Affordable Housing in Austin- Tools to Fight Gentrification
The big issue in Austin is the cost of housing, and the fact that as Austin has become a hot spot recognized around the country, folks have been flooding in and driving up rental and purchasing costs of homes, much to the chagrin of natives, low-income groups, civil rights organizations, environmentalists- well basically everyone besides developers.
We talk and talk this issue to death, and I can't count the number of times I've heard people bash the Californians and their McMansions, but apart from some dynamic organizations like PODER or the Texas Affordable Housing Project, people don't seem to fight gentrification. It causes enormous anger, but people don't seem to know what to do about it, what tools they can use to fight it.
Austin Affordable Housing Crisis General Assembly
In light of this I'm going to advertise a meeting taking place next weekend. An apartment complex called NorthCastle is being torn down next year, to be replaced with high-priced luxury apartments and condos. A story we hear about all over the city- but it looks like folks are going to fight this one.
David Kobierowski is organizing opposition to this sale, and wants people to protest it at the Zoning and Planning Commission Meeting on October 16th at 6pm at the Austin City Hall. Next weekend, on the 6th, they'll be cohosting a meeting at Mitchie's Art Gallery, 1-3pm: "Austin Affordable Housing Crisis Grassroots Assembly."
I want to help spread the word about this, because I think it's exciting. These folks are fighting to be given basic dignity in their housing choices against developers who are tossing them out like dogs.
Austin is a wonderful place to live precisely because a wide variety of people can afford to live here without slaving themselves off to a corporation, and can carve out some sort of living as creative workers or independent proprietors. The more expensive basic needs like rent become, the harder things get for folks trying to build something singular in the world. Austin has already gone far down this path, but I think some sort of strong change in housing policy could help bring things back under control (especially as the minimum wage increases).
Now, one solution to affordable housing problems in Texas is inclusionary zoning, but you aren't likely to hear too much about it. Inclusionary zoning (IZ) means that a city requires any new development to have a certain percentage of affordable units (with the definition of affordable defined by the city). Otherwise, the developer doesn't get the permits to build.
IZ is one of the strongest possible tools for maintaining affordable housing stock in a city. Right now, Austin has a voluntary IZ policy- meaning the city gives developers tax breaks and other goodies for doing it. However, it isn't required, and that means the rate of participation is pretty low.
Now here's the thing- it is perfectly legal under Texas state law to institute a MANDATORY Inclusionary Zoning policy, meaning developers HAVE TO build affordable housing units. Austin doesn't have one yet, and I have no idea why. Maybe the developers have been strong enough to keep city councilmen from implementing it. Maybe people just don't know it's legal to do that. I certainly didn't- I contacted the City to ask this, and was told that mandatory IZ was prohibited by Texas law. This is flat wrong, and I don't know why the city told me this.
If we want real affordable housing in Austin, we need a mandatory IZ policy, at least as the first step. And it needs to be strong- 20% of a development or more, with the standards defined by the average local income.
Elizabeth Mueller at UT wrote a great analysis a few years ago about the potential of mandatory IZ in Austin, and in it she listed the steps necessary to implement it. Here they are:
1. Conduct a nexus study. For a mandatory inclusionary zoning ordinance to resist legal challenges, it must be supported by a study that documents the “nexus” of growth and affordability problems. More specifically, it must prove an historical relationship or "nexus" between: (1) the construction of higher-priced housing or commercial properties and (2) the lack of affordable housing and resulting social and economic ills.
2. Address legal issues. For an ordinance aimed at multi-family housing to withstand legal challenges, it will have to be designed to offer developers the option of not producing the units but instead contributing in other ways to housing solutions. Or it could be applied as a condition of changes in zoning, density, fee waivers, etc. requested by developers.
3. Identify strategies for increasing the supply of land for multifamily development, particularly in areas where affordable housing is scarce. Given the shortage, how might the program work with neighborhood plans to open up land for development, while addressing neighbors’ legitimate concerns?
4. Engage the Housing Authority of the City of Austin and other affordable housing producers in discussions of how they might participate in a program to ensure greater affordability. Options might include allowing partners to buy down debt on particular units, which they also manage.
5. Identify strategies for maintaining long term affordability of units produced through the program. For units not receiving other forms of subsidy, a feasible system for monitoring compliance and for penalizing non-compliance will need to be in place. This also means reaching consensus on goals for long term affordability.
6. Investigate the feasibility of various program designs, especially levels of set aside, income targeting and compensation. Develop a model able to simulate development costs and benefits, assuming no additional subsidy, under various program parameters."
So step number one, we need a nexus study. This sort of study is expensive, but well within the power of the city government to fund. Contact your Councilmembers and tell them we need a nexus study. And here is the meeting information for the Housing Crisis Grassroots Assembly one more time:
Saturday, Oct. 6th, 1:00pm-3:00pm - Austin Affordable Housing Crisis Grassroots Assembly, Mitchie's Art Gallery. Free, all are invited.
Lincoln Village Shopping Center, 6406 N. I-35
Tuesday, Oct. 16th, 6:00pm, Zoning and Platting Commission votes on whether to approve the rezoning of this project (from MF2 to MF4). Austin City Hall