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Suit threatened over on-site affordable housing at South Lamar PUD

Tuesday, October 15, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Though it is almost in the home stretch, there may be more trouble on the horizon for the proposed planned unit development high-rise project at 211 South Lamar.

 

Threatening a lawsuit against the city, Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid attorney Robert Doggett detailed his concerns about the application of the affordability requirement for the project in an Oct. 10 letter to the city.

 

Doggett is representing Crisanta Cazares, Alfreda Green, Gloria Middleton and Marta Valencia-Grande, whom he identifies as low-income, minority Austinites who are in need of affordable housing in high opportunity areas.

 

“If the City fails to undertake a proper fair housing analysis and implement it, I intend to recommend that my clients initiate litigation to require the City of Austin comply with federal law,” writes Doggett.

 

In his letter, Doggett notes that though City Council has the discretion to allow a fee-in-lieu rather than require on-site affordable housing, that decision rests solely with City Council, not staff.

 

“211 South Lamar is in a high opportunity area and instead of requiring the developer to provide affordable housing on-site, city staff has defaulted to merely requiring the fee-in-lieu,” writes Doggett. The letter goes on to explain that fees-in-lieu are applied in low-opportunity areas, unlike the location of the PUD. The project is known colloquially as the Taco PUD because it will replace a Taco Cabana Restaurant.

 

“Thus by merely allowing the developer of 211 South Lamar to pay fee in lieu, this city is injuring low-income minority residents of the City and violating the Fair Housing Act,” Doggett concluded.

 

Attorney Steve Drenner with Winstead PC says that he disagrees with Doggett’s conclusions from both a legal and policy standpoint. He points out that fee-in-lieu dollars can be leveraged to provide much more housing than the three or four on-site units that would be required.

 

Council Member Chris Riley points out that fee-in-lieu money from the Barton Place Condominiums on Barton Springs Road was used to build an affordable housing project very close to the condos. That project is the Mary Lee Flagship at 1312 Lamar Square. So there’s no reason to think the money from the fee-in-lieu for 211 South Lamar can’t be used similarly nearby.

 

Council Member Laura Morrison, however, says that she prefers onsite housing.

 

“Onsite affordability in PUDs is a critical tool in our Council-adopted goal of achieving geographic dispersion of affordable housing around the city,” she said. “One of the reasons we have adopted the goal is to ensure that all income families have an opportunity to live centrally and downtown. This speaks to equity issues of housing fairness.”

 

After approving the rezoning on first and second readings in August, City Council is scheduled to vote on the zoning for a third and final time this Thursday. The case has been working its way through the boards and commissions process for months, and garnering neighborhood opposition along the way. (See In Fact Daily, August 9) Morrison and Council Member Kathie Tovo both voted against the zoning change at two separate meetings in August.

 

The Post Paggi Group is seeking the zoning change, which will allow them to build to 96 feet instead of the current 60-foot limit. The developers are also planning to provide community benefits which include ground-floor retail, extended sidewalk improvements, tree preservation, three-star Green Building compliance, enhanced water quality controls, and rent-free space to the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

 

Affordable housing is also on the list of community benefits, and how that benefit is implemented has already caused trouble for the project. The fee-in-lieu calculations for 211 South Lamar sparked a code rewrite, finalized earlier this month, that clarified the city’s PUD ordinance fee-in-lieu calculations. The fee-in-lieu calculations are to be based on the “bonus” area gained by the zoning change. A bid by Tovo to require on-site affordable housing instead of the fee-in-lieu option was unsuccessful.

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