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Council backs project to keep affordable housing units in Bouldin

Friday, March 1, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

City Council unanimously approved funding for an innovative affordable housing project in the Bouldin neighborhood (previously mis-identified as Travis Heights) yesterday.

 

Though contingent on state funding, Council committed $2 million to the project, which proposes a mix of affordable and market rate units on the nine-acre property that is located at 2324 Wilson Street.

 

Currently, the property is home to 173 affordable units. With state subsides set to expire, the owner is free to develop the land, and build up to 328 units at market rate. Instead, they are proposing that they retain the 173 affordable units, but seek a zoning change so they can build a total of up to 580 units on the property, with the remaining units to be built at market rate.

 

“That’s what is so revolutionary about it. I really was naive when I started this… I really didn’t realize it hadn’t been done anywhere,” Sarah Andre told In Fact Daily. Andre is a Principal with S2A Development Consulting , and represented the property owner,  Eureka Holdings, Inc.

 

“Most of these other projects aren’t in high-rent, highly-desirable areas… So people don’t have the ability to put market rate units right next to them. But because this is South Congress, it’s this incredible opportunity,” said Andre.

 

Council Member Mike Martinez took a moment to acknowledge what he saw as a “silver lining” of the affordable housing bond failure this past November, noting the different strategies to preserve affordability that have been emerging recently.

 

“This is one option, leveraging existing properties, maybe adding additional entitlements so that market rates can help pay for the affordability,” said Martinez. “I just think this is a creative solution to a very difficult issue.”

 

Council Member Laura Morrison agreed, saying that doing a one for one replacement of affordable units in an area of town that has been struggling with affordability was a “terrific opportunity.”

 

Cyndi Collen, who is the president of the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association, told City Council that after many well-attended meetings over the past few months, there was “overwhelming support to retain the affordable housing project.” However, explained Collen, the neighborhood had been trying to negotiate to lower the density of the overall project, and had held back from official support because of that.

 

“We are still hopeful that they will do that by today,” said Collen, who told City Council that she wished the developers had started the rezoning process earlier.

 

Currently, the property is zoned MF-3, and Eureka Holdings, Inc. is proposing a change to MF-6 zoning. The zoning change has yet to go through the city process.

 

Andre explained that they would need the new zoning in order to complete the project as described, and to get the tax benefits from the state.

 

Though developers will be pursuing a 9 percent tax credit, Andre said that credits for “at risk” properties whose existing subsidies are about to expire are much less competitive than those that propose projects from scratch. Nonetheless, as part of the scoring system used to determine who receives the credits, a letter from the neighborhood expressing support is worth points, as is support from the city.

 

The deadline for the application is today. Yesterday, the support of the neighborhood remained contingent. “We haven’t really finished our negotiations with them, and I don’t know what the full outcome will be, but I think that they want to support it,” said Andre.

 

Other organizations were less coy about their support.  Kurt Cadena-Mitchell, who is a leader with Austin Interfaith, spoke in favor of the project, and stressed the impact it had on nearby schools.

 

“Fifteen percent of the students of Travis Heights Elementary School live in this complex, so we urge and support this conditional commitment,” said Cadena-Mitchell. “This deal presents a possible model of development which seems consistent with our Imagine Austin Plan.”

 

While the property is being rebuilt, the current residents will be assisted in relocation and relocation costs, and given the right of first refusal once the new units are built.

 

“Affordable housing is an incredible priority for everyone on this Council and most people in this community, and so is maintaining the quality of life and security of our neighborhoods. Being able to find that balance, and balancing our priorities, I believe we can do that. And I believe that the success of this town depends on being able to balance those priorities,” said Morrison.

 

Morrison acknowledged that the zoning changes to come made some people “nervous,” and pointed out that the resolution passed by Council had been revised to clarify that it was not meant to support or oppose the zoning requests.

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