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Affordable housing advocates upset with focus of density bonus

Monday, April 29, 2013 by Kimberly Reeves

Some affordable housing advocates are far from happy with Council’s dictated affordability levels in the proposed Downtown Density Bonus.

 

City Council had urged staff to move more quickly on the density bonus, which was part of the Downtown Plan passed in 2011. Last week, division manager Jim Robertson updated a Planning Commission committee on his progress on the ordinance, which includes a streamlined city approval process.

 

The density bonus, which will replace CURE zoning, must strike a delicate balance, Robertson told the Codes & Ordinances Committee. It should exchange density for community benefits, but it also should make sense to developers. CURE stands for Central Urban Redevelopment Combining District zoning.

 

“What would be the point of additional density if all the additional value is skimmed off by the municipality?” Robertson told the committee members. “Why would they undertake twice as big a project if there’s no financial benefit to it? Obviously that’s kind of a ‘no no.’”

 

The density bonus proposal includes a menu of community benefits, from green roofs to increased sustainability to historic preservation to family friendly housing. The city must outline specifics for each of those community benefits, something that Robertson predicts could take months.

 

The affordable housing component, however, is going first and quickly. And it must be half of the benefit under any proposal, Robertson said.

 

Affordable housing advocate Stuart Hersh, who was part of the stakeholder process, was the first to comment on Robertson’s presentation. Hersh, in a passionate speech to the committee, said the bonus hit the wrong people.

 

“We define affordability downtown and in the radius around downtown at 80 percent or below of median family income, when we have plenty of people living in rental property at 30 to 50 percent below MFI,” Hersh said. “The people who are making $40,000 are not the people we should be helping. We need to be helping those living on Social Security and disability…. It’s an outrage.”

 

The city should not be helping people who can afford market rate rentals when others are living on $800 a month, Hersh said. He begged the city to bring affordable housing advocates into the room before a final decision was made.

 

Robertson was sympathetic to Hersh’s pleas but noted Council set the affordability levels: 80 percent of median family income for rental property and 120 percent for home ownership.

 

“That policy was, in essence, adopted by Council,” Robertson said. “The reason I even feel the need to saying anything is that those are the marching orders we are under right now, but I don’t want to sound or seem unresponsive to the issues you’ve brought.”

 

Others also addressed the committee. Austin Interfaith’s Curt Yowell said the failure of affordable housing bonds in the recent bond election made fast-tracking the downtown density bonus critical. David King of the Zilker Neighborhood urged the committee to be transparent about entitlements.

 

“What is the value of that density? What is the market value of what is wanted?” King asked. “It needs to be clear. It needs to be publicly stated what the value of each public benefit is, and there needs to be a dollar value associated with it.”

 

Council wants to see the affordable housing piece of the density bonus by June. Between now and then, a new economic analysis will be run to update the 2008 interim density proposal numbers. Everything from land and construction costs to soft costs like financing will be considered to come up with the benefits that additional entitlement would bring to a downtown project.

 

“That way, you can calibrate the program the way it needs to be calibrated,” Robertson told the committee. The initial ordinance will return to the committee and various commissions before being moved along to Council.

 

Robertson said the process of setting entitlement costs and benefits would be more open than it was back in 2008. When a consultant comes to town in the next few weeks, the city wants to open up the process for input.

 

“We’d rather preview the pro forma and try to reach out and get vetting on that before we start turning the crank,” Robertson said. “Even if it’s a streamlined program, we want it to be based on economic realities.”

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