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RECA members talk transit, land use and homelessness with other city leaders

Friday, September 13, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

Members of the city’s real estate community got a look Thursday at what is and isn’t working in similar cities across the country on three of the biggest issues facing Austin: land use, transportation and homelessness.

The panel, titled “What Can Austin Learn From Other Cities?” was part of the Real Estate Council of Austin’s annual Exchange conference and featured public policy and commerce leaders from Nashville, Minneapolis and Seattle.

With Austin’s City Council set to receive the latest maps and text revision of a new land use code next month, the discussion on what’s worked in other cities strayed into another matter that is also a major concern here – housing affordability.

Matt Wiltshire, chief strategy and intergovernmental affairs officer for Nashville’s Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency, detailed an “experiment” underway to create a prescribed mix of low-income, affordable, workforce, market-rate and federally subsidized city-owned housing units.

“What we’re really trying to do with that effort is create a demonstration that we can have successful mixed-income development,” Wiltshire said of the project that will add up to 10,000 units in six housing sites.

“It’ll take some time to achieve that, but it will be by far the largest experiment in mixed-income housing. It’s a huge challenge and there will be all kinds of unforeseen and unintended consequences, but we think it’s an extraordinarily important effort to reshape how people live in Nashville.”

Jonathan Weinhagen, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, said that city’s recent move to eliminate single-family zoning has resulted in concerns from residents that are not borne out by market behavior.

“The theory behind it is we’re going to see more dense development happening in corners all across the community,” he said. “The concern that we’re hearing from the neighborhoods is ‘I’ve got a single-family home and a triplex or multifamily development is going to go in across the street or next door.’ We need to caution folks because the market isn’t going to allow for the teardown of a half-million-dollar home to build a $2 million triplex, because the pro forma on that doesn’t work.”

Weinhagen said some policy moves haven’t worked as expected, with a recent program to incentivize higher levels of affordable housing in new developments drawing little interest and likely requiring a redesign by leaders.

On homelessness, Marilyn Strickland, president and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said cities need to start by helping the chronically homeless who are most in need of medical intervention.

From there, she said basic assistance for housing down payments or other services are often adequate to help large numbers of people move back into stable housing, though cities won’t be able to afford those steps alone.

“It is absolutely unfair to think that cities have the resources to address homelessness alone. It requires federal and state intervention and a huge infusion of dollars in mental health,” Strickland said. “Homelessness is a symptom, it is not the problem, and until we treat this as a long-term health crisis I don’t know that we’re going to make a long-term sustainable difference.”

Weinhagen said a small homeless encampment in Minneapolis exploded in size after city leaders pledged to take care of the population. The creation of a temporary navigation center – funded with large private donations – to help enroll people in assistance programs helped alleviate that situation.

Strickland said the Seattle area’s third ambitious transit proposal – a 2016 referendum totaling $54 billion – was successful in large part because of demonstrated impact and organizers relying on the demand of mostly urban voters.

“We passed two previous measures so it was something of an easier sell, and we came to the realization that if you’re going to ask voters to pay for something, they’re not going to parse tens of millions of dollars,” she said.

“They’ll either hate the idea or love the idea, so our philosophy was to go big or go home. And we went really big. You have to help people understand the vision and help people who love their car to understand, when there are fewer drivers on the road your life gets easier.”

Speaking about the recent failure of a transit proposal in the Nashville area, Wiltshire said the city’s congestion problems likely just aren’t enough of a daily nuisance for drivers.

“The honest answer is traffic in Nashville is not that bad. To Nashville natives it’s horrendous … sometimes it now takes 30 minutes to get anywhere in town.”

Photo by Jonathan Cutrer made available through a Creative Commons license.

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