Monday, August 31, 2020 by Jo Clifton

Kemp Street rezoning wins first reading OK

City Council voted 7-2 Thursday, with two members abstaining, to approve a zoning change that will allow for development of some market-rate and some affordable condominium housing at 508 Kemp St. in the Montopolis neighborhood. Council members Alison Alter and Kathie Tovo voted no and Council members Leslie Pool and Ann Kitchen abstained. That vote was good enough on first reading, but the developer will need nine votes in order to get the Townhouse & Condominium Residence (SF-6) zoning needed to overcome the neighbors’ valid petition.

The developer, 360 Degrees Construction, plans to work with the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity to put approximately 33 units on the two-acre property. Of those, 17 will be sold to buyers earning between 60 and 80 percent of median family income. The remainder will be sold at market rate – at least, that’s the current plan. Staff members recommended against the zoning change because the lot is on a small internal street; however, Council did not address that issue.

When the developer’s representative, Leah Bojo of the Drenner Group, went to the Planning Commission, she told commissioners her client was willing to provide a minimum of one affordable unit at 60 percent MFI and would allow public access to the planned playscape and open space. By the time the case came to Council, the developer had talked to Habitat for Humanity and arrived at 17 affordable units. Bojo told Council Thursday her client intends to use the density bonus program Affordability Unlocked, which Council adopted to entice developers to build more affordable units. It requires 50 percent of units on a property to be affordable for those earning 80 percent MFI or less.

Some of the neighbors who spoke to Council about their opposition to the project seemed to believe that none of the units would be affordable. Erik Dillaman, who opposed a number of Montopolis neighborhood cases, told Council, “This is one of the few neighborhoods in the city that a teacher, a single father, can afford to live. … There’s this rapid attempt to rezone our whole neighborhood from single-family 3” to a higher category.

The area is within District 3, represented by Council Member Pio Renteria, who often disagrees with his sister, Susana Almanza, on issues that come before Council. So it was no surprise to hear Almanza’s voice on the phone telling Council she and the Montopolis Neighborhood Contact Team were opposed to the rezoning of the Kemp Street property as well as a number of other zoning requests. She said when the team first met with the developer’s representative, they were told there would be no affordable housing on the Kemp Street property. “We do not seek affordable housing,” she said. “We seek low-income housing.” She said they certainly did not approve of the use of what she called the Affordability Unlocked “scheme.”

However, Renteria said it was high time that Montopolis got some new housing for homeowners. While making the motion to approve the SF-6 zoning, Renteria expressed some doubt that it would have sufficient support from his fellow Council members to ultimately win final approval. He said he had told the developers in the beginning that they shouldn’t bother with the new zoning, they should just go ahead and build the units they could build on the property.

Council Member Greg Casar, a staunch advocate for affordable housing, said, “I have high hopes that the community will support” the project ultimately. He noted that the original proposal “left a lot to be desired,” but the current proposal “seems to be something that aligns with our values, so I hope that community members … can come on board.” He added, “Council Member Renteria, I rarely hope you’re wrong,” but in this case he did.

Casar said he found houses in the area selling for $400,000 to $700,000, whereas this proposal could provide for two-bedroom homes at $160,000 to $180,000. He said a single teacher could not buy a market-rate house, but would be eligible to buy one of these homes.

Council members Natasha Harper-Madison and Jimmy Flannigan also praised the project and Harper-Madison said SF-6 would provide better environmental protection than the current zoning.

The two Council members who abstained and the two who voted against the project did not say that they were unalterably opposed to it, but each seemed to be hoping for more proof that the project would be as good as its representative claimed and that at least some of the neighbors could be persuaded not to oppose it.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

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