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Casar seeks to reduce parking, compatibility requirements for subsidized housing

Wednesday, February 6, 2019 by Jack Craver

City Council Member Greg Casar is proposing a measure aimed at maximizing the impact of low-income housing developments in Austin.

The measure, which was unveiled Tuesday and will be on Council’s agenda Feb. 21, directs city staff to craft an ordinance that will allow subsidized housing developments to forgo many of the city’s land use regulations.

The proposal targets developments where at least half of the units are restricted to those with incomes at or below 60 percent of the area median income, which is $36,120 for a single person or $51,600 for a family of four. It would also require that the developments have a certain number of units with multiple bedrooms.

In all likelihood, Casar explained, the only projects that will qualify are those being built by developers specializing in subsidized, low-income housing, including nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity and Foundation Communities along with some for-profit affordable housing developers that rely on federal tax credits to build low-income housing.

While traditional density bonuses aim to coax developers into including income-restricted units in otherwise market-rate projects, Casar’s proposal aims to remove regulatory burdens from projects that are already mostly income-restricted.

In a presentation at the Tuesday Council work session, Casar highlighted a number of recent affordable housing projects that could have provided more units if the developer had not been required to offer substantial off-street parking or to abide by compatibility requirements that limited the building’s height. Waiving those requirements would allow a significant increase in the number of affordable units at little cost to the taxpayers who are subsidizing the project, said Casar.

The idea, he said, is to “make sure we’re not getting in our own way” as the city seeks to create as much affordable housing as possible with public funds, notably the $250 million housing bond approved by voters in November.

Casar stressed that his proposal “stands alone and apart” from any future rewrite of the land development code. City Manager Spencer Cronk is expected to deliver a proposal for a code rewrite in the coming weeks.

The proposal was generally well-received by other Council members. The other three Council members who represent east side districts with high poverty rates and the largest amount of income-restricted housing are all co-sponsors, a point that was emphasized in a press release announcing the proposal.

“The move to 10-1 meant that we would do things differently, and I’m excited to join a coalition of Council members whose districts are most impacted by Austin’s affordability crisis,” said Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza in the press release.

“Austin is an intensely prosperous city, but the fruits of our local economy have not landed equitably across all our communities,” Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison said in the statement. “Part of that is due to an outdated land development code that is incapable of addressing our affordability crisis. This initiative is the kind of bold action our voters put us in office to take to protect our residents most at risk of displacement.”

The proposal was also embraced by Council members who are typically hesitant to relax development regulations or to allow increased density in single-family neighborhoods.

“I think this looks pretty good,” said Council Member Leslie Pool, who later posted a statement on the City Council Message Board stating that the city should “use our leverage for community benefit rather than on giving it away.”

Similarly, Council Member Kathie Tovo said it’s a “long-felt community imperative that we make sure that as projects are coming forward and asking for entitlements that there be substantial community benefits.”

Casar emphasized, however, that the program is aimed at maximizing the impact of heavily subsidized affordable developments, rather than extracting more affordable units from market-rate developments. It is unlikely that developers not receiving government subsidies are going to be able to turn a profit on a project where half of the units are income-restricted, no matter how many waivers the city grants, Casar explained.

“This isn’t about setting the program requirements to tempt someone (to provide affordable housing),” he said.

Photo by Lars Plougmann made available through a Creative Commons license.

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