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Affordable housing project loses momentum

Tuesday, August 25, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

A proposed affordable housing project in northern Travis County is facing stiffening political headwinds thanks to tenacious lobbying from neighbors whose efforts have brought county commissioners to the brink of yanking their support for the project.

Acting in their capacity as the Travis County Housing Finance Corporation, the commissioners last Tuesday discussed backing out of a preliminary commitment granted in February to a project that would plant 200 multifamily units on nearly 700 acres seven acres at Howard Lane and McNeil Drive.

Ultimately, they decided to maintain their tenuous support for the Merritt Cornerstone Development project while reserving the option to pull out if several major concerns are not resolved.

After the commissioners first provisionally agreed to loan the developer, DDC Merritt Cornerstone Ltd., $2 million earlier this year, James Whittenburg, the president of the McNeil/Ashton Woods Neighborhood Association, began appearing at Commissioners Court meetings to raise his concerns with the project.

While vehemently affirming his support for affordable housing in general, Whittenburg said flooding issues, traffic concerns, and the fact that the property sits directly opposite from the county’s only freight rail switching yard should disqualify Merritt Cornerstone from public support.

In an email sent to County Judge Sarah Eckhardt’s office in late July, Whittenburg wrote: “Frankly this development is everything skeptics frequently point to when criticizing affordable housing. It takes the worst single piece of property at the very edge of a census tract that qualifies, a piece of property that sits at the very location of this area’s most significant flooding problems and abuts the only rail switchyard in the county.”

If built out, the apartment building could be accessed only from Howard Lane by crossing three separate railroad tracks. The only other entrance to or exit from the neighborhood is on the opposite end of McNeil Drive, which dips over a low-water crossing and one more track of railroad before emptying out onto the southbound frontage road of North MoPac Expressway.

Technically qualified as a transit-oriented development, or TOD, Merritt Cornerstone would sit half a mile from Capital Metro’s Howard Station. However, the configuration does little to encourage car-independence, since there are no sidewalks and only an unprotected bike lane along a road with a posted speed limit of 50 miles per hour.

On Tuesday, Commissioner Gerald Daugherty scoffed at the TOD designation, asking rhetorically: “You really got points for this thing being close to public transit? Do you know how you have to get there unless somebody is going to slingshot you over there? It just doesn’t make any sense.”

On Friday, Commissioner Brigid Shea, whose Precinct 2 is home to Merritt Cornerstone, told the Austin Monitor, “It’s not OK to put poor people in harm’s way, and I’m not going to be a party to that.”

A formal thumbs-down from the Housing Finance Corporation would likely sink the developer’s bid for tax credits from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, whose point-scoring criteria gives significant weight to support from local political subdivisions.

“The Austin region is terribly competitive,” DDC Merritt Cornerstone’s Colby Denison told the commissioners back in February. (Multiple calls to Denison’s office for this story were not returned.) “You will literally lose by a point. We need every single point we can get in order to secure the tax credits,” he said.

Outside the Commissioners Court, Shea and Eckhardt have each expressed personal reservations about the project; however, both backed away from yanking the corporation’s support, at least for the time being.

Eckhardt conceded that walking out of the deal would abrogate the county’s leverage to guide the project. Without that, she said, the land will likely be developed into market-rate housing.

Shea agreed with Eckhardt. “I don’t think you are guaranteed that there won’t be development on that site – and potentially inappropriate development,” she said. “And we have very little authority as a county to say no to a subdivision proposal if it meets other criteria.”

Acknowledging that there could also be potential liabilities associated with revoking their original commitment of the $2 million loan, the commissioners tabled any drastic action on Tuesday.

“I don’t want to waste time on anything that would cost us money and time in a lawsuit if there is a way through mediation or discussion to get a better solution,” Shea said.

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