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Commissioners Court punts on affordable housing project

Wednesday, May 1, 2019 by Jack Craver

The Travis County Commissioners Court declined to take action on a proposed affordable housing project in eastern Travis County Tuesday. County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said the court would take up the matter at next week’s meeting, without hinting at how the court would act.

The proposed 262-unit project at 9000 Decker Lane, called Decker Lofts, is seeking non-competitive 4 percent federal low-income housing tax credits. It is pursuing the project with the Strategic Housing Finance Corporation of Travis County and requires a resolution of “no objection” from the Commissioners Court.

The project was not recommended by the county’s Community Development Block Grant staff, which cited concerns about a concentration of low-income housing in the area. Thirty-six percent of the housing units on the affected census tract are funded by low-income housing tax credits and the proportion would increase to over 50 percent if Decker Lofts is approved.

In hopes of facilitating economic integration, in recent years local housing advocates have placed an emphasis on getting more income-restricted housing into “high-opportunity areas,” characterized by higher incomes, better schools and convenient access to public transit and other amenities such as grocery stores, day cares and parks.

Michele Haussmann, an agent for the developer, NRP Group, reminded the commissioners of the county’s affordable housing crisis. City Council, she pointed out, has called for the creation of 60,000 new units between 2017 and 2027 that will be affordable to households at or below 80 percent of the area median income.

The project is right outside city limits, she noted.

The shortage of affordable housing is particularly severe for families in need of more than two bedrooms. Half of the units included in the proposed project will be three or four bedrooms, Haussmann said.

Daniel Markson, executive vice president of development for NRP, highlighted other unique characteristics of the project. Notably, it will feature units affordable to a wide range of income levels, from 40 percent to 100 percent of the AMI. The inclusion of “market-rate” units helps to promote income diversity and allows the developer to provide some of the cheaper units, he said.

Markson also touted the services offered on-site, including after-school and summer programming for children. The properties operate on a “homework-first” mentality; kids get right off the school bus and go straight to the on-site activity center to do schoolwork, he said.

Services for adults include a seven-week financial literacy course aimed at “eviction prevention” and a 10-week parenting course “to assist with (Child Protective Services) resolution or other parenting concerns,” according to a staff memo.

Commissioner Jeff Travillion, in whose district the site is located, said that while the area might be “low-opportunity” currently, it’s only a matter of time before the wealth that has reshaped much of East Austin arrives and prices out current residents.

If the county doesn’t move aggressively to put in place affordable housing, “We will ultimately be saving it to be gentrified,” said Travillion. “Which is what we’ve done all across East Austin for the last 25 years, which is criminal.”

In the memo explaining their recommendation, staffers noted that the nearby Colony Park development would result in more access to “jobs, retail and transit” in the coming years.

Commissioner Brigid Shea was interested to know what the eviction rate is at the developer’s existing affordable property in Austin, the Terraces at Walnut Creek. There haven’t been any tenants kicked out in its first year and a half of operation, company officials said.

Map courtesy of Google Maps.

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