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Experiment in car-free housing pays off for East Austin project

Wednesday, January 26, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

Can car-free housing work in Austin? If a proposed project in East Austin is any indication, the answer is yes. 

Those willing to ditch their cars have lined up to buy a unit in the Ivory, a mostly income-restricted project at 1309 Chicon St. Though construction is not yet underway, all but five of the building’s 40 affordable units have buyers, and nearly 300 people are vying for the 13 market-rate units, according to the developer.

“We have everything from workers in a coffee shop that are buying units to single moms with two kids that want a two-bedroom unit and elderly people as well,” said Sean Garretson, board president of the Chestnut Neighborhood Revitalization Corporation, in a presentation to the city’s Mobility Committee last Thursday. The community development organization is in charge of the project and has built dozens of affordable homes in the neighborhood.

With the Ivory, Garretson aims to make car-free housing work in a city that, by some measures, is the fifth most car-dependent in the country, according to the 2019 American Community Survey. “Most people thought I was pretty crazy,” Garretson said. “Perhaps I am to some degree.” 

Garretson said that car-free living, in addition to being environmentally friendly, is attractive because it saves money. According to AAA, a new car costs nearly $10,000 per year on average with fuel, maintenance and other expenses factored in. 

To make car-free living easier, the Ivory will include amenities including an e-bike from local outfit Mod Bikes for each unit, an e-bike charging room, a B-Cycle bike-share station, and a spruced-up bus stop adjacent to the building. It also includes a car-share program that residents can use to take longer trips. 

A project without parking on this site is only possible because of Affordability Unlocked, a development incentive program approved by City Council in 2019. The program allows denser housing and waives or relaxes regulations like parking requirements if some units are set aside for income-restricted housing. Garretson called the program a “game changer” – without it, he would have only built 15 total units and six affordable units due to development restrictions and parking requirements.

The project also received a public subsidy from the city’s 2012 affordable housing bond to buy the land, which makes the large number of affordable units pencil out. Subsidized units start at $​​147,000. Market-rate units start at $220,000. The building will contain a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom units in addition to three affordable commercial spaces for local small businesses.

The Ivory may only be the second car-free multifamily housing project in Austin. The first, a project in Northwest Downtown called Capitol Quarters, is scheduled to be finished in late February. If these guinea pigs prove successful, more projects like them are bound to pop up, especially as the city builds its planned transit, bike and pedestrian infrastructure in the coming years. “The success of projects like ours … is largely dependent on the success of overall connectivity,” Garretson said.

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