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Oak Creek affordable housing debate just starting

Tuesday, February 16, 2016 by Jack Craver

A developer seeking state tax credits to fund an affordable housing complex in North Austin got a boost from City Council on Thursday, despite loud objections from a large group of neighbors as well as familiar criticism of housing subsidies from the most conservative member of Council.

Council voted 9-2 to endorse Saigebrook Development LLC’s application to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs to receive tax credits – known as the 9 percent Low Income Housing credits – to build a 98-unit apartment building at 3300 Oak Creek Drive.

Nine of the units would be reserved for those with incomes no higher than 30 percent of median family income (known as MFI), or $16,150 a year for a single person. Another 34 units would be reserved for residents who make up to 50 percent of MFI, which amounts to $26,900 for a single person or $38,400 for a family of four. Another 40 units would go to residents who make up to 60 percent MFI, and 15 units would have no income restrictions.

Council members Don Zimmerman and Ellen Troxclair, the two most conservative members of the body, were the only dissenting votes.

The debate about the project is far from over. Council’s vote does not guarantee that the developer will be awarded the credits from the state, although its support does add “points” to the developer’s application. Council could also nix the project later on, even if the credits are approved.

“What we are doing here today is simply giving our vote on whether we support this as a tax credit project, not individual elements that will be worked on should it be approved by the state,” said Council Member Leslie Pool, explaining that she was sympathetic to concerns voiced by members of the Northwood Neighborhood Association, which opposes the project.

Leanna Lang, the president of the association, told Council that the group did not oppose low-income housing in the area, but that it was opposed to any high-density development that could exacerbate traffic that she and others described as out of control.

Other project opponents noted the project’s proximity to a floodplain and highlighted the flooding problems the area has had in recent years. “With this much more impervious cover, how much farther will the flooding extend?” asked Donna Bloomberg.

Others also challenged the project being referred to as a “SMART” development, saying that there were not enough public transit options nearby for the project to be merit the acronym, which stands for “safe, mixed-income, accessible, reasonably priced and transit-oriented.” If the project is SMART-designated, it is eligible for more than $580,000 in fee waivers, according to city staff.

Zimmerman, a staunch opponent of subsidized housing, suggested that such projects were often imposed on neighborhoods that do not want them, saying he’d been to public meetings in which virtually every resident present was opposed to a project.

He also pointed out that landlords are not able to look into the criminal records of residents under the age of 18. “If some of the teenagers have been arrested for burglary or for car theft, none of that can be known because the teenagers are minors and their criminal records are sealed,” Zimmerman said.

“It’s one of the reasons people object to these projects, because the people who move in – ” he added, before Saigebrook representative Megan Lasch cut him off.

“I can tell you from the years of experience that I’ve had as a developer, we have not had a situation where we’ve had a teen that was not doing what they were supposed to,” she said. “From a management perspective … making sure our residents, whether it’s children or the adult, are doing the right thing is very important to us – otherwise we wouldn’t get asked to come back to communities time after time.”

Without mentioning her colleague by name, Council Member Delia Garza strongly rebuked Zimmerman’s comments when she got to speak later during the hearing. “I just have to reject the notion that these kinds of communities house a bunch of criminal teenagers,” she said, eliciting a smattering of applause from the audience.

Garza also suggested that support for affordable housing projects might seem smaller than it truly is. “What’s hard about these kinds of issues is that the families who will benefit from this project, we don’t know who they are yet. So they can’t be before us and tell us how wonderful this project was for them, how they were able to probably get out of poverty because of it,” she said.

And finally, Garza referenced a comment Zimmerman had made during a discussion of a separate issue that day, in which he said he was devoted to fighting economic segregation in the city. “If we say our goal is to help economic segregation, these projects do that,” she said, flipping off her mic.

Margo Dover, executive director of Skillpoint Alliance, a nonprofit that partners with industry for job training, praised Saigebrook’s efforts to make on-site educational and training opportunities available to its residents. “They always try to make sure their residents have more than just a place to live,” she said.

Others who voted to endorse the application, including Mayor Steve Adler and Council members Ora Houston and Ann Kitchen, emphasized that they took the concerns expressed by neighbors over flooding and traffic seriously, and they promised to scrutinize them when deciding whether to ultimately approve the project.

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