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Committee reacts to affordable housing study

Friday, May 29, 2015 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

A new study presented to the City Council Housing and Community Development Committee Wednesday prompted members to question how much the city should regulate rental practices in order to generate more affordable housing and to safeguard renters’ rights.

Conducted by the Denver-based BBC Research & Consulting, the study looked at the barriers to fair housing choice in Austin. Researchers concluded that although the median monthly rent has risen roughly $200 in the past decade, homes in the city have become more affordable. Researchers attributed this finding to declining interest rates, while pointing out that the parts of town where affordable houses are located has shifted, with cheaper homes for purchase in places such as East Austin.

“You see some departure of those units from the central city out into the northeast area as well into the southern part of the city,” said BBC Managing Director Heidi Aggeler, who presented the study to committee members.

Researchers closed their study with a list of a dozen recommendations, the first of which suggests that City Council members adopt regulations that incentivize the construction of affordable housing. (The study defines affordable housing as a unit available to someone making less than 80 percent of the median family income, which for a one-person household in Travis County falls just under an annual income of $42,250.)

Committee member Greg Casar said some of the recommendations – including researchers’ suggestion that the city do away with unnecessary limits on accessory dwelling units, or ADUs – are currently being considered by the Planning and Neighborhood Committee. The Committee on Codes and Ordinances voted last week to loosen parking regulations on ADUs.

Aggeler also said that some renters claimed that landlords’ practices were discriminatory, and that they looked too far back into potential renters’ criminal and credit histories.

Casar said he would like city staff to look into its power to regulate what researchers called “look-back periods.”

“I don’t know what our abilities under the law are, but I know that the Council is going to be exploring criminal background checks on job applications – but I’m not sure what other municipalities may have done with look-back periods,” he said.

Betsy Spencer, director of the Housing and Community Development Department, said that while the city’s Housing Authority promotes a “reasonable” look-back period through its supportive housing initiatives, she was not sure there were any citywide parameters in place.

“We’re trying to educate folks on the value of having a reasonable look-back period, but it’s not always well-received,” said Spencer.

But Committee member Sheri Gallo said she was wary of enacting any regulations.

“Because of the fact that rental history does become important in a person’s ability to desire to pay rent, and to be good tenants and to be good neighbors, which often is the other part of the issue with criminal history and rental history is that a landlord is in apartment communities inviting people to live very close together and be impacted by how people run their lives and operate,” said Gallo. “As we have this conversation, we have to remember that there sometimes need to be regulations, but reasonable regulations, but we don’t want to overregulate in the fair-market business community.”

Although committee members took no action on the study, several said it would inform housing codes as the city moves into CodeNEXT.

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