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Auditor’s report: Affordability data incomplete

Wednesday, March 22, 2017 by Jo Clifton

According to a special report from the Office of the City Auditor, information about city programs and initiatives that affect affordability for Austinites is inconsistent, may be unreliable or incomplete and may not be readily accessible.

In addition, auditors found that city programs “may have unanticipated effects on affordability” and that the city has historically lacked a vision or strategy for making Austin more affordable.

Auditors also observed what many people in the community have noted for some years: that market forces, particularly in the housing arena, may be stronger than any city effort to make Austin more affordable.

Members of the audit team presented their report to about half the members of City Council who were present during the afternoon portion of Tuesday’s work session.

Katie Houston, the audit manager for the report, told Council her team had identified 85 city programs and initiatives that affect affordability for Austinites. About three-fourths of those programs are provided by Austin Public Health, Neighborhood Housing and Community Development, Parks and Recreation, Austin Public Library and Development Services.

However, the fact that those departments have the most programs does not necessarily mean that they touch the most people or offer the most savings, the audit reports.

For example, Austin Energy’s Customer Assistance Program helps about 40,000 eligible customers a year. On average, customers receiving that program’s discount saved about $800 in Fiscal Year 2015, according to Austin Energy. On the other hand, the neighborhood housing department reported helping 75 individuals through its rental assistance program in FY 2016. That program’s average assistance amounted to about $6,300 per person, according to the department.

Auditors noted that although the city has enacted many programs and initiatives targeting affordability, the city has not defined the term and there is no citywide criteria or specific goals to guide departments working on affordability questions.

“Without a unified vision, strategy or criteria, departments often operate in isolation or within silos on affordability related issues. This could result in duplication of services between departments, or between the city and counterparts such as Travis County, the Austin Independent School District, or area nonprofits. This could also result in gaps that cause specific populations to be underserved,” auditors noted.

For those wishing to access help with affordability, the road may be difficult because the city lacks what auditors called “a comprehensive, centralized tool or webpage for residents to use to find programs that could help them with affordability issues.”

It could be difficult to assess certain metrics related to affordability, auditors observed, because data is not collected in a consistent manner. The city does not always track or report the number of unique individuals served by its programs. For example, the health department tracks the number of immunizations provided but not the number of unique individuals immunized.

Auditors cited problems with data collection and a number of potential effects. “First, the city may have difficulty producing an accurate count of the number of individuals or households assisted through programs. Additionally, because programs report impact in different ways, policymakers may not be able to make meaningful comparisons between programs. Finally, because impact is inconsistently reported, determining the city’s return on investment – for value received in exchange for the dollars spent – would be onerous,” the audit said.

Auditors noted that Texas state law prevents the city from using strategies used in other states to generate or preserve affordable housing. Council Member Ellen Troxclair asked whether auditors had compared Austin’s programs to the programs of other Texas cities. They said they had not.

In response to a question from Troxclair, City Auditor Corrie Stokes said when Council instructed auditors to perform this audit, they did not ask for recommendations on what to do next.

However, Stokes said, “This is the conclusion of this project, but we were envisioning taking a program or group of programs to look at their effectiveness.”

In response to a question from Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, Stokes said there are already audits underway related to homelessness assistance programs and workforce development contracts. There is also room for a third investigation that has not yet been designated.

Photo by John Flynn.

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