Thursday, May 9, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Affordability Unlocked gets ZAP approval, with concerns

With a $250 million bond geared toward affordable housing, a goal to preserve 10,000 affordable units over the next 10 years and a City Council resolution seeking ways to increase the number of affordable units, city staff members brought forward a draft ordinance outlining plans for increasing the quantity of affordable housing within the city.

Dubbed Affordability Unlocked, the program would allow affordable housing developments to add more units by eliminating requirements under the city’s compatibility standards and parking requirements.

Both the Zoning and Platting Commission and City Council listened to a presentation on the draft ordinance at their May 7 meetings. Like Council, ZAP viewed the proposed ordinance favorably and voted 8-1 to recommend the ordinance with two amendments. In its vote, the commission advised Council to amend the ordinance at its meeting this Thursday to include more housing for residents with disabilities and to remove commercial-liquor sales zoning from the list of qualifying development sites.

Chair Jolene Kiolbassa voted against the recommendation.

Kiolbassa qualified her nay vote by saying, “I feel like there are too many loopholes in this ordinance. I know their intent is good … but when I start reading the ordinance I just see problems.”

Although they voted in the affirmative, the other commissioners too found issues with the plan, especially when it came to how it will coexist with the Land Development Code rewrite.

Commissioner David King said it is necessary to compare the proposal with today’s code as well as the future rewrite of the city’s Land Development Code.

Lauren Avioli of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development explained that if and when a new Land Development Code is approved, city staff would need to update Affordability Unlocked with the right references.

Another point of concern was the reduction in parking requirements. Even with parking requirement reductions, off-street parking of at least one ADA van-accessible space is required under the new draft code. However, there is an option to waive that requirement for a fee-in-lieu. The actual amount of the fee remains to be determined, according to Avioli.

The commissioners voiced their concern that allowing for such little parking would limit who could be a tenant in these affordable complexes.

“Just because you’re not making a lot of money doesn’t mean that you don’t need a vehicle in this city to get somewhere,” said Commissioner Jim Duncan. Duncan said accessible parking is critical, especially for disabled tenants. “I focused on the parking … because I’m the only one that has a blue placard and realizes how important it is!”

Accessible parking under the draft ordinance is defined as being within 200 feet of the qualifying development. However, Commissioner Ann Denkler noted that 200 feet could vary vastly depending on the topography of the site. Kiolbassa too thought that having an accessible distance almost the length of a football field was “a little crazy.”

Still, even with the revisions that the commission suggested, there was overall positive support for the ordinance. Updating the code to increase the number of affordable housing units within the city “is an absolute no-brainer,” according to Commissioner Abigail Tatkow.

This program will differ from the city’s other density bonus program because it is designed for developers of affordable housing who receive subsidies rather than developers of market-rate housing. The underlying idea is to create “long-term affordable housing,” according to Avioli.

While the commissioners generally agreed with the goals of the ordinance, they spent a significant amount of time proposing amendments to eliminate building in flood plains, strike the parking waiver option, limit occupancy in single-family zoned lots, and recommend that parking be reduced but not eliminated. None of the amendments passed.

“We’ve got regulations out the kazoo that address everything,” said Commissioner Bruce Evans. “Let’s not water this thing down.”

Affordability Unlocked will proceed to City Council for consideration today. Commissioner Nadia Barrera-Ramirez was absent from the discussion.

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City of Austin Zoning and Platting Commission: The City of Austin's Zoning and Platting Commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

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