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Council hears appeal of affordable housing case

Monday, February 2, 2015 by Jo Clifton

As its first land use case, City Council heard an appeal of a conditional use permit for an affordable housing project Thursday. One thing Council members learned immediately is how difficult fulfilling all of their campaign promises might be, especially when they stand in direct opposition to each other.

On one hand, there is a great need for affordable housing throughout the city. On the other hand, Council members do not want to appear insensitive to neighborhood concerns.

At the request of District 1 Council Member Ora Houston, Council postponed action to Feb. 26.

DeWayne Lofton, who lost the race to represent the district to Houston in the December runoff, is president of the Pecan Springs/Springdale neighborhood. Lofton appealed the Planning Commission’s decision to grant a permit that allows Ryan Companies to build 290 residential units at 5605 Springdale Road.

Lofton argued that his neighborhood wants owner-occupied housing and retail, not more low-income rental property. In particular, Lofton says he and his neighbors are especially worried about low-income housing under the Austin Housing Authority.

Council Member Sheri Gallo said, “It seems like over and over and over again we hear the dialogue about the need for more affordable housing, both for rental and for purchase. … I am a little confused because we hear over and over again that affordable housing is at a shortage.” She then asked if the neighborhood wanted a blend of rental and owner-occupied units.

Lofton replied that residents asked about that, but because of the project’s financing, it was not an option.

In their argument against an affordable housing development, neighbors have pointed to problems such as the open-air drug sales and prostitution that plagued Rio Lado, a low-income project run by the Austin Housing Authority, Lofton said. That complex was shut down several years back because of a determination that it was in the floodplain, which Lofton described as “a blessing in disguise.”

But Armbrust & Brown attorney Richard Suttle, who was representing the developer, said the housing authority would not be managing the property. Instead, it would be run by Lincoln Property Company, which manages apartment complexes throughout the United States.

Lofton told Council that he and his neighbors want a substantial amount of retail space for sandwich or coffee shops, businesses “that would provide us a place to gather and socialize.” He said that although the developer believes retail establishments would not be successful at that location, residents believe the opposite.

Lofton said if someone opened an Ozarka water store in the desert, it would be packed. “That’s exactly what we have here,” he said, describing the area as a retail desert.

Suttle said that his client, in an effort to accommodate the neighborhood, has added a coffee shop where the community can have meetings. That shop will open up onto a patio overlooking green space, he said. Suttle told the Monitor, “What they’re looking for is what’s going on on South Lamar. This is a midblock development surrounded by a park.”

Suttle pointed out that the case was an appeal, not a zoning case, that staff had determined that the project met the criteria laid out in city regulations for a multiuse zoned property. He noted that it was the Planning Commission who, while approving the permit unanimously, added the requirement that all of the units be affordable, as opposed to priced at the market.

It is not unusual for Council to ask for community benefits from developers of high-priced projects, such as market-price condos, in return for greater density or floor-to-area ratio. As Suttle noted, it is highly unusual for a neighborhood to seek such benefits for affordable housing.

Suttle said he planned to meet with Lofton to continue discussing the project. It seems possible, but not very likely, that they will reach an agreement so Council doesn’t have to make this decision.

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