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Council backs affordable housing development, despite location concerns

Wednesday, November 25, 2015 by Jack Craver

City Council gave the nod Thursday to a new 324-unit multifamily affordable housing development partially financed by 4 percent noncompetitive tax credits from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

The Council vote of “no objection” was required in order for the applicant, NRP Group, to submit its application for the tax credits to TDHCA. Per state law, because the proposed development is located outside of city limits – in Austin’s extraterritorial jurisdiction – the applicant also sought and received approval from the Travis County Commissioners Court.

The 8-3 Council vote, in which Council members Ora Houston, Don Zimmerman and Ellen Troxclair dissented, came after a debate over whether the location of the future apartment complex – at Old Manor Road and U.S. Highway 290 – is appropriate for low-income residents, for whom the development is reserved. Nearly all of the units will target individuals and families with less than 60 percent of the median area income.

“We’re putting rooftops out in a part of the city that has no amenities, and when you talk about Johnny Morris (Road) and 290, you’re talking about a long way to get to a Target to get groceries,” said Houston.

Troxclair concurred. Addressing Houston, she suggested that the anticipated $19 million in tax credits for the development might be better directed at another location.

“We have a lot of power to decide where the best location is for these affordable housing complexes,” she said. “So I think that we should take your concerns really seriously because I think there’s a lot of people out there who like to have 19 million dollars’ worth of tax credits and would probably work with you on finding a place in your district that has access to better amenities.”

Council Member Pio Renteria rejected that reasoning, arguing that Austin’s need for affordable housing was too great to block projects based on location. Too many current city residents, he said, are getting squeezed out of their neighborhoods and can’t find affordable alternatives nearby.

“We can’t provide them anything, not even in the ETJ, because they don’t exist,” he said. “So what are we going to do with these people? Are we just telling them that they just have to leave the city? That the city is not open to poor people anymore?”

Houston remained adamant. She wondered how children in the new complex would access their schools, which are in the Manor Independent School District. Manor Elementary and Manor High School are about 4.5 miles and 5 miles from the development site, respectively. Houston said that the city was not extending its “live, work and play” vision to the poor.

“There are a lot of things about how we place affordable housing and how we use our 4 percent and 9 percent tax credits that concern me because we are still putting them in places where there’s nothing there for them except a place to live, and they don’t have any of the other things that we demand for other parts of our community,” she concluded.

Zimmerman opposed the project on broader ideological grounds, saying that residents of the tax-exempt property would be benefiting from public services – including police, emergency medical services and public schools – that they didn’t pay for. During discussion of a separate affordable housing project that day, he referred to housing developments targeting low-income residents as “unaffordable,” saying that they “increase the economic segregation between those that are forced to subsidize the projects and those that are not.”

Mayor Steve Adler was receptive to concerns expressed by Houston, but he decided to support the project after being assured by Betsy Spencer, the director of the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department, that approving the project would not block the city from pursuing other projects financed by the same tax credits.

“I’m going to vote for this because I think the only thing worse than having a house with no community benefits is not having a house,” said Adler.

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