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CodeNEXT 2.0 facilitates affordable housing, but where?

Friday, October 6, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

The Halloween deadline for CodeNEXT’s third draft recommendations is closing in for the land use commissions, and the sense of urgency that has driven the review process thus far teetered on full-blown panic at Tuesday’s joint meeting. The new land use code’s promises, like enough affordable housing to meet the Strategic Housing Blueprint’s goals, continue to be more complicated to deliver than they appear. And the more potential problems crop up, the less time there is to fix them.

At the previous joint meeting of the Planning and Zoning and Platting commissions, John Fregonese with Fregonese Associates presented calculations of future housing capacity in Austin. He predicted that the city zoned according to CodeNEXT 2.0 would make possible 72,585 more units than the current code would over the next 10 years. At the Oct. 3 meeting, Fregonese attempted to frame that capacity in terms of geographic location, specifically how many units could be built in “high opportunity” areas.

As a reference, consultants relied on a 2013 study by Green Doors and the Kirwan Institute that maps the city based on geographic markers like schools, housing, the environment and economic mobility in general. That report defines opportunity as “a situation or condition that places individuals in a position to be more likely to succeed or excel.”

The resulting map reveals a bifurcated Austin, with higher opportunities neatly sectioned off west of Interstate 35 and lower opportunities clearly in the east, with some exceptions like Mueller. Based on that data, Fregonese said that over the next 10 years CodeNEXT 2.0 could open doors to 27,845 new units in very high opportunity areas, 27,975 in high opportunity areas and 17,715 in moderate opportunity areas. Of those units, a significant amount in each category, Fregonese said, could be rented out at prices affordable to households making less than the median family income.

The premise of the 2013 study rubbed some commissioners the wrong way. Zoning and Platting Commissioner Ana Aguirre, who lives in Southeast Austin, said she did not appreciate the implication that no one from her side of town could be successful. “It seems like East Austin gets stuck with the opportunity of gentrification or displacement,” she said. “(We should be) thinking of all of Austin as being an opportunity area.”

Fregonese sympathized with Aguirre’s frustration, but he clarified that due to “historical development patterns,” a lot of investment has gone to West Austin, and the residents there benefit from it. “We’re using (the opportunity map) as a way to measure whether or not we’re putting (affordable housing) in all places,” he said. “There’s plenty of good affordable housing (slated for) East Austin in CodeNEXT, the thing that’s new is that (there will be) a bunch of affordable housing in West Austin too.”

Planning Commissioner Angela De Hoyos Hart challenged Fregonese’s characterization of the city’s history. “The historical development patterns you’re referring to are blatant racial segregation from 1928 on,” she said. “I think I’d like to see that addressed more directly.”

Planning Chair Stephen Oliver also criticized the approach, but from a different angle, pointing out that the total number of units at less than 100 percent MFI in the high to very high opportunity areas only made up 14 percent of the total housing capacity predicted over the next decade. “That’s where I think some people start to get worried about what we are delivering overall,” he said.

As an alternative, Oliver proposed drawing out a new model where more affordable (or relatively affordable) units landed in higher opportunity areas. Fregonese said he thought that was a good idea and could have it ready in a couple weeks.

Realistically, however, in order to make that happen, more tools than the proposed standardization of the current density bonus programs would be needed, and those tools are outside the purview of zoning, said Lorelei Juntunen with ECONorthwest. “Just take a tax abatement (incentive) for example,” she said. “You’re not going to put a tax abatement everywhere in the city. That would destroy your General Fund.”

Erica Leak with the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department agreed that any additional affordable housing other than what has already been proposed would have to come out of some other city budget. “You’re really talking about dollars,” she said.

After staff releases the third draft of CodeNEXT in November, land use commissioners will have until January to deliver their final recommendations on the new code to City Council.

Curious about how we got here? Check out the Austin Monitor’s CodeNEXT Timeline.

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