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Commissioners consider joining city study of affordable housing

Wednesday, October 9, 2013 by Mark Richardson

A request to join with the City of Austin in a housing market study turned into a lengthy and sometimes philosophical discussion of affordable housing at Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday.


The item was an interlocal agreement with the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department to contribute up to $50,000 towards a study of the quality and volume of current housing available in Austin and Travis County. And though the amount was relatively small to a body that manages a budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars, the topic touched off a broader discussion of Travis County’s approach to providing affordable housing.


“The city study alone would not pick up the unincorporated areas of the county,” said County Judge Sam Biscoe. “And our participation will ensure that the study will not only cover the City of Austin but also the areas outside the City of Austin.”


The county’s agreement with the federal Housing and Urban Development Department for its Community Development Block Grant’s program suggests a study of the local housing market.


However, county staff said the joint study will go beyond what is normally covered to include economic conditions, future housing demand and cost for Travis County as a whole, as well as for submarkets and individual census tracts. Additionally, the joint study will assist in coordinating efforts between the city and Travis County to ensure the same set of information is used to make affordable housing decisions.


The study appears to dovetail with the city’s $65 million Affordable Housing bond election on November 5. County staff said the city intends to use the information to create a series of affordable housing goals for the next five years.


Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis said that, despite his having some misgivings about paying for another study, the issue of affordable housing is critical.


“I’m very concerned about this because we continue to talk about affordable housing, and we’ve had opportunities to deal with some of this but we’re just not getting there,” he said. “I do think that we need the vehicle of that study to deal with the affordable housing issue that is, in my opinion, a crisis.”


But Pct. 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty was skeptical that the court would gain any new insights from the study.


“It seems like we’re being asked to spend $50,000 on something that we already know,” he said. “I’d rather spend $50,000 on 10 families that need a $5,000 down payment or something like that. Studies frighten me, because at the end of the day, I really wonder what we’re going to get. Can someone show that this is a real benefit?”


County Judge Sam Biscoe said it wasn’t a matter of defining the problem – which he said everyone there was aware of – but in finding some answers.


“We know about the problem, but we don’t know about the solution,” he said. “There was a pilot program we tried to put in place and we had all kinds of problems. But if we really plan to promote home ownership it seems to me that there are specific things we need to do. There are experts that know what works in other communities, and unfortunately, we have to pay to get those specific recommendations for us.”


Pct. 2 Commissioner Bruce Todd expressed concern that the county was not going to be included in choosing the consultant to do the study. Staff confirmed that the interlocal agreement gives the city the right to make the choice and it was tentatively scheduled for the Oct. 17 Council meeting. However, it would also give Travis County access to the consultant to get data on the housing market in the unincorporated areas of the county.


Todd asked for a one-week delay in order for members of the court to read the Request for Proposals that the city put out in June and to be able to make a better decision on whether spending the money would benefit the county. 


The Commissioners Court took no action and Biscoe ordered the item to be put on the Oct. 15 agenda.

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