A density bonus for affordable housing

Yesterday, Greg Casar introduced a resolution to exempt affordable housing projects from a number of Austin’s land development regulations. Specifically, it would:

waive compatibility standards for height and setbacks

increase building height to 1.25 times the current zoning district’s height entitlements

waive parking requirements

reduce front yard and rear setbacks by 50%

increase density, by 1.5 times the current zoning district’s density limits or allow six units, whichever is greater

waive maximum floor-to-area-ratio

waive the Residential Design Standards

waive common wall, roof, front porch, and other restrictions specific to duplexes

These waivers would only apply to projects where at least 50% of the units are restricted to those at 60% of the area median income. That’s $36.1k for a single person or $51.6k for a family of four.

There seems to be some confusion, among activists, journalists and even some members of Council about the intent of this resolution. For instance, Kathie Tovo and Leslie Pool highlighted the 50% affordability requirement, saying that it was about time that the city demand more of developers who are seeking entitlements.

This resolution is NOT about playing hardball with developers. It’s about helping out affordable housing builders, such as Habitat for Humanity and Foundation Communities, whose projects are already majority –– if not exclusively –– income-restricted. They don’t need incentives to provide affordable housing; that’s their raison d’être.

(An important side note: there are also for-profit developers who specialize in affordable housing. Saigebrook Development, for instance. But their developments are also based on government subsidies, most frequently the 9% and 4% federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit, which I explained yesterday.)

Casar himself explained that this program is not aimed at getting otherwise market-rate developers to start dedicating half of their projects to affordable housing. No number of waivers is going to make that profitable for them.

Much of the response to the resolution has focused on the affordability requirements that it imposes on the developers. That misses the point. What it requires is what the intended beneficiaries of the resolution are already providing.

There’s also been a lot of focus on how the new program, unlike the city’s various other density bonus programs, will apply citywide. That’s great, but I don’t believe that will make income-restricted projects in Tarrytown any more likely. The land is too damn expensive.

Now, most urbanists and housing advocates are obviously delighted by this proposal. It’s a no-brainer. But there are a couple people on that side who are justifiably concerned about how this proposal may impact the future debate about a new land development code.

The hope for land use reformers is that the new land development code will eliminate or at least substantially reduce parking requirements, compatibility regulations and the like. But if the “reformers” on Council devote significant attention now to offering those exemptions as a reward to affordable housing developers, how are they going to make the case a few months from now that we should also scrap those regulations for the big, bad, greedy market-rate developers?  I can already see Adler making some comment that preservationists will hold over his heads come the code rewrite: “We want to do something special for those special organizations that are allowing people to continue to live in this magical city.”

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