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Council continues debate on Riley’s SMART housing proposal

Wednesday, April 9, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Council members continued to struggle Tuesday with a proposal from Council Member Chris Riley to update the transit portion of the city’s SMART housing ordinance. Though some of their discussion revisited issues raised at Council’s most recent Thursday meeting – when Riley first tried to initiate a code amendment to change the SMART rules – Council members also heard fresh concerns about the impact of a fair housing challenge from Dallas that could also impact the Riley proposal.


When prompted, Betsy Spencer, the city’s director of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development explained the situation to Council members. “The standards…changed drastically because in Dallas there was a fair housing allegation that occurred because all of the tax credit projects that occurred were being funded in a certain area, and so it was basically being segregated” she said.


Spencer went on to note that legislation “changed requirements so (the housing) would be more geographically dispersed.” She added that sometimes transit requirements have also shifted. Spencer also reminded Council members that requirements for affordable housing projects can change year-to-year.


SMART housing is a set of guidelines adopted by council. They are designed, as is suggested by the acronym to incentivize safe, mixed-income, accessible, reasonably priced and transit-oriented development. Builders constructing under SMART housing are entitled to an expedited review process.


Still, the program has not turned in results desirable to either the city or – as Spencer told Council members Tuesday – developers. Indeed, Spencer has indicated her desire to revamp the entire SMART program, a notion reinforced by Spencer’s Tuesday statement that the local Home Builders Association no longer believes SMART is an effective program.


As he did March 27, Riley offered a vigorous defense of the notion that the city had faltered in its attempts to connect transit and affordable housing (See Austin Monitor, March 28). Riley suggested that the code change initiation would allow him and his colleagues to reconfigure the transit guidelines to better suit the needs of developers and the city.


“There are many reasons why we should be making extra efforts to direct our affordable housing dollars toward areas that are served with transit,” he said.


Riley later pointed to the economic status of some of the city’s affordable housing residents. He suggested that the citizens most in need of help could not afford an automobile.


Noting the challenge rooted in federal guideline changes that he suggested could hamper some affordable housing outreach, Riley pointed to a potential amendment that would exempt the city’s efforts in regard to affordable housing projects eligible for federal tax credits.


Council Member Bill Spelman, who had supported Riley’s attempt to start the code amendment process, appeared less sold on the idea this time around. “It seems to me…that, as Council Member Riley has rightly pointed out, the ‘T’ in SMART housing has been dramatically weakened and it needs to be strengthened but there are a lot of other things in SMART housing that are amiss and need to be fixed,” Spelman said.


“I think asking staff to look more broadly at the question…would be tremendously valuable.”


Meanwhile, Council Members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo continued to press for a process that would order a staff review of all options available – but would stop short of initiating a code change. And staff continued to suggest that Riley’s proposal could tie their hands with regard to future housing efforts


For his part, Mayor Lee Leffingwell told his colleagues that his read of Riley’s proposal left room for the approach pitched by Spelman. “I agree with that,” he said turning to Spelman, “and I think the way I read this resolution, as it is amended, provides for that.”


The matter is scheduled to return to Council Thursday. However, like most items on that agenda, it could very well be postponed.

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