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Public workers are being priced out of the city. Affordable housing can’t help many of them.

Friday, September 2, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

As wages for public sector workers fail to keep pace with housing prices, some city employees have turned to income-restricted housing for relief. But because finding an affordable home and meeting the qualifications isn’t always easy, many workers are forced to pay unaffordable market-rate rents or leave the city entirely. 

Jessica Simmons has been a medic with Austin EMS for five years. Tired of working overtime to make rent, she decided to search for income-restricted housing. She found a home for purchase in Mueller, and on first blush, she qualified. But during the application process, things got complicated.

“I had to work overtime in order to afford where I was living already, so my overtime rate basically disqualified me from being able to afford affordable housing,” she said. What’s more, she couldn’t qualify for a mortgage to purchase the affordable home. 

Simmons gave up on the search and decided to live with a roommate in East Austin, near work. She regularly works 60-72 hours per week to make her $1,800 a month rent. This past week, she worked 108 hours. 

“I feel like I don’t have a real sleep schedule,” she said. Time off during busy weeks is filled with catching up on sleep, running errands and cooking. 

Another EMS medic, who agreed to speak to the Austin Monitor on condition of anonymity, said that the cost of housing is becoming too much to bear. “I don’t see being in EMS as sustainable anymore,” he said, after a failed search for affordable housing left him paying half of his income in rent.

“I don’t get out much. I don’t go experience much of the city because I just can’t afford it.” 

The experience of EMS workers exemplifies the predicament facing many working- and middle-class Austinites. While the poor have borne the brunt of rising housing costs, public sector workers are increasingly unable to find housing they can afford – income-restricted or market-rate – anywhere in Austin. 

A supply-and-demand problem

There are roughly 25,000 income-restricted affordable housing units in Austin. While many more units are in the pipeline thanks to affordable housing bonds, density bonus programs and federal tax credits, demand far exceeds supply. 

Meanwhile, cheaper market-rate units are becoming much more scarce. One data point shows that between January 2020 and January 2022, the city lost roughly 6,000 market-rate units affordable to those making 80 percent of the median family income. 

And even though Austin is building more homes than any city besides New York, supply can’t keep up with demand. “We’re not building anywhere near enough housing,” said Greg Anderson, director of community affairs for Austin Habitat for Humanity. 

What’s more, market-rate homes (especially new ones) are often too expensive for working- and middle-class Austinites. The median rent for a 1-bedroom apartment in Austin is $1,650, according to Zumper. The average sale price of a home was $633,000 in July, according to the Austin Board of Realtors

Caught in the middle

Amid the huge demand, finding and qualifying for affordable housing can be a challenging process, even with help from employers or nonprofits.

Relatively few units are available at any one time, and those who make more than the income limits – even by a bit – aren’t eligible. Affordable units also require an annual income review, meaning a pay raise may not be good news.

“Some of the things that are most troublesome to hear about right now are situations where somebody who is living in an income-qualifying rental unit has to forgo a raise or skip a promotion because they’re afraid of earning just a little bit more money,” Anderson said. In these cases, a pay raise may not be enough for people to afford market-rate housing.

This year, the median family income for a family of four in the Austin-Round Rock MSA rose from $98,900 to $110,300 – a jump of nearly 12 percent. The numbers, calculated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, determine income eligibility for affordable housing in Austin.

Most affordable housing in Austin is for those making 50-80 percent of the MFI, though some units, such as those for people experiencing homelessness, are priced at 30 percent MFI.

A chunk of the city’s workers could, in theory, qualify for affordable housing. The average starting salary this year for positions at the city of Austin (excluding public safety personnel and upper-level management) is $56,209, according to the city’s pay scale. Mid-level employees make on average $72,540. Around 17 percent of city jobs pay base salaries that are less than 50 percent of the area median income, while an additional 44 percent of jobs pay base salaries between 50 and 80 percent AMI. 

EMS workers are some of the lowest-paid city employees, with base pay for a medic starting at $42,736 for a 40-hour work week. Said Austin-Travis County EMS Association President Selena Xie, “I think it is embarrassing that people who are paid to save their lives can also be considered extremely low-income in the city of Austin.” 

Housing costs also make recruitment a challenge. “We’re the last place that (recruits) look at,” Xie said.

Many public sector workers make too much for affordable housing but too little for Austin prices. Ken Casaday, the former head of the Austin Police Association, told the Monitor that this is the case for most police officers. And even if they did qualify, he said, many would prefer to live outside the city in single-family homes instead of an apartment in Austin.

Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin, said most teachers are in the same boat. AISD had considered putting $50 million toward housing for teachers as part of its November bond package before deciding against the idea.

Zarifis argued that a relatively small number of affordable units would ultimately do little to “alleviate the pressure that is experienced by a large number of the 11,000 employees in AISD that are finding it increasingly difficult to live in this city, because it’s so damn expensive.”

It comes down to pay

The city has responded to increased cost of living with a 4-percent pay raise for all civilian employees as part of the fiscal year 2023 budget. The minimum wage for city employees will now be $20 per hour, up from the current $15.

Yesterday, City Council also approved a 1-year contract with EMS workers that would increase pay for EMTs to $22 per hour ($51,480 a year, based on a 42-hour work week). Other EMS workers will see raises ranging from 4 to 11.2 percent.

“I hope that it is a step in the right direction,” Xie said. “But it’s only a start. We see our competitors offering people $25 an hour.” 

The city originally offered a 14-cent pay increase, which “felt like a slap in the face,” Simmons said.

Teachers, for their part, are at the mercy of state government when it comes to salary increases.

While the city (and Travis County) have boosted wages, state-imposed caps on annual property tax revenue increases sharply limit the ability to fund services. 

Xie, however, thinks the revenue caps are “not the best excuse” when EMS workers in Austin still don’t make as much as those in other Texas cities.

On the housing side of things, efforts are underway, including a $350 million affordable housing bond on the November ballot. The decadelong attempt to rewrite the city’s Land Development Code, which would allow more homes to be built, failed in 2020. Since then, Council approved an update to vertical mixed-use zoning to allow more height in exchange for affordable units. Other zoning changes have been delayed.

For Simmons and other public sector workers, serving the community will continue to come at a personal cost for the foreseeable future. 

“I really love the city and working for the city and being able to live in the city, and it just sucks when I have to work so much extra overtime to be able to afford the city that I serve,” Simmons said.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license. This story has been changed since publication to clarify the raise given to city employees in this year’s budget.

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