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Panelists debate potential housing supply impacts from HOME initiative

Monday, November 6, 2023 by Chad Swiatecki

Advocates for more housing options in Austin see hope in recently passed changes in city land use policy intended to increase density, but still hope for more progress in increasing the overall supply of housing available for middle- and lower-income residents. Last week’s A Home for Everyone panel discussion brought together leaders from a variety of stakeholder groups to discuss the impacts of the Home Options for Middle-Income Empowerment (HOME) initiative, which was approved by City Council in July.

The two main impacts of that resolution are a reduction in the city’s minimum lot size to construct smaller housing units, and automatically allowing three housing units per lot to reduce the time and expense to add more units to an existing home.

Among the panelists was Selena Xie, president of the Austin EMS Association, who said housing insecurity caused by high costs impacts her organization’s members’ ability to find housing as well as the health of patients needing emergency care.

“A lot of our patients, their housing insecurity drives a lot of their medical issues because they have more anxiety. They’re not able to keep all their medications in the same place. They’re not able to really keep all their doctor’s appointments straight when they can barely afford to barely make sure they have a roof over their head, sleeping on different people’s couches,” she said.

Xie said housing difficulties continue to impact recruitment for more EMS workers, despite a pay increase included in the new contract that went into effect last month.

Training classes that normally included 30 potential new hires routinely are half full now, with many applicants losing interest when they look at the cost of housing in Austin. Xie said homeownership is possible for only 10 percent of her members. Among the proposed remedies, Xie would like to explore designated housing options for public employees.

“I think about having housing that’s specifically blocked off for city employees and teachers and other types of essential workers, and think about if you build an apartment complex. … You can kind of tag some housing for those city employees or teachers or nurses, other essential workers,” she said. “There are other places that are deeply unaffordable, like Los Angeles and some other places, where they actually have dorms for their cadets.”

The forum was organized to bring together experts in housing needs from a number of disciplines to discuss the specific terms of the Council resolution and how it can help address the city’s growing housing crunch, Council Member Leslie Pool said. Pool, who sponsored the resolution, said the intent was to help existing homeowners add housing to their own lots to bring in more income and prevent displacement while also adding modest supply.

“I’m talking about people who own a home, who – if it were cheaper for them – would add a unit on their property. Now, there’s a lot of time and money involved in getting approvals to put that second unit on your property,” she said. “We do control kind of what it looks like and what the process is in order to get approvals, the permits to build, so what if we reduce those costs and the amount of time? Would that make it financially within reach for a middle-income property owner to finally decide to go ahead and pull the trigger and take out the loan in order to build an (accessory dwelling unit)?”

Clare Losey, housing economist for the Austin Board of Realtors, said the impacts of the HOME initiative may be slow to take hold – while higher interest rates are slowing new construction locally. But she said Austin has long needed to add density to meet the steady demand caused by new residents.

“The aim is to facilitate greater density housing, which – all else being equal – should put downward pressure on home prices,” she said. “It should facilitate more supply of housing and should also enable more affordable housing. It’s a supply-side measure as opposed to many of the demand-side measures that are popular like mortgage assistance or down payment assistance.”

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