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City beefs up transit portion of SMART Housing

Tuesday, November 11, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

With a swift, unanimous approval, City Council members amended the transit requirements for the city’s SMART Housing program last week.

SMART stands for Safe, Mixed-income, Accessible and Reasonably-priced Transit-oriented housing. Last week, Council tweaked the “T” to require that SMART Housing be located within a half-mile walking distance of a transit route.

Council members voted 6-0 for the change, with Council Member Bill Spelman absent.

Under the new regulations, the director of the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department can waive the requirements for the following reasons: if the development is located in a high-opportunity area that would be advantageous to residents, if the Capital Metropolitan Transit Authority confirms the property is on a future transit route, if the property has applied for state or federal grants (such as low-income housing tax credits) or if the project affirmatively furthers fair housing.

The SMART Housing program was established in 2000 in order to stimulate the production of low- to moderately priced housing in the city. In return, the City of Austin provides fee waivers and faster reviews.

Council Member Chris Riley questioned the wording of the ordinance and worried that developers would apply for federal funds in order to get the waiver regardless of their genuine intentions.

Jessi Koch, a senior planner with the Neighborhood Housing department, explained that the wording was based on the order of operations for applying for federal or state funding. She said the application for SMART Housing typically came first.

She assured Council members that if funding was denied, the project would no longer qualify for a waiver from the director. Koch said that such language was not in the ordinance on which the Council was voting, but is included in the code that addressed decertification.

Housing advocate Stuart Hersh praised the final draft of the ordinance.

“It’s remarkable when a code-change resolution emerges from a stakeholder process with no opposition at a Planning Commission public hearing,” said Hersh.

“When the new Council comes aboard, Hersh continued, “we’ll fix the S and the M and the A and the R.”

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