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SXSW panel spotlights urban housing

Thursday, March 17, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Austin is no snowflake when it comes to issues of housing, affordability and density. Cities across the United States grapple with similar challenges even if they don’t have the robust economy that is driving growth here in Central Texas.

Last Friday, two mayors from opposite sides of the country sat on a South by Southwest Interactive panel called “Straw, Sticks or Bricks: The Urban Housing Challenge” to discuss the peculiar character of the issues they face and the solutions they’re pursuing.

Curbed Managing Editor Jessica Dailey moderated the chat, which featured John Giles, mayor of Mesa, Arizona; Jorge Elorza, mayor of Providence, Rhode Island; and Trinity Simons, director of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, a Washington, D.C.-based group with a goal of preparing mayors “to be the chief urban designers of their cities.”

Elorza said that among the many challenges his city faces is a renewed interest in downtown Providence as more than just a commercial district. He explained that new residences in the area force the city to think of its downtown as a residential neighborhood and craft a strategy to deploy the usual amenities such as parks and transportation infrastructure.

“But our city isn’t all downtown,” Elorza added. “It’s very important to me to push much of this activity and energy out into the neighborhoods as well.” He explained that he and his City Council have crafted tax incentives to lure developers into those areas.

Giles said that his city of approximately 450,000 people has enticed developers to build what he called “capital-A Affordable housing” – that which is subsidized for its residents – by expanding a light rail route the city shares with its metropolitan neighbors, including Phoenix. Giles said that up to 800 new units for low-income families have come online in the past year-and-a-half.

“That has created some pushback from some of the neighbors,” said Giles. He explained that one way to overcome that opposition is to encourage high-quality design and partner with committed groups to manage the developments.

Both Giles and Simons talked about the importance of openly communicating with residents and business owners who might stand athwart new urban infill projects. Simons said that when it comes to increasing density, officials need to ditch jargon such as floor-to-area ratio and focus instead on the anxieties residents have about sharing space with new neighbors.

Those anxieties are “often related to … parking and impact on school districts,” she explained, adding that officials and developers need to help people “visualize what you’re building and see that you’re not changing the character of the neighborhood.”

When asked about gentrification, Elorza took a somewhat contrarian stance by proclaiming “slow and steady” gentrification to be generally healthy. He went on to suggest that the impact of gentrification is exaggerated by the fact that low-income families tend to move more frequently.

“It’s not just a matter of whether the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood is increasing and a family has to move,” he said. “I think it’s more a question of, ‘Where did that family move to?’ And it’s concerning when that family moves to another neighborhood that has a very high level of poverty.”

Photo by Derek Jensen made available through a Creative Commons license

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