Friday, May 10, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Council passes affordable housing density bonus program

In keeping with its previous support of Council Member Greg Casar’s proposed density bonus program, City Council unanimously approved the Affordability Unlocked bonus program Thursday evening, an ordinance amending city code by loosening site restrictions and promoting construction of more units in affordable and mixed-income housing developments.

The program applies to developments without more than a quarter of space dedicated to commercial use in all base commercial and residential zoning districts as well as most special use zoning and overlay districts.

To participate in the program, developers must meet several baseline affordability criteria beyond the primary requirement that at least 50 percent of all units are income-restricted (defined as 60 percent median family income or below for rental units and 80 percent MFI for ownership developments).

Applicants meeting those baseline criteria and offering even more deeply affordable units and bedrooms under the ordinance’s Type 2 requirements will have the opportunity to earn additional site privileges.

In single-family residential zones (SF-4A and SF-4B), for example, qualifying applicants will be able to build up to 125 percent of its base zoning district height limit and include a total of six units while Type 2 applicants may go up to 150 percent of the height limit and build up to eight units per lot.

Casar also brought forth amendments to reduce minimum lot sizes for qualifying developments to 2,500 square feet and 25 feet wide, increase required accessible parking spaces to match the current code, include a site screening process for developments higher than three stories, and waive compatibility standards (not base zoning standards) related to height and setbacks, with the exception of side setbacks.

The ordinance states that all rental units must be preserved at those affordable rates for at least 40 years and possibly more if the city’s affordable housing funding policies are updated at some future date. Owner-occupied units will be held at affordable rates for a minimum of 99 years.

It also creates barriers to developments that may wish to replace existing multifamily units with new projects to take advantage of the ordinance.

To prevent any loss in affordable housing, developers would need to provide at least as many affordable units (accessible to families earning 80 percent MFI or below) with at least as many bedrooms as the building being replaced.

Additionally, the ordinance requires developers to prove that a property is essentially beyond repair, with rehabilitation costing more than 50 percent of its market value, in order to gain the right to demolish and rebuild on the site.

Though he was generally in support of the code changes, former city employee Stuart Harry Hersh said this specific requirement essentially rewards “slumlords” by making it easier to demolish poorly maintained properties and rebuild on the sites. The ordinance language, he said, makes it so you can rebuild with more affordable units “if you’ve let your property run down, but you can’t do that if you’ve been properly maintaining it.”

The ordinance was almost held up on an amendment crafted by Council Member Leslie Pool that aimed to make cooperative housing structures eligible for participation in the program. Pool’s language proposed including housing structures with “seven or more unrelated individuals who share amenities,” but Council members Kathie Tovo and Alison Alter were concerned that language could be construed to apply to “stealth dorms” and other housing types that resemble cooperatives.

“This city spent years, several years at least, trying to figure out how to stem the tide of what came to be called high-occupancy housing,” Tovo said. “The only mechanism that was determined to be able to try to discourage that particular kind of development was occupancy limits, which we’re waiving here.”

After consulting staff in a brief executive session, however, Council was able to move on with Pool’s language included.

The ordinance passed by unanimous vote.

“I know many of us have gone through lots of painful affordable housing zoning cases and my hope is that by this change toward more inclusion we will see way, way fewer of those and just help people that are trying to do the right thing by housing low-income people,” Casar said.

This story has been corrected. Mayor Steve Adler was present for the final vote.

Photo by Staff Sgt. Sheila deVera.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

affordable housing: This general term refers to housing that is affordable to Austinites, with or without subsidy.

Council Member Greg Casar

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