We are entering the season of looking back at the happenings of the year. In that spirit the Independent is going to look at some of the Austin City Council’s accomplishments as discussed by Mayor Steve Adler in his August 30 State of the City speech. At the time the media zoomed in on a section of Adler’s speech in which he lashed out about alleged dishonest discourse by some of his critics. Although Adler didn’t mention any names it was clear that he was referring to Save Austin Now, this being during the run-up to the Prop A election on police staffing.
Largely ignored by the media was a section of the Mayor’s speech in which he detailed a number of Council accomplishments on issues other than public safety. Such Council efforts tend to receive less media coverage, including in this publication, than their more spectacular misadventures — such as on homelessness, defunding the police, and the Land Development Code (LDC) rewrite. So in the holiday spirit and a spirit of fairness let’s take a look at the Mayor’s list.
He listed the City’s performance on COVID (and how it was more successful than that of the State), affordable housing, transportation, and Barton Springs. For the purposes of space and because, as the Independent goes to press, the Council is convening a work session dedicated exclusively to affordable housing, I am breaking this into two pieces — with today’s installment dedicated to affordable housing.
In his August 30 speech Adler said, “Tens of millions of dollars have been devoted to creating thousands of units of deeply affordable and permanent supportive housing units, many already on the ground and 15,667 others, planned and under development will soon appear on properties such as the St. John’s and Ryan Drive sites.”
Indeed the 10-1 Councils have been very active on affordable housing and there have been successes. This is one area, however, where their rhetoric exceeds the impact they have actually made. For example a recent scorecard from the nonprofit group HousingWorks Austin found that none of the ten Council Districts are meeting affordable housing goals that the Council themselves set, back in 2017. As first reported in the Austin Monitor, District 1 in central and northeast Austin (represented by Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper Madison) did come very close at 98%. District 3 (Pio Renteria) in lower East, and parts of near Southeast South Central Austin was second with 78%. Third was District 2, represented by Council rookie Vanessa Fuentes and formerly by Delia Garza, with 63%. Probably not coincidentally these three districts are among those with the lowest land prices in the City, although land prices there are increasing like everywhere else, in some cases faster. The exception to the above pattern, however, is District 4 in the Rundberg/North Lamar area and also parts of northeast Austin near IH 35 and Cameron Road. District 4, represented by Greg Casar, only met 29% of its goal. That was the case even though the goal for District 4 was less than half that of both District 1 and District 3.
Central Austin Districts 9 and 7 (which also reaches north beyond central Austin), represented by Kathie Tovo and Leslie Pool came in at 50% and 45% respectively. Suburban Southwest District 8 (Paige Ellis) hit only 13% with suburban northwest District 6 (rookie MacKenzie Kelly) just behind at 12%. The remaining two Districts, meandering South Austin District 5, represented by Ann Kitchen, and West Austin District 10 (Alison Alter) each came in at 0%.
While Council Members with the highest percentages likely deserve some credit, it should also be noted that many of the factors influencing affordable housing are beyond the Council’s control. That was a point made by Walter Moreau of Foundation Communities, a successful affordable housing developer, in a recent CBS Austin report. (That report was on local affordable housing more broadly and not specifically on the Council goals by District.)
Moreau told CBS Austin that only one of the three core components of building affordable housing is at all under City control.“The biggest challenge we have with affordable housing in Austin is we’re just so popular, said Moreau. “People keep moving here.” He added, “I think our biggest challenge, really, is just supply and demand. The demand for affordable housing because of all of the people moving here has just made it really tight on the supply side.” Moreau further emphasized that major factors affecting the supply of affordable housing are outside the City’s control: “One way to think of the cost of housing is that it’s land plus labor and materials to build plus the cost of financing plus whatever profit margin is there. The city has a big influence on some pieces there – certainly on what you can build on a piece of land in terms of zoning and density. The city doesn’t have a lot of control over the cost of construction these days, labor and materials. That’s a challenge.”
Council Member Alter made a similar point in relation to the affordable housing goals by Council District. She told the Austin Monitor that the goals are “aspirational” and added, “I believe the goals for my district were never grounded in a reasonable assessment of the number of units we could create with our existing tools.”
Casar fired back that the goals are “reasonable and necessary.” That is consistent because from the start Casar has been the Council leader in making dramatic claims on how much the Council can achieve on affordable housing, and, to his credit, he has tried to back that up with programatic ideas. Clearly, however, those ideas are not yet bearing fruit to the extent he or his allies planned or claimed they would — including in his own district.
Also, the Mayor, Casar, Harper Madison and Delia Garza repeatedly claimed that their proposed Land Development Code (LDC) rewrite would result in dramatic increases in affordable housing, and thus they maintain that the failure of the LDC to pass hampered affordable housing development. The core element of the LDC rewrite, however, was to allow developers to build four to six units per lot (depending on the area) on existing single family properties in central city neighborhoods. “Affordable” units only entered the mix as “bonus” units after the four to six units were built. Thus, it remains difficult to understand how the LDC would have brought more affordable housing.
A Rookie Council Member Tackles the Challenge
Rookie Council Member Vanessa Fuentes has noted the lack of City success on affordable housing compared to the scale of the problem. She was a leader in bringing about the Council work session on affordable housing. That November 30 work session was getting underway as the Independent went to press. Fuentes deserves credit for trying to increase focus on the problem. She does arrive, however, with one rookie misconception, calling for the building of affordable housing on existing City land. While that might be possible in some cases Fuentes is far from the first to have that idea. It traditionally turns out that the City is not sitting on as much surplus land as new Council Members think. Plus, unused City land was usually purchased for a legitimate City need in the not so distant future. In an approach that could possibly bear more fruit, Fuentes called for a frank conversation with developers on what it would take to get them to build more affordable housing. That could be a very important conversation, depending on how Fuentes approaches it. The downside would be if Fuentes just accepts developer rhetoric. If, however, she drills down more deeply that could potentially be productive, or at least revealing.
This could also provide clues as to Fuentes’ position on the LDC. She refused to answer specific questions about her position during her campaign and succeeded in getting through it without taking a position.
Heading into the work session, Mayor Adler and Council Member Alter jointly developed an approach that could potentially lead to a faster pace of building affordable housing. The idea is to allow the building of housing in areas that are currently zoned commercial and don’t allow housing. Under the proposal such areas would be opened up to housing with a requirement that ten percent of the units be affordable. This would be an actual amendment to the Land Development Code, but one far less sweeping (and damaging to existing neighborhoods) than what the Council majority tried to push through in 2019 and 2020. Adler and Alter were on opposite sides of that bitter divide; Adler for, Alter against. Acccording to the Austin Monitor, the proposal so far is drawing supportive comments from Council Members on both sides of the LDC divide; including from Casar who was for the LDC rewrite, but also from Pool, Tovo and Kitchen who fought it. Details remain to be worked through, but this could be a positive development.
To summarize, the Council has made some progress on providing affordable housing, although not near as much as their rhetoric and own goals claimed they could deliver. There are thousands of people, however, who now own homes in Austin, or live in affordable rental units, who likely would not, but for the Council’s efforts.
(This article was updated to reflect that the proposal to amend the Land Development Code to allow housing in commercially zoned areas was jointly developed by Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Alison Alter. The Independent apologizes for the original omission.)
(As noted above, one of the sources for this article was the Austin Monitor. The Monitor provides, in my view, the most detailed and focused reporting on City government, and does so Monday through Friday. Heretofore it cost a significant amount of money to subscribe. Thus it was something of a publication for City Hall insiders. Starting today, however, the Monitor has removed its paywall. So I encourage readers to take a look. They will still take subscriptions and donations.)
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