, exacerbating problems like traffic.

“Every time I talk about this subject, people have failed to realize what affordable housing means to this city,” Mitchell said. “If we’re concerned about sprawl, if we’re concerned about transportation, if we’re concerned about putting jobs in our urban core, a lot of it comes back to the affordable housing issue. It’s a very impactful issue.”

He said affordable housing is an investment in Austin’s future as important as Austin’s clean water initiatives, calling it a commitment to the city’s economic health.

“We know nothing about a proposal yet, but I think, with education, we’re going to be able to pass this bond issue,” Mitchell said. “Whether you’re living in that housing or not, it’s going to impact the quality of life in Austin.”

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