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Council members begin in-depth examination of affordable housing issue

Friday, April 26, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Austin continues to pick up the pieces from the failed $78 million affordable housing bond this past November. Yesterday, City Council members took a closer look at the problem, in the first of three briefings that will address the issue.

 

Thursday’s briefing was centered on public input from the Imagine Austin plan, current community needs, the 2012 bond development process and the return on investment for affordable housing.

 

Taking data from the 2006 housing bonds, HousingWorks Austin calculated the return on investment. Roughly speaking, the return was about $15 for every dollar invested by the city.

 

“Let me see if I can put this on a bumper sticker,” said Council Member Bill Spelman. “If we spend more money on housing, we will be leveraging money that would otherwise have been spent somewhere else. We will be creating jobs for people who would not otherwise have them. We would be avoiding costs that we would otherwise be incurring. And we will solving problems that we would not otherwise solve.”

 

Though Mayor Lee Leffingwell worried aloud that the verbosity of the sticker might cause distracted driving, the summation was deemed a fairly accurate representation of the information that was presented to Council.

 

Council Member Kathie Tovo pointed out that the presentation showed why affordable housing is a critical issue for all of Austin, not just those directly affected by its lack of availability.

 

“There really is a tremendous financial benefit to the whole community that accrues from providing permanent supportive housing across the spectrum,” said Tovo. “We don’t tend to think of affordable housing investments as economic development stimulator, but clearly they are. “

 

Tovo also tossed out an idea to use WebLOCI, a tool that the city currently uses to evaluate economic incentive deals, to look at the financial value of affordable housing investments as a way to better quantify its economic impact. Leffingwell agreed with her suggestion, and asked staff to look into the idea further.

 

Rebecca Giello, who is the Assistant Director of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development, presented information from 2009 that showed a gap of almost 40,000 rental units for those earning less than $20,000 annually. She said that since then, rental costs had risen. A future housing market study is on the horizon, with a request for qualifications to be released in May or June of this year.

 

For his part of the presentation, HousingWorks board member Terry Mitchell noted that many of Austin’s issues are tied to the lack of affordable housing in the city. He said that 92 percent of the people that work in the central city live on the periphery, pointing out that most new affordable housing is being added in the outskirts of the city, exacerbating traffic problems that could grow if the problem persists.

 

Though many Austinites are agitating for a new housing bond on November’s ballot, the exact scheduling of the bond election is not set. The last day to call an election for the November 2013 election is Aug. 26.

 

Council Member Chris Riley said he would “look forward to work on honing any future bond package to make sure voters have a clear picture of exactly what populations will be served, and what savings might be achieved through providing that help.”

 

Two additional affordable housing briefings are scheduled for the May 21 and June 18 City Council meetings. Those future presentations will focus on national and statewide approaches to affordable housing and bond elections and funding strategies, respectively.

 

Neighborhood Housing and Community Development head Betsy Spencer said that her office would be ready with a variety of options to support housing in June.

 

“I think it would be remiss for any of us to rely on any one source of funds,” said Spencer. “We need to be looking at long-term strategic ways for our to invest our money and also use our policies, the TODs, the PUDs, the different mechanisms we have to create affordable housing.”

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