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Panel signs off on changes to SMART housing program

Monday, September 22, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Potential changes to the city’s SMART housing program are making their way back to City Council.

The Planning Commission Codes and Ordinances Committee looked at the changes last week, voting unanimously to send them on to the full commission with their support. The changes, which would revise the “T” in SMART, could change the standards for the transit-oriented criteria of SMART housing.

The city’s SMART housing program was adopted in 2000 to create “Safe, Mixed-income, Accessible, Reasonably priced and Transit-oriented” housing in the city. This past April, Council Member Chris Riley created a resolution to strengthen the “transit-oriented” component, stressing the importance of building affordable housing near transit.

The resolution asked that the housing be located within one-half mile of a transit stop and said that transit stop should have an ADA-accessible route. At the time, Riley expressed frustration with the “as the crow flies” technique of measuring routes, which was used instead of the actual distance one would have to travel.

Council Members Kathie Tovo and Laura Morrison voted against the resolution after expressing worries that it could create more impediments to affordable housing. Their concerns were shared by Foundation Communities’ Director Walter Moreau. Last week, he told the Codes and Ordinances committee that he supported the changes made by staff since that Council discussion.

Moreau said his biggest concern was that the state prioritizes funding projects that are in high-opportunity areas, and if the city adopted transit-oriented standards in the program that were proscriptive and inflexible, the city could end up without any state support for affordable housing.

“As they’ve got it now, I think it works and makes sense. I would be very nervous if this gets put into code in a way that tweaks it or changes it, and then we can’t leverage other funds,” said Moreau.

Moreau explained that the state did not consider transit at all in its tax credit awards. He said that although the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs may care about transit, a fair housing lawsuit prevents it from considering transit as award criteria.

“They are basically directed by the judge to prioritize, above all else, high-opportunity areas,” said Moreau. “Those high-opportunity areas in Austin are West Austin, North, South, Central Austin. There’s only four bus routes that head out West. So, if you restrict it to locations, you’d have this little, narrow band of sites that could possibly work.”

Staff shared Moreau’s concerns. Jessi Koch, a senior planner with the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development department, said that limited transit service in high-opportunity areas raised concerns about fair housing.

Koch said they were recommending that SMART housing be located a half-mile from a transit route, because stops can always be added. Koch added that, while well-intentioned, requiring that routes to transit stops be ADA-compliant could also be difficult, given the fact that even when sidewalks did exist, the city did not have an inventory of their condition, time of construction or how accessible they were.

As a result, staff was recommending that the ADA-accessibility requirement not be adopted in code, and worried that limiting SMART development to places with ADA-compliant sidewalks to transit could have the unintentional effect of discouraging geographic dispersion of affordable housing and limiting it in high-opportunity areas.

Housing Advocate Stuart Hersh said he had problems with the staff proposal, and asked that the city take on the responsibility for installing or improving an accessible route to transit for proposed SMART housing projects that do not have one.

The Council resolution also asked staff to consider exemptions for properties that are 9 percent tax credit projects. Staff is recommending that waivers be considered for projects that are leveraging federal or state funds, which would include these projects.

Koch said staff was also recommending that the NHCD director have the ability to waive the transit-oriented requirements for developments if they are located within a high-opportunity area, or if the application includes a letter from Capital Metro confirming the project is located near a documented future route.

The Planning Commission will consider the proposed code amendments before they are sent to Council.

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