The coming fight over East Riverside

The other day at Council something curious happened. Greg Casar was the only CM to vote against a rezoning to increase density.

Now, it was only the “first reading” of the case (you need three), so it’s very plausible that he’ll end up voting for it and there might be others who end up voting against it. But still, it’s unusual to see Casar be the one voicing concerns about upzonings and not hear a peep from the usual density skeptics (Tovo, Pool, Alter).

The project in question is a proposed redevelopment on Town Lake Circle & Elmont Drive, just north of E. Riverside.

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The proposed project is 7.6 acres and will include roughly 1,000 new apartment units, retail and open space. It is seeking a density bonus that will require a certain amount of open space and some affordable units. While some density bonuses require a certain % of affordable units, the East Riverside bonus provides the developer four square feet of additional market-rate space for every square foot of affordable space they build.

From a transportation and urban planning perspective, this is exactly the kind of place where we want a ton of new density. Not only is E. Riverside a major transportation corridor, but it’s being targeted for ambitious renovations through the 2016 transportation bond. City transportation staff hopes to make it an example of multi-modal mobility, with shared use paths, protected bike lanes, wide sidewalks, transit priority signals etc.

The problem is, there are 300 existing apartment units on the property now. The Mesh apartments aren’t exactly low-income housing, but they’re not obscenely expensive luxury units either. Right now it looks like they have 1-bedroom apartments available between $1,100- 1,700. Two-bedroom units run between $1,455-1,920.

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The Mesh Apartments

For a bit of context, $1,100/month comes out to $13,200 a year in rent. According to traditional housing standards, which state that housing costs should not be greater than 30% of one’s income, that unit would be affordable to a person or persons with an income around $45k a year. A single person with that income would be at around 75% of the area median income, while a two-person household with that income would be at around 65% of the AMI.

Meanwhile, a $1,455 rent for two bedrooms = $17,460/yr. You’d need an income of at least $58k for that to be affordable. Two parents and a kid at that income would be at 75% of the AMI, while two parents with two kids would be closer to 65% AMI.

I suspect that I’m likely underestimating the income necessary to afford these units, since I’m not taking into account utilities. It’s likely that you’d need to be at 80% MFI to comfortably afford the cheapest Mesh units. The more expensive units ($1,700/1BR or $1,900/2BR) are likely affordable to those at 100% AMI.

Anyway, the point is that these units are probably affordable to people who are making more than those who typically qualify for income-restricted rental housing (50-60% AMI). But they are nevertheless below or at the area median and face affordability challenges.

But wait, let’s not forget that undoubtedly some of the tenants aren’t making enough money to comfortably afford the rents. About 37% of Austinites are housing-burdened, which means they’re paying more than 30% of their income for housing.

And then, the bedroom count isn’t a reliable way to predict family size. A single mom may live in a one-bedroom apartment with three kids. An affluent professional might live alone in a two-bedroom apartment.

So the question is, how will the 1,000 new units that are coming compare to the ones they’re replacing? Obviously, the bulk of them will be significantly more expensive. However, because of the density bonus, a certain percentage of them will likely be cheaper than anything that’s currently on the ground –– affordable to those with incomes at 60% AMI.

So are we winning or losing in terms of affordability? On this specific property, I suppose it depends how many income-restricted units we get.

However, this development affects more than just this property. Adding a bunch of housing here –– no matter at what price point –– helps to ease the overall housing market. By putting as many people as possible near downtown, close to transit, the city is helping to prevent further sprawl. The more we sprawl, the more the poor and working class are relegated to the car-dependent outskirts, driving up the money and time they spend commuting to work. That’s without even talking about that whole environment thing.

Finally, if the city doesn’t take the density & income-restricted units now, the property will still eventually be redeveloped. If this developer can’t get the requested upzoning, it or another developer will inevitably tear down the existing apartments and replace them with luxury units. It doesn’t need a zoning change to do that.

Of course, this project is nothing compared to Project Catalyst, the 97-acre mixed-use development proposed just to the east, around E. Riverside & Pleasant Valley. That project, led by developer Presidium, is framed as a “new Domain,” and envisions 4,700 apartment units, 600 hotel rooms, 4 million square feet of office space and 435,000 square feet of retail/restaurants.

Like the Town Lake project, Project Catalyst will also come at the expense of some older apartment buildings: the Ballpark Apartments, which caters largely to students. Catalyst has become the cause celebre of Defend Our Hoodz, a small group of radicals who harass and vandalize the people and buildings they blame for gentrification on the east side. Two DOH activists were recently arrested for an alleged assault that took place during one of their protests.

So far, I haven’t seen any Council members address the DOH antics. However, they may be forced to do so when they take up the project. It will be interesting to see how the east side progressives, all of whom tend to be pro-density but are sensitive to concerns about displacement, respond not just to the buffoons in DOH, but more mainstream concerns about gentrification.

To urbanists, Catalyst offers an incredible opportunity to put more housing in the urban core and facilitate transit and walkability along a major corridor. My sense is that Pio Renteria, the CM for the area, is inclined to support it, as long as there is some affordable housing. But what about Casar? We’ll see…

UPDATE: Renteria and Casar provided a couple responses via Twitter:

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