Wednesday, February 11, 2015 by Jo Clifton

Zimmerman struggles to stop subsidized housing

There are only two subsidized housing developments in City Council Member Don Zimmerman’s District 6, as compared to 47 in Council Member Ora Houston’s District 1 and 46 in Council Member Pio Renteria’s District 3, according to data compiled by the group Housing Works Austin.

But Zimmerman would like to make sure there is not another one in District 6. He is particularly opposed to the Cardinal Point Apartments that are to be developed by Foundation Communities, Inc. at 11011 1/2 Four Points Drive.

Zimmerman pulled each of six developments proposed for the award of low-income housing tax credits by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs for discussion at Tuesday’s work session. He asked Betsy Spencer, director of the city’s housing department, whether the applications really needed to be completed by Feb. 27 or if they could wait until April 1 for the city’s blessing.

Spencer said the applications could be submitted to the TDHCA without letters of support from the city on Feb. 27, but they would lose points if the letters did not accompany the applications, and that Feb. 27 is indeed the date they are due.

Contacted later, Walter Moreau, executive director of Foundation Communities, said, “I think we’ve gotten extra attention because we’re close to Don’s neighborhood.” He characterized neighborhood concerns as “classic NIMBY” and said they have come up before.

Moreau also explained that the project needs a vote of support on Thursday to be competitive in the state process. In addition to the Austin projects, Moreau said, there would be projects submitted from Leander, Buda and Round Rock. “So if the Austin City Council doesn’t take action, projects in the suburbs will score higher.” The projects with higher scores would obviously be more likely to get funding.

Zimmerman, who described himself as “deeply involved in the bond campaigns in 2012 and 2013,” expressed consternation that having defeated the housing bonds in 2012, he should lose when the same idea was put before voters in 2013. In fact, he said, since more people rejected the bonds in 2012 than voted in favor of them in 2013, he considered them to have been rejected.

He also criticized Foundation Communities for spending $100,000 to support the bonds. Moreau said, “We played a leadership role in advocating for passage of the affordable housing bonds in 2013, and we are allowed to do that as a nonprofit. We think it was morally, ethically and legally a part of our mission. But Don disagrees.”

Zimmerman used the phrase “no means no” and blew a rape whistle in a TV interview to equate the return of the housing bonds in 2013 with the rape of taxpayers.

Most of Zimmerman’s colleagues did not seem to share his enthusiasm for stopping the housing projects. He asked state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, for her assistance in opposing Cardinal Point. However, in a letter dated Feb. 5, Howard made it clear that she fully supports the project and disagrees with at least one of his concerns.

According to Howard’s letter, Zimmerman has three main concerns with the project: “its proximity to mass transit, its impact on traffic congestion and the effect on the project by a pending lawsuit.” In addition, she wrote, “You have also relayed your constituents’ demand that public funds for affordable housing should instead be applied to congestion relief.”

Howard notes that Cardinal Point will be reasonably close to a Capital Metro bus stop and that federal housing tax credit funds cannot be reallocated to fund transit projects. She also said that whatever the Supreme Court decides, it should have no bearing on the current process.

In addition, Howard went out of her way to praise Foundation Communities. “The organization has developed more than 1,500 units of affordable multifamily housing; Cardinal Point will build on this record of accomplishment, meeting a need in a high-opportunity area of Northwest Austin. This new apartment community will create a rare affordable rental option for families that want to live and work in the Four Points area. For these reasons, I am proud to support the project’s TDHCA application, and will be submitting a letter of endorsement to the department.”

Zimmerman has also proposed state legislation that would give an individual Council member, county commissioner or presiding officer of a municipal utility district extra clout in determining who gets federal housing credits.

According to Howard aide Scott Daigle, Howard declined to support that legislation. Zimmerman sent the request to 17 different legislators, but without the matter being a part of the city’s legislative program, it has little chance of gaining traction.

Zimmerman posted a proposed resolution on the Council bulletin board seeking support of his fellow Council members for the legislation. However, his policy aide, Greg Watson, indicated Tuesday that no other member had signed up as a co-sponsor.

According to Housing Works, Districts 2 and 4, represented respectively by Council Members Delia Garza and Greg Casar, each have 23 subsidized housing developments. Council Member Ann Kitchen’s District 5 has 18 such developments, and Districts 8 and 9, represented by Council Member Ellen Troxclair and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, respectively, each have 12. District 7, represented by Council Member Leslie Pool, has eight. Council Member Sheri Gallo’s District 10 has only two such developments, but she seems to be in favor of more.

Gallo said, “When we talk about traffic gridlock and we talk about affordability, I think it’s really important for us to remember that these affordable housing projects allow people to live and work in close proximity.

“A large portion of our population does not have the resources to be able to afford rental units in the areas that they work,” Gallo continued. “So as we talk about this process, we have to remember that it is our duty to support that policy idea of encouraging citizens to live and work close to keep additional cars off of our roadways.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

City of Austin Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department: This city department provides housing and community development services for Austinites. To that end, they administer programs, provide grant services, and work with non-profit and agencies to provide housing for eligible residents. The department also provides small business development services.

Foundation Communities: Austin-based nonprofit focused on affordable housing issues and construction.

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