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Making affordable housing plans for Austin

Thursday, July 9, 2015 by Jo Clifton

While most of the state focused on the meaning and aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court decision related to same-sex marriage, affordable housing advocates were riveted by a case brought by the Inclusive Communities Project of Dallas, which sued the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs over how the department decides to allocate tax credits for low-income housing projects.

The Inclusive Communities Project said that the way the department made its decisions caused Dallas minorities to be illegally segregated in low-income neighborhoods. On June 25, in a 5-4 vote, the court said that the plaintiffs have to show only that the effect of the agency’s decisions is discriminatory, not that the department intended to further segregation.

As a result of the original district court decision, TDHCA made changes to its scoring criteria for allocating federal tax credits for development of housing for low-income residents. Agency spokesperson Gordon Anderson said the agency provided points for projects that would be located in what are known as high-opportunity areas, generally areas close to good schools, jobs and other amenities.

In addition, Anderson said, the agency included extra points for community revitalization plans “that were part of a city or county’s plans to improve a part of town.” Specifically, he said this refers to areas in which the local jurisdiction has made a financial investment, and the proposed development would be part of it. (See map below.)

Looking at a map of the city’s affordable rental housing inventory provided by the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department, it is easy to see a multitude of properties clustered in Central East Austin, as well as numerous others farther east.

In addition, there are quite a few properties offering low-income rental opportunities in the East Riverside and Montopolis areas, Georgian Acres and other neighborhoods in City Council Districts 1, 2, 3 and 4. There are also affordable housing projects in Central South Austin and close to the University of Texas, as well as the North Lamar/Rundberg area.

However, there are very few west of Lamar and only a handful west of MoPac.

TDHCA will be making more decisions about awarding low-income tax credits on July 30. Austin has provided conditional commitments on three projects deemed likely to be funded: Cardinal Point Apartments in District 6, LaMadrid Apartments in District 5 and Merritt Cornerstone in District 7.

Attorney Maddie Sloan of Texas Appleseed, which advocates on behalf of lower-income Texans, said Austin has the same segregation problem as Dallas. “You only have to look at a map” showing subsidized housing projects “to see the level of racial segregation in Austin,” Sloan said. “The exact same facts that triggered the (Dallas) case in the first place are impacting other cities, including Austin.

“We hope and expect the (federal) District Court will reaffirm its earlier decision. But regardless of the ICP case, state and local jurisdictions that get federal funding have an affirmative duty to reduce segregation and increase access to opportunity. We think these jurisdictions have the obligation to push more housing in high opportunity areas independent of the discrimination finding” and the court case.

Karen Paup, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, said, “I agree in looking at the map that there’s a pattern of locating subsidized housing in limited areas of town.” However, she added, “In the last few years, the city has branched out more in choosing where to locate. … I think there’s been pressure from the community for more affordable housing in more parts of town, and I think the last couple of years, the city’s been more conscious of that.”

The Austin Monitor asked Rebecca Giello, assistant director at the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department, and senior planner Jonathan Tomko to explain how Austin has tried to take the need for integration into account while balancing other factors – such as proximity to transit, good schools and jobs – when making decisions about where low-income housing should be located.

Giello explained that Austin and other cities have three possible strategies in siting affordable housing. The first is goal-based, which means, for example, having 10 percent subsidized housing everywhere. “You can do that by census tracts, you can do it by district, by neighborhood or by ZIP code,” Giello said. Money is then allocated accordingly.

Under a capacity-based theory, the department decides to limit affordable housing to a certain percentage. For example, 20 percent might be considered appropriate for areas of East Austin that already have a considerable amount of subsidized housing, she said.

Finally, there is what is called a “strategic-based” approach, which is what Austin has chosen. This strategy is based on “place-based policies.” Some of Austin’s money goes into revitalization, some into preserving existing housing stock and some into building new units. It’s a little bit more difficult to quantify progress using this method, Giello said.

“The majority of our units that need to be preserved are actually affordable market-rate units, so we would have to design a preservation strategy … to pull in those landlords for them to work with us,” Giello explained, instead of tearing down those units.

Another problem facing affordable-housing planners, Tomko noted, is that housing may be sited in an area that has access to good schools but does not have ready access to transit. So some might argue that by placing the housing in a suburban area, the agency is increasing the transportation costs of those taking advantage of the housing. However, as Giello pointed out, some low-income people have cars, and some have jobs in suburban areas.

In reaction to the Supreme Court’s ruling, TDHCA Executive Director Tim Irvine said in a statement on the agency’s website, “We are fully prepared to return to the trial court to make our case that there has, in fact, been no actionable disparate impact discrimination by TDHCA under the clarified standards set out by the Court in their opinion.

“TDHCA remains committed to its mission of providing affordable housing options to low-income Texans, and as Justice (Anthony) Kennedy stated in the Court’s opinion in today’s ruling … ‘[t]his case, on remand, may be seen simply as an attempt to second-guess which of two reasonable approaches a housing authority should follow in the sound exercise of its discretion in allocating tax credits for low-income housing.'”

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Photo by woodleywonderworks made available through a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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