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Monday, June 19, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

Commission pushes for more affordable large apartments to increase school enrollment

Problems are rarely solved by doing what’s typical. That was the motto steering the Planning Commission at its most recent meeting, when members chose not to accept a proposal for a multifamily development with the usual shortage of three-bedroom apartments.

Commissioners ultimately postponed the item to give the applicant time to rework the numbers with the goal of bringing more large families to a neighborhood where the schools suffer from under-enrollment.

Property owner Painter Enterprises Inc. filed the rezoning request for 3212 E. Cesar Chavez St. last year, asking for the highest-capacity multifamily zoning possible (MF-6). Nikelle Meade with Husch Blackwell LLP represented the applicant. She said that they intended to build 330 units with 4,400 square feet of retail. Out of those apartments, she said, the owner was willing to make 10 percent at 60 percent median family income or below, and three of those affordable units would be three-bedroom.

“Under MF-6 there is not a requirement,” Meade said, “but we will enter into a private restrictive covenant (with a private entity) who will administer that program, qualify the potential residents and report to the city whether we are in compliance.”

In line with state law, the city of Austin does not set affordability standards for a development or a property unless it is through something like a density bonus program or a special zoning category. “With straight zoning, you’re not supposed to have to pay to play,” said Heather Chaffin with the Planning and Zoning Department.

Speaking in opposition, Daniel Llanes, chair of the River Bluff Neighborhood Association, challenged the applicant’s claim that this project would bring families to the area. “Three apartments does not constitute supporting our schools,” he said. “The only development we are getting (in East Austin) is like this – for young professionals, for singles, or couples, not for families. It’s depleting our schools.”

According to the recently adopted Austin Independent School District Facility Master Plan update, nearby Brooke Elementary is currently at 68 percent capacity, and Martin Middle School, also in the area, is even lower at 57 percent capacity.

“I don’t know if I agree that to raise a family you have to have three bedrooms,” Meade said in response.

“I don’t think it’s so much that you can’t raise a family in one-bedrooms,” said Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza, “but we have (obtained) information from AISD about the numbers of children they get from (these types) of developments, and the numbers are very low to zero.”

AISD Board Trustee Ann Teich, who also serves as an ex officio member of the Planning Commission, said that she appreciated the advocacy of her fellow commissioners. “Realistically, we’ve had families that have already been displaced because of lakeshore developments. There have been many families from Martin (Middle School) who have had to leave the area and go to Del Valle because they were displaced out of their affordable housing.”

GFF Inc. architect Jim West said it is still very early on in the process, but he expected that market demands would put constraints on unit mix. “Ultimately when we go in, we’ll do a market study to see what can happen. We don’t know what the final number of two-bedroom or three-bedroom units is going to be,” he said.

Commissioner Karen McGraw made a motion to postpone, seconded by Commissioner Trinity White. Commissioner James Schissler noted the item had already been postponed several times and that the applicant had already been talking with the neighborhood. Therefore, he did not see the point of postponing it again, and he made a substitute motion to approve the staff recommendation.

The substitute motion failed with only six votes in the affirmative, and the original motion to postpone to the July 11 meeting passed 10-2 with commissioners Schissler and Fayez Kazi dissenting. Commissioner Angela De Hoyos Hart was absent.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

affordable housing: This general term refers to housing that is affordable to Austinites, with or without subsidy.

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

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