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City failed to meet its affordable housing goals in 2020

Monday, October 4, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

Not one City Council district met its affordable housing production goals for 2020, according to the most recent annual scorecard released by nonprofit HousingWorks Austin. The report comes as soaring rents and home prices drive the need for more affordable housing in the city.

The nonprofit, in a joint press release with the city’s Housing and Planning Department, acknowledged that the city is “progressing slowly” toward meeting its goals outlined in the Austin Strategic Housing Blueprint, a 10-year plan that sets a goal of creating 60,000 units priced for those making 80 percent of the median family income or less. 

Below is a breakdown of the affordable units built in each Council district last year:

Since Council adopted the plan in 2017, 7,010 total units have been built – only 12 percent of the 10-year goal – meaning the city is nearly 11,000 units behind where it should be. 

This is the third scorecard released so far. The scorecards from 2019 and 2018 can be found here. Scorecards also include data on the units produced across different levels of affordability, showing that the city is furthest behind on units affordable to those making less than 30 percent MFI.

While the city itself produces only a fraction of all affordable housing in Austin, it plays a big role in how much affordable housing can be built. Council has purview over many policies that affect affordable housing production, such as land use regulation, and various city departments implement these policies and help decide how to spend money that goes toward affordable housing. 

Not everyone thinks the blueprint’s goals are reasonable. Council Member Alison Alter, who represents District 10 in West Austin, called the annual targets “aspirational” in a statement to the Austin Monitor. “I believe the goals for my district were never grounded in a reasonable assessment of the number of units we could create with our existing tools,” she said. 

Zero affordable units were built in Alter’s district last year, and only 24 affordable units have been built there since 2018. This puts the district at less than 1 percent of where the plan says it should be by now, though District 10 does have the second-highest annual targets out of all the districts. Districts 6 and 8 also lag similarly far behind. 

To turn this trend around, Alter suggested buying land for affordable housing, purchasing naturally affordable units to keep them affordable, and “charging higher fees on luxury developments when they ask for discretionary zoning changes.”

Only 8 percent of affordable units have been built in “high opportunity areas” in Central and West Austin, where land is expensive and largely zoned for single-family use. 

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes told the Monitor in a statement that the city should acquire new land and redevelop land it already owns “in areas of Austin where we have a record of minimal affordable unit participation to create more affordable housing.”  

“It is time for all neighborhoods in Austin to do what they can to ensure they are also meeting this moment,” said Fuentes, who represents District 2 in Southeast Austin. 

Council Member Greg Casar, who represents North Austin’s District 4, deemed the plan’s goals “reasonable and necessary.” He suggested several policies for Council to enact. “We need a transformational new housing bond program, citywide affordable housing bonus programs, and a commitment to housing on dozens more pieces of city-owned property through our existing property and Project Connect anti-displacement funds,” he said in an email.

A rewrite of the Land Development Code is still stuck in court, but the city will now get to appeal the 2020 decision that stalled the rewrite. As the Monitor reported last week, that case is set for November.

There have also been rumblings of new policies for land use and affordable housing in the absence of an LDC rewrite, though Council has yet to take up any beyond changes to the Downtown Density Bonus Program, which is in the works and likely to come before Council for final adoption by the end of the year.

In the meantime, the city will have to play catch-up under existing policies – a tall order given the lack of progress so far.

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