Affordable housing is the magic word

My colleague Jo Clifton put it well in a recent article about a proposed zoning change to allow a proposed multi-family development in North Central Austin from 220 units to 258 units.

The developer’s representative, Alice Glasco, said the magic words – affordable housing – so regardless of neighborhood objections, Council will likely grant a minimal zoning change when the matter comes back to Council at the end of September.

What this development has going for it is that the majority of the 258 units will be income-restricted. It’s rare to get a deal that good.

A more typical situation might have been a development of this size that is offering 10% affordable units. In that case, certain Council members would have found the opposition from the neighborhood association far more persuasive. Some or all of the liberal Council members who are sensitive to neighborhood character concerns –– Leslie Pool, Kathie Tovo, Alison Alter, Ora Houston, Ann Kitchen –– would have very likely been opposed.

And therein lies the debate over housing. While there is a broad political consensus in Austin in favor of allowing additional density when it is accompanied by a significant  amount of income-restricted housing, development becomes much more controversial when most or all of the housing is not specifically targeting low-income residents. There are far fewer buyers of the arguments that new market-rate apartments provide an opportunity for middle-income people to live in expensive areas or that increased density helps facilitate transit and reduce sprawl.

There have been a couple decent points in response on Twitter:

I agree that the neighborhood association neighborhood plan contact team contesting this zoning change has nowhere near the influence as the Central Austin neighborhood groups. In contrast to the typical zoning battle, in this case the small minority of single-family homeowners in the area is complaining that the new development will further entrench the neighborhood’s rental-dominated character. That argument appears to have less sway than the usual complaint that a new development will change the a neighborhood’s single-family home character.

I do not agree with the framing of this area of town as low-opportunity. Unless population growth trends or the real estate market change, it won’t be “low-opportunity” for long. It’s just a whisker north of 183. All of the signs of blight that people could recite about this neighborhood echo would people were saying not too long ago about neighborhoods in Central East Austin where houses are now selling for a half-a-mil. These are the types of areas where we should get as much low-income housing as possible while the land is still relatively cheap. Doing so will lay the foundation for a mixed-income community in the future.

True, the street grid in this particular neighborhood is super fucked up, which makes it inhospitable to good transit. But I wonder if the sea of warehouses between this property and Lamar could one day be redeveloped into something a little more interesting … grocery/retail/entertainment/apartments.

Correction: This post has been updated for a couple reasons. The original suggested that the zoning change allowed a 238-unit building to be constructed, while in fact 220 units were already allowed under the current zoning. The new zoning will allow the addition of 38 more units, for a total of 258. Also, it was the North Lamar Contact Team opposed to the change, not the Georgian Acres Neighborhood Association. 

6 thoughts on “Affordable housing is the magic word

  1. Exception might prove the rule. I wonder, though, about this: “development becomes much more controversial when most or all of the housing is not specifically targeting low-income residents.” You could delete that “not” and the statement becomes equally — if not more — true. I’ve seen several proposals (including one in my own neighborhood a few years ago) vigorously rejected because “we’ve got enough low-rent apartments here,” etc. In my experience, NAs dominated by single-family homeowners react pretty much the same to any multi-family infill.

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    1. That’s true, and in fact the neighbors in this case are making that argument. But the argument is not resonating with Council members. I haven’t seen too many instances of the classic anti-low income housing NIMBYism during my time in Austin. I think that’s because there just aren’t that many instances of significant low-income housing being proposed in affluent areas.

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  2. I don’t think that’s necessarily quite the right framing on low opportunity. We shouldn’t be building affordable housing for families with kids there now. The schools will still suck for a decade or more (schools are the last thing to change in a gentrifying neighborhood). But this is the kind of neighborhood that probably should have affordable housing for small households, instead of the much-touted “family-friendly” affordable housing many on council claim to desire. Once UT comes out with its gentrification study, I bet this will be identified as susceptible or in early stages of gentrification.

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  3. A correction should be made here.
    The local neighborhood association, the Georgian Acres NA or GANA, has not made a statement on the development referenced, opposed or otherwise.

    The local North Lamar Contact Team did however vote to oppose the neighborhood plan amendment and FLUM change that would accommodate the zoning change and in turn the additional 38 units. As are many of us, I am a voting member of both organizations and additionally an officer in the NA.
    As has been stated, developer JCI can currently develope 220 units by right.

    The plan JCI proposed to the community and the contact team did not include the now proposed relationship with HACA or the 100% affordability at 60% of MFI.
    So with exception of a select few, this proposal has never been presented to the community at large.
    I know of no one in either organization opposed to affordability, indeed we supply a large amount of the affordability left in the city. There are however legitimate concerns surrounding this development given the current conditions on the ground in this particular portion of our neighborhood.
    I do not think it would be fair to compare the Georgian Acres NA to any other NA in the city. The proposal by JCI is being carefully considered as it developes because it has certainly changed.
    Rodney Thrailkill
    GANA VP

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