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Council ponders changes to SMART Housing beyond mass transit

Friday, April 11, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Council members Thursday approved the initiation of a code amendment that could result in changes to the city’s SMART Housing regulations. Initially, the proposed change would have only addressed whether the city could support housing not located next to mass transit routes. Council Member Chris Riley authored the original resolution.


However, Council Member Bill Spelman expanded the resolution to include all elements of the SMART housing policy. His motion won approval after a compromise aimed at easing concerns over the impact the change might have failed to gain a majority vote.


The eventual tally was 5-2. Council Members Kathie Tovo and Laura Morrison were the two nos.


Just before voting on the measure, Tovo explained her continuing discomfort with the proposal. “At the end of the day, I believe that the policy that we are setting in place here today in initiating a code amendment is going to foreclose opportunities for many, many families who would like to live in other parts of the community, where they could live closer to work and within proximity to high quality schools, to child care, to other kinds of opportunities that don’t necessarily exist in other parts of the community,” she said.


Staff, who worry that it could be overly restrictive, have expressed serious reservations about Riley’s measure. Well-regarded Foundation Communities founder Walter Moreau joined them Thursday, suggesting that Riley’s proposal could lead to the end of affordable housing construction in West Austin.


SMART housing is a policy guideline used by staff to determine whether a development is, as the acronym holds, safe, mixed-income, accessible, reasonably priced and transit-oriented. Builders have, in recent years, used the provision – originally intended to incent affordability – less and less.


Riley sought to revamp the transit portion of the guidelines and has continued to defend the need for a code amendment to effect the change he sees necessary in the SMART policy. He has repeatedly noted the lack of an update to the Transportation portion of the policy, noting that the existing guidelines make it difficult for low-income families without automobiles to get where they need to go.


On Thursday, he underscored the importance of a hard policy move such as one provided by the code amendment process. “I believe that it is the role of this Council to establish policy, and I believe that the policy we are talking about is important enough that we should set the process in motion ourselves to actually put that policy into our city code instead of it being up to staff to consider whether it is important enough to put into our city code,” he said. .


Tovo and Riley are set to run against each other in November for the new District 9 Council seat.


In addition to providing language that expanded Riley’s measure to include the entire SMART housing policy, Spelman also attempted to broker a compromise between the Tovo and Riley positions. Spelman’s version would have stopped short of a code amendment initiation, but would have allowed for Council review of any findings drawn from stakeholder input over the next few months.


If the Spelman/Tovo compromise had passed, it would have allowed Council to then initiate a code amendment if staff was able to produce information about a clear direction in policy. Riley, however, didn’t bite. He, Council Member Mike Martinez, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and Mayor Lee Leffingwell all voted against the compromise.

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