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Casar makes small changes to affordable housing resolution

Wednesday, February 20, 2019 by Jack Craver

City Council appears poised to approve a resolution aimed at easing regulations on affordable housing developers.

At a Tuesday work session, Council members offered suggestions, but not significant criticism, of the measure drafted by Council Member Greg Casar. The proposal, which Casar has dubbed “Affordability Unlocked,” would exempt subsidized housing projects from numerous development regulations, including parking requirements, compatibility and setback standards, design standards and limits on floor area ratio.

Casar clarified that he had erred in an earlier version of the resolution, which stated that affordable developments with fewer than 12 units would not have to submit site plans. The new version says that such developments would go through a “modified” site plan process, similar to the less-intense process currently in place for single-family home projects.

In a post on the City Council Message Board last week, Council Member Leslie Pool suggested a number of changes and asked for clarifications about how the proposed new rules would be applied in different situations. She wondered, for instance, how the program would relate to mixed-use developments. Would developments that are made up largely of commercial space be eligible for waivers if they include a few affordable residential units?

In response, Casar said that he had revised the resolution to specify that eligible developments could have no more than 25 percent of their space as non-residential. That would likely restrict commercial space to the ground floor. Casar noted that existing affordable housing complexes include some non-residential space, such as a computer lab, gym or recreation area on the ground floor.

Casar’s resolution states that eligible projects should not involve the demolition of existing residential developments unless the existing development is “aging and dilapidated” and the new development replaces any existing affordable units, “one for one.”

In response to a suggestion from Pool, Casar changed the wording in the resolution to guarantee not only that each affordable unit would be replaced, but that the new affordable units would include just as many bedrooms as the previous development.

Casar said that he didn’t have a specific definition of “aging and dilapidated,” but that his goal was to convey Council’s “intent” in the resolution to city staff, who will then be responsible for drafting an ordinance to that effect.

The point, Casar explained, was to allow for the necessary renovations or redevelopment of existing affordable housing projects without incentivizing their replacement with projects that include fewer units. He pointed to the renovations Council authorized last year for Rosewood Courts and Chalmers Courts, two 80-year-old affordable housing developments in East Austin.

Pool also said she would like to see more units targeting some of Austin’s poorest households: those at or below 30 percent of the area median family income ($18,100 for a single person and $25,800 for a family of four).

Many affordable housing projects are required to provide at least a quarter of their units to those households due to the 9 percent federal tax credits they receive to finance the project. However, developers who finance their projects with the less generous 4 percent tax credits are not required to offer that many deeply discounted units.

Casar said that he shared Pool’s goal of incentivizing more units affordable to those with the lowest incomes, but that he didn’t want the absence of such units to disqualify a project if it is nevertheless offering housing that is below market rate.

Casar once again stressed that, unlike traditional density bonus programs, which aim to incentivize market-rate developers to build affordable units, his measure is aimed at maximizing the impact of developments that are in most cases heavily subsidized and geared mostly or entirely toward income-restricted housing.

As Council gears up to spend the $250 million that voters approved for affordable housing in November, it’s important that the city get the most housing as possible out of those dollars, he said.

U.S. Air Force photo by John Van Winkle.

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