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Friday, August 25, 2017 by Jack Craver

Council considers new affordable housing app

As Austin faces a dire shortage of housing for its poor and working-class population, City Council is looking for every way to get developers to build units that rent at well below market rate.

In many cases, developers offer to provide affordable units in exchange for entitlements that Council would otherwise be reluctant to grant, such as increased density or exemptions from certain fees or regulations.

But how does the city ensure that the units the developer promised actually materialize, that they are in fact only available to those of certain income levels and that market rate rent is not being charged?

Austin’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department, the agency that oversees the city’s 6,200 income-restricted units, tries to supervise as best as it can, explained the department’s interim director, Rosie Truelove, during a meeting of the Council Housing and Planning Committee on Tuesday.

But without more staffing or better technology, the city’s ability to monitor affordable units is limited. Currently, the city pays a contractor, Blueprint Housing Solutions, $56,500 a year to verify rents, but it only checks in on about 10 percent of the overall units.

There’s “definitely room for improvement,” said Truelove.

The department is pushing to integrate its inventory with the existing AMANDA platform that the Development Services Department uses to track permits. It estimates that will cost about $150,000. It estimated it would take another $24,000 to makes further changes to AMANDA to “improve tracking and enforcement” of affordability restrictions.

Another problem is the lack of marketing of affordable units. Council Member Greg Casar said that he worried that the existing stock of income-restricted housing might be going to those whose incomes might qualify them but who might otherwise not be in the greatest need. He suggested partnering with nonprofits to engage in “affirmative marketing.”

On that front, the city is hoping to get an assist from its own formidable tech sector. Short of packing up and leaving, tech companies likely can’t undo the impact they’ve had on the cost of Austin housing, but they may be able to help the city find housing for those who aren’t making tech-level wages.

On Tuesday, representatives from Austin CityUP, a one-year-old consortium of 70 local companies whose stated goal is to “advance Austin through digital technologies, data collection, analytics, and modeling,” told Council members that the organization wants to help the city develop an app that people can use to search for income-restricted units.

“There is no single, comprehensive list of affordable housing in Austin,” said Ron Baker, an IBM engineer and co-chair of Austin CityUP’s housing committee.

The organization is looking to the city to assemble and provide data that it can put in the app, Baker said.

Furthermore, he said, Austin would be able to benefit from a cloud-based service if it could find other cities to participate and share the cost, which he estimated would run between $5,000 and $10,000 a month.

To get the process started, said Baker, the city would likely have to chip in $20,000 to kick-start the design phase and then $100,000 to actually develop the system.

Casar said that he and Council Member Alison Alter plan to propose funding for both the internal improvements and the development of the search app in the upcoming budget.

“We need to get the ball rolling,” he said.

This story has been corrected to reflect that Council has discussed the Austin CityUP proposal. An earlier version of this story indicated that it had not.

Photo by Kenneth Allen [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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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.

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

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