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Council members push for $300M affordable housing bond

Thursday, March 29, 2018 by Jack Craver

If Austin is going to do something about its affordability crisis, many on City Council believe that it will take a massive infusion of public funds to build housing that is affordable to low-income and working-class residents.

To that end, at least two Council members have said they want to put a bond measure on the ballot this fall that will include at least $300 million for affordable housing.

That puts them at odds with a recent recommendation made by a bond task force, which proposed $161 million. Even that much lower figure would amount to nearly twice the largest housing bond that Austin voters have ever approved.

In addition to $161 million for housing, the Bond Election Advisory Task Force recommended the bond include $281 million for repairing and building city facilities, $117 million to acquire open spaces for parkland and to protect water resources, $112 million for stormwater infrastructure, and $180 million for transportation, for a total of $851 million.

The bond package recommended by the task force would lead to a roughly 2-cent city property tax increase. For comparison, a bond up to $575 million would lead to a 1-cent increase, and a bond of up to $325 million would not require a tax hike.

At a meeting of the Council Housing and Planning Committee Tuesday, housing advocates called on Council to demand more money for affordable housing, with a number citing the $300 million figure.

“$300 million or bust is what we’re here to support,” said Chas Moore, president of Austin Justice Coalition.

Kaz Wojtewicz, speaking on behalf of AURA, an urbanist advocacy group, urged Council to seize the opportunity presented by a progressive movement that has been energized in response to President Donald Trump’s election.

“Voters are increasingly turning out, and they’re motivated to do programs like this in the current climate,” he said.

Council members Greg Casar and Pio Renteria said they wanted to see $300 million for housing on the ballot.

In recent history, said Casar, voters have approved a combined $400 million for open space and parkland and six bonds worth a combined $1.3 billion for transportation. It doesn’t make sense, he suggested, that funding for those priorities has thus far dwarfed money allocated for what is arguably the city’s greatest challenge.

A $300 million housing bond would be in line with what some other major cities across the country are doing, said Casar, pointing to a $1.3 billion housing bond in Los Angeles (a city about four times the size of Austin) and a $258 million bond in Portland, Oregon, a significantly smaller city.

A large bond was necessary, argued Casar, to address “the needs of housing for homeless folks, all the way up to housing for moderate-income folks.”

“We’re forcing people out and it’s really causing a major problem here in Austin,” said Renteria. “When we’ve got 55 people coming here a day, we really need to focus on building more affordable units.”

Even some who believe that such a large figure is warranted may be dissuaded from putting it on the ballot, for fear that voters will reject it and leave the city with no additional housing dollars.

“Our number is sort of fear-based,” said Rachel Stone, who led the crafting of the housing proposal as a member of the bond task force.

In 2012, voters approved a series of bond measures aimed at parks, health care, transportation and public safety but rejected $78.5 million for affordable housing. The following year, voters approved a $65 million housing measure.

Walter Moreau, executive director of Foundation Communities, a nonprofit affordable housing developer that has depended on funding from the 2013 bond for a number of its projects, did not suggest an appropriate dollar amount but emphasized that the city’s affordable housing efforts would be in deep trouble if more bond funding isn’t approved.

“We serve 1,000 more people due to the 2013 housing bond,” he said. “If we don’t make it back to the voters in November, our programs, and a lot of programs, are going to stop.”

It’s not clear yet how other members of Council feel about the $300 million proposal. In an interview with the Austin Monitor, Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said he was concerned about any bond that would require tax increases.

“I think there are going to be a lot of different perspectives on Council in terms of the size of the bond and its makeup,” he said.

This story has been updated to correct the bond amount that would lead to a 1-cent tax increase. Photo by: Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrea A. Anderson.

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