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Council kicks off new year with measures aimed at affordability

Friday, February 1, 2019 by Jack Craver

In its first official meeting since the election, City Council unanimously approved several measures aimed at Austin’s growing affordability crisis.

In an attempt to increase funding for affordable housing in a rapidly gentrifying part of East Austin, Council approved a change to the existing homestead preservation district, whose boundaries extend roughly between Interstate 35 to the west, Airport Boulevard to the east, Manor Road to the north and Lady Bird Lake to the south.

Although Council created the district in 2007, it was not activated until 2015. At that point, the city began setting aside 10 percent of any tax revenue resulting from property value increases after 2015. That portion of the revenue is dedicated to funding income-restricted housing in the area.

Originally, Council was planning on creating a second homestead preservation district. However, the city’s efforts to do so were stymied by Gov. Greg Abbott, who vetoed a bill in 2017 that would have allowed the city to do so.

In the absence of a second district, Council decided to increase the amount of money being set aside in the existing district. Thus, from now on, the city will set aside 20 percent of all revenue from the substantial increase in property value that has occurred since 2015.

The gentrification, said Council Member Pio Renteria, is occurring regardless. The best thing the city can do, he said, “is take advantage of the added value” to get funding for affordable housing.

Council Member Alison Alter noted that many of the tools other municipalities might use to create income-restricted housing, such as rent control, inclusionary zoning or linkage fees, are not permitted in Texas.

“We need to leverage all of the tools that we have available. We’ve been constrained in many ways,” she said. “This is one of the few ways that we have to pursue our housing goals within the confines of state law.”

Another measure that was approved directs city staff to collaborate with the Austin Independent School District to identify properties that could be used to provide “community benefits,” such as income-restricted housing, parkland, workforce development facilities, child care or environmental protection.

The resolution, which was authored by Council Member Kathie Tovo, aims to prevent either the city or the school district from simply selling vacant land to the highest bidder without first considering whether it could be used for a public purpose.

Tovo hopes not only to generate more affordable housing, but to create housing opportunities for families with children in areas of the school district facing declining enrollment. Tovo said that the city should not hesitate to demand that developers seeking zoning changes create larger units – with two or three bedrooms – near schools that are struggling to stay open.

Council Member Ann Kitchen said that it’s important for the city to align its planning efforts with the school district. The city should strive to create affordable housing in neighborhoods with schools, she said.

Another affordability issue that several Council members have highlighted recently is the shortage of affordable child care. A measure Council approved Thursday will waive the $450 annual food service fee for child care providers that have earned a four-star rating from Texas Rising Stars, a state program that rates child care facilities based on a number of metrics.

Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 4.0].

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