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Planning Commission unanimously votes to recommend Strategic Housing Plan

Thursday, March 30, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

It would be a stretch to call Tuesday night’s vote a confident one, but the Planning Commission nevertheless unanimously passed a motion to recommend the Austin Strategic Housing Plan to City Council at its meeting Tuesday night.

The plan, if approved, will become an appendix of the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, providing an outline of strategies and goals to address the city’s ever-deepening affordability crisis.

Principal planner Jonathan Tomko said that the proposal is to facilitate the development of 135,000 housing units over the next 10 years, with 60,000 at 80 percent of the median family income or below, and 75,000 above. Out of the 60,000 affordable units, 7,283 can be achieved with the resources already available to the city, the plan says, but the other 52,717 would require a new policy direction.

Those numbers are “completely speculative,” said Commissioner Chito Vela. “We’re basically saying that we’re going to quintuple the number of subsidized housing units, and we have no basis in reality in saying that whatsoever,” he said.

Tomko emphasized that the plan was not advocating for only subsidized housing, but that modifying the city’s current regulations could also encourage affordable developments. “(CodeNEXT) presents a unique opportunity,” he said.

Division manager Erica Leak said that staff had calculated the goal based not just on the affordable housing gap and projected growth, but with the expectation that housing needs would compound into the future. “There was a desire to see a goal that reflected the city being able to house a greater percentage of people who would like to live in the city if they could,” she said.

Despite staff assurances, the commissioners struggled to determine whether the goal was aspirational or unrealistic.

Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza pointed out that over 10 years, the plan would provide only 22,000 units for households making less than 30 percent of the median family income, not even half of the current gap of 48,000 units for that income level. “This isn’t even really aspirational,” Zaragoza said.

Commissioner Greg Anderson made a motion to approve staff recommendation of the plan, but adding the 48,000 30 percent MFI gap to the 135,000 goal for a total of 183,000 units. Commissioner James Schissler seconded the motion.

Reluctant to alter the staff’s numbers, Commissioner Tom Nuckols warned of the legal ramifications. “Imagine Austin is a legally binding document,” he said. “How (will the higher goal) affect the (CodeNEXT) mapping that’s about to happen?”

Schissler said that Imagine Austin itself is aspirational. “We can’t force the market to adopt these strategies,” he said. “We can’t force anybody to do anything except follow the code.”

After much discussion about possible amendments, Chair Stephen Oliver suggested they reset and vote on the staff recommendation with the original numbers. After more confusion, that motion passed unanimously, with amendments added by Zaragoza to include a section on multi-bedroom housing and a section specifically about gentrification (not just displacement) as well as to break down goals not just by income level but also unit mix, and one by Nuckols to include the strategy of inclusionary zoning in homestead preservation districts since it is allowed by state law.

Photo by Garreth Wilcock made available through a Creative Commons license.

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