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Council weighs how to boost affordable housing program under CodeNEXT

Wednesday, March 28, 2018 by Syeda Hasan

City Council is trying to figure out how the latest draft of the proposed Land Development Code, known as CodeNEXT, could shape the future of affordable housing.

At a meeting of the Housing and Planning Committee Tuesday, Council members drilled down into proposed changes to the density bonus program, one of the city’s most effective tools to create more affordable housing. The program grants developers certain privileges – like allowing them to build taller structures – in exchange for building affordable units.

Many city leaders, including Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, see an opportunity to ramp up the incentive program under CodeNEXT.

“My instinct is to broaden as much as I can,” he said, “because I think there’s going to be a longer list of things that stop a density bonus from being used than ones that will encourage a density bonus from being used.”

In other words, making the program readily available is just half the equation. The next step is getting more developers to take advantage of it.

Currently, the density bonus program can be used for proposed projects in only about 5,600 designated acres in Austin. The current draft of CodeNEXT proposes a dramatic expansion to about 30,000 acres.

Council Member Ann Kitchen says it’s important to note the difference between the capacity the city is creating for new affordable housing and the more realistic forecast of how many units will be built.

“Capacity, basically, if I’m understanding correctly, is how much you could build,” Kitchen says, “and forecast is how much you’re likely to build.”

If the program were expanded to a wider area, as the CodeNEXT draft proposes, the number of affordable units could increase from 1,500 to 6,000.

City staff also spoke about ways to encourage developers to build certain types of housing that Austin needs more of, such as two- and three-bedroom apartments. CodeNEXT consultants say some of those efforts would require the city to adopt new policies.

Council Member Alison Alter, who represents parts of Northwest Austin, noted the need to consider environmentally protected areas as part of any new policy. She said some of those areas have been identified for density bonus expansion, but they could not support new housing.

“We have the Balcones (Canyonlands) Preserve, and this really presents a misleading picture of where these opportunities are to potentially build,” Alter said, “and so we need to find a way that when we’re presenting these, that we’re taking out things like parks and preserves.”

Council is scheduled to vote on adopting CodeNEXT in June at the earliest, though some groups are calling for a delay. One coalition of neighborhood activists is petitioning to put CodeNEXT to a public vote.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Gabriel Cristóver Pérez/KUT.

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