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Council plans changes in affordable housing for PUD Ordinance

Friday, September 20, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Changes are on the way to the city’s Planned Unit Development Ordinance that will officially alter how the city calculates affordable housing requirements.


The changes come after a divisive debate over how the PUD Ordinance calculates affordable housing. Calculations for the planned PUD at 211 South Lamar revealed a wide disparity of official opinions, which led to a request to codify a clearer formula, posthaste. (See In Fact Daily, June 7.) The final reading of the PUD zoning request, known among those who discuss such things as the Taco PUD, is set for next Thursday. 


At the time, Council Members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo found themselves on the losing side of the debate, saying the affordable housing fee-in-lieu should be based on total square footage of the project. The other side, which said the fee should be based on the square footage of the “bonus” area that is gained from the increase in zoning won out, and Council directed staff to return in 60 days with a rewritten code.


That rewrite passed through the Planning Commission’s Codes and Ordinances subcommittee this past week on its way back to City Council. The committee voted unanimously to recommend the changes to the full Planning Commission.


The committee voted unanimously to support staff’s changes, with the addition of two suggestions proposed in a letter form Housing Works Austin’s Board President Frances Ferguson.


The first point definitively establishes the existing zoning as the baseline for all calculations, as opposed to leaving it up to staff’s discretion. (Zoning Manager Jerry Rusthoven explained this provision was intended to prevent “two-step” zoning in the case of lots that are originally zoned with interim zoning, though he said that he didn’t anticipate that being an issue very much in the future.)


The second point would define on-site affordable housing rentals in PUDs as being affordable for families with 60 percent of the Median Family Income across the city, regardless of the location in the city. (With 80 percent MFI for owner-occupied units.)


Ferguson writes that requiring deeper levels of affordability in all areas “would help to achieve greater geographic dispersion and facilitate affordability in higher opportunity areas.”


“Given that the amount of affordable housing is being significantly reduced from what the code previously said, at least requiring the 60 percent seems like it would be a good thing,” said Commissioner Danette Chimenti.


Mandy DeMayo with Housing Works emphasized the need for on-site affordable housing, saying, “it’s something we feel is incredibly important and integral to achieving affordability in high-opportunity areas…Because the fee-in-lieu has been significantly reduced by moving from $6 per-square-foot of total square footage to $6 of bonus square-footage, it’s imperative to get that on-site affordability except in extremely rare circumstances.”


DeMayo said that, given the choice between the fee-in-lieu and the on-site affordability, developers were likely to choose the fee.


Rusthoven pointed out that, as the ordinance is written, every time City Council approves PUD zoning they have the option of requiring on-site housing instead of the fee-in-lieu. Nonetheless, the committee advocated on-site housing over the fee-in-lieu, in accordance with the suggestion by Housing Works, though they retained the fee-in-lieu option for “exceptional cases” where it is warranted.


Austin Rental Alliance’s Stuart Hersh spoke in favor of fee-in-lieu money for those who earn the least money in the city over on-site housing. He said that, given the choice between on-site housing for those who earn 60 percent MFI and hundreds of thousands of dollars for those who significantly less, he would choose the latter.


“That moral choice is really clear as a community,” said Hersh, who declared he was siding against Housing Works and the Community Development Commission and with staff for the first time in five years.


Council is scheduled to vote on the changes at their October 3 meeting.

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