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Affordable housing complex competes for space with a church in Payton Gin zoning change

Wednesday, May 22, 2024 by Elizabeth Pagano

Planning Commission members have embraced an affordable housing project in North Austin despite concerns from the church it will replace.

Developers plan to build a 100 percent affordable, six-story, 192-unit apartment complex at 1706 Payton Gin Road using the city’s Affordability Unlocked program. In return for the development incentives offered through the program, the project promises 27 one-bedroom units, 88 two-bedroom units and 77 three-bedroom units. In terms of affordability, at least 20 percent of those units will rent to households at or below 50 percent of the median family income (MFI) and at least half will be offered at or below 60 percent MFI for at least 40 years. In order to do that, they are seeking a zoning change from Neighborhood Commercial (LR) to Community Commercial (GR).

In addition to getting the support of city staff, planning commissioners voted unanimously to recommend the rezoning to City Council, with Commissioner Alberta Phillips abstaining. 

Jackson Walker attorney Henry Gilmore represented the applicants, stressing the ideal location of the apartments, which will be within walking distance of schools, parks and bus lines in addition to being located on a major corridor.

“I don’t need to tell you that we need affordable housing. You hear about it every day,” Gilmore said. “Council is bending over backwards to incentivize the development of more affordable housing. This is an opportunity to provide 192 affordable units in one swap.”

Felix Ramirez, who is the pastor of Austin Brethren Church, asked that commissioners not grant the zoning change, stressing the need for churches in the neighborhood.

“I’m here because we want to stay in that area. I understand that apartments are necessary,” Ramirez said. “But we need to be in equilibrium (in terms of) housing necessity and spiritual necessity. … Profits that come from tearing down a house of God are not a blessing.”

Gilmore explained that Austin Brethren’s two-year lease is expiring April 2025, or earlier if the owners work out an early-termination proposal. He said that there were “plenty of spaces” for the church to move. In addition, he explained, the owners were working with the church, showing them different sites where they could consider relocating. The church signed a lease one year ago, though the site has functioned as a church since 1970.

“A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, I sat where you sit. I used to be on the Planning Commission, and having to choose between affordable housing and church would make me uncomfortable,” Gilmore said. “But the good news is that is really not the choice. The church is on a lease. It’s not there permanently. It never was intended to be there permanently.

“Virtually every zoning district in Austin allows religious assembly,” Gilmore said. “I myself attend a home church. … Before we moved to the pastor’s home, we met the community room of a nearby apartment complex.”

Commissioner Danielle Skidmore spoke in favor of the rezoning.

“We have an opportunity to build deeply affordable housing on a transit corridor, near schools, and to take property that, while it is home to a church, is really underutilized,” Skidmore said. “I’m happy to see it move forward.”

Commissioner Grayson Cox spoke in favor of the added affordable housing, though he encouraged the developers to maintain some community space that would be available to the entire neighborhood, not just residents. Currently, there is both soccer and basketball for the community on the lot.

Phillips also praised the opportunity to build affordable housing, though she questioned the trade-off. 

“We also are facing a displacement in the city of Austin of churches, and particularly churches in communities of color. They are being bought up and then the spaces are being renovated and then the churches are having to move farther and farther away from the communities they serve,” Phillips said. “At some point we’re going to have to talk about balance. … I don’t know that you could put a value on what church and community space brings to a community. It might be priceless.”

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