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HealthSouth site gets top spot in ULI affordable housing study

Wednesday, August 15, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

An analysis of some of the city’s most-prized parcels of land has found that the former HealthSouth property downtown would have the biggest impact on the local housing shortage if the property were converted to affordable housing.

The new white paper from the Urban Land Institute of Austin looked at five parcels located throughout Austin that have been identified by city staff as possible locations for affordable housing. That classification generally applies to housing stock affordable to those making 60 percent or less of an area’s median family income.

The small HealthSouth property and the 5-acre parcel generally referred to as Justin Lane and Ryan Drive near the Crestview Station were the top two properties when evaluated on a mix of eligibility for housing tax credits, food scarcity and proximity to transit and job opportunities. The other sites studied were the former Home Depot/Chrysler property off of Interstate 35, the McKalla Place parcel that is currently proposed to become the site of a soccer stadium, and the Winnebago tract in East Austin.

The white paper has been delivered to city staff involved in property redevelopment efforts to provide them more data on how the city could best use its limited resources for putting idle property into use.

Recently the Economic Development Department released a memo summarizing its “portfolio approach” to putting city property to greater use. That memo identified four properties – including the Justin Lane and Home Depot sites – as priorities for Fiscal Year 2018-19.

“The purpose of this was to get across that if you’re thinking about affordable housing, we’re showing where you can get the best bang for your buck or will have the greatest impact with regard to tax credit score criteria, nearby transportation and the availability of food,” said Paulette Gibbins, executive director of ULI Austin.

“That’s why we took the top two and looked at how much affordable housing could be created on the site. While you could put affordable housing on all these sites, if the city were to only choose two of them, those are the ones with the most impact.”

The affordability study was the result of one of three working groups ULI Austin has convened to study local issues related to real estate, with transportation and creative culture as the other areas of focus. The organization’s next white paper will look at the possibility and effects of creating a community land trust in Austin.

While Austin is estimated to be close to 60,000 affordable housing units behind the current demand, Gibbins said city properties can play an important role in meeting the need because developments on public lands can have dramatically lower property costs.

“Land prices are so high right now that it’s almost impossible to develop affordable housing because of the price of land, unless it’s extremely dense,” she said. “One of the ways to help is if the land cost is not tied into the cost of the development. If a government agency makes a piece of land available for development, then it makes it more possible by entering into an agreement with a developer with the requirement that affordable units are included.”

Mike Gerber, president of the Housing Authority of the City of Austin, said adding affordable units in the city core improves health, transit and other quality-of-life factors because rising housing costs are increasingly forcing middle- and lower-income workers to move into suburbs far away from job opportunities and other resources.

“Most estimates have us 55,000 to 60,000 units behind where we should be, and we’ll fall even further behind if we don’t pick up the pace of production of high-quality units connected to health care, job training, transportation, education and opportunity,” he said. “We need to use every resource in the city that we can to address affordability because key services are located inside the city, and when people have to move out to the suburbs that causes bad (health) outcomes.”

Amanda Masino, an assistant professor of biology at Huston-Tillotson University and a member of the ULI working group that performed research for the paper, said the population changes brought by more housing can eventually bring services and businesses to underserved areas.

“It’ll help not just the people in that affordable housing but everyone in that (census) tract, as well as those around there, because there are adjacent areas that also have low access to food,” she said, pointing to the likelihood of affordable grocery stores opting to move into an area with a surplus of potential customers.

“We’re hopeful having this kind of information that looks at the financial side in addition to the community factors will get people thinking about affordability programs at that level.”

Map courtesy of Google Maps.

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