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Streamlined housing plan comes to Council

Wednesday, May 8, 2019 by Jo Clifton

In keeping with its commitment to increase Austin’s affordable housing stock, Council will consider an ordinance Thursday which will eliminate certain requirements that currently apply to all new housing, affordable as well as market rate.

Under a new program called Affordability Unlocked, affordable housing developments would be able to add more units by eliminating requirements under the city’s compatibility standards and parking requirements, as Lauren Avioli of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development told Council at Tuesday’s work session. In addition, the city would waive the requirement of a zoning change, if necessary.

Avioli said while this is a density bonus program, it is different from the city’s other density bonus program, which is designed for developers of market-rate housing. She said she expects this program to be used exclusively by developers of affordable housing who receive subsidies. The subsidies come primarily from the city, the federal government and from low-income housing tax credits “to produce long-term affordable units,” Avioli said.

Staff members brought forward a draft ordinance in response to Council’s February resolution seeking ways to increase the number of affordable units and more effectively use the 2018 affordable housing bond funds and other public resources.

In order to demonstrate how the program would have worked on existing developments, staff applied the rules to six affordable housing complexes.

Jobe House at East Ninth and Lydia streets offers four rental units. The lot was zoned Family Residence (SF-3), which initially prevented the addition of two new units even though there was sufficient space. In order to get the new units, developers were required to subdivide the lot, which meant that existing utility lines had to be rerouted because they would have crossed the new property lines – prohibited under the plumbing code. Staff reported that this added time and expense to the nonprofit housing provider’s project.

The Works at Pleasant Valley, which has 45 units for homeless youth and single mothers earning up to 50 percent of the median family income and 20 permanent supportive housing units, would have gained 25 additional units without compatibility requirements. “Parking requirements resulted in 45 unused spaces that could have accommodated more housing, green space, or other uses,” according to the staff presentation.

Bluebonnet Studios on South Lamar Boulevard offers 107 rental units for single adults earning 30 to 50 percent MFI and six permanent supportive housing units. Staff reported that Foundation Communities lost 42 units due to height limitations, which would not have applied under the proposed program.

Council Member Leslie Pool said she was concerned about eliminating parking for people with disabilities, but staff has a working group on that subject.

Council Member Greg Casar said he would be offering three amendments on Thursday. His first change related to proposals from the Planning Commission about screening, but he said he had asked the Law Department to let him know how that should be worded. Under the second change, Casar said he wanted to “make it really clear that co-ops can participate” in the program. Because co-ops operate differently from other forms of housing, it was not clear that they would be eligible.

His second proposal is related to small sites that are zoned multifamily, but under current compatibility regulations, multifamily units may not be built on these sites despite their zoning designation. Casar told the Austin Monitor that when the lots were initially zoned, they could have accommodated more than one unit, but over time compatibility regulations were added to the code so that is not now possible.

Council Member Kathie Tovo expressed some concerns about that proposal, indicating that she was worried there might be neighborhood sites that would be allowed to build tall multifamily structures. However, she told the Monitor after the meeting that she would have to look at Casar’s amendment before deciding whether she should be worried about it. Casar said he thought it was unlikely that a small neighborhood site would be zoned for a downtown-type building.

Tovo was also concerned about affordable housing developers qualifying for incentives under more than one program without providing additional units. She wanted to make sure that affordable housing developers provided affordable units for each of the programs under which they were claiming benefits and not count the same units for more than one program.

Photo by Jo Clifton.

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