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Council members postpone rework of city’s SMART housing policy

Friday, March 28, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Council members postponed a re-tool of the transit portion of the city’s SMART housing policy Thursday. The move came over the objections of Council Members Chris Riley and Bill Spelman, who noted the importance of timing the redefinition of those rules to coincide with the completion of the city’s five year comprehensive housing plan for the Federal Housing and Urban Development department. That document is due in August.


“We are continuing to see projects come before us on a fairly regular basis…in which we have been asked to recommend for approval projects as satisfying the SMART housing requirements,” Riley said.


He later added that “all of these things have been going on for an amount of years,” and that the move would renew a discussion about “taking transit seriously.”


Still, concerns that the revamp could force the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department into a corner appeared to win the sentiment of the majority. “The challenge for us always…when it’s by ordinance and not by guidance is that we lose the flexibility,” Neighborhood Housing and Community Development head Betsy Spencer told Council members.


SMART housing is a guideline used by officials to evaluate city housing options. The acronym stands for safe, mixed-income, accessible, reasonably priced, and transit oriented. Initially designed as a regulation, SMART turned into a set of guidelines after use of the program became elusive.


Though some might characterize the rules as more relaxed in application, affordable housing projects approved by the city must meet SMART housing goals.


Thursday’s action was over a proposal from Riley to initiate a code amendment process that would reexamine the transit portion of the guidelines. He told his colleagues that such an action would appropriately refit the regulations, and illustrate that they were taking transit more seriously.


Riley’s proposal would turn the SMART guidelines into an ordinance.


Still, Council Member Kathie Tovo – who will presumably run against Riley for the new District 9 seat – raised issues with the idea. She cited worries – echoed by staff – over the timing of Riley’s re-write, and pushed for a more involved public input process.


She offered a set of amendments that would have altered the resolution to that effect.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell, not a frequent Tovo ally, also offered concerns about the notion. “I think that there’s a possibility that we could wind up with less affordable housing than we have right now,” he said. “We have this sort of unofficial policy of having all types of housing for all types of people in all parts of town – so how are we going to do that? How are we going to reconcile this requirement with that when we don’t have the flexibility.”


Seeing the writing on the wall, Council Member Mike Martinez – who served as the second co-sponsor on the resolution – moved for a postponement. Spelman, responding to that idea, was reluctant.


“Both Council Member Riley’s original resolution and Council Member Tovo’s suggested amendments are actually very close together,” he said. “I think the only big difference is on the report back time, which Council Member Riley’s revised version has added some flexibility there…There is no difference in the…discussion.”


“What is the practical value of postponing action on this item for two weeks?” Spelman later asked.


Still, the item was postponed. Before that, staff also suggested that they have plans for a more full review of the SMART housing policy. With that in mind, they worried about taking only the transit portion of the policy out of context.

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