Let’s begin this week with a few updates on previous stories. First of all, we have talked a few times about a torrent of East Austin zoning cases that are pouring through the City approval system even as the pandemic rages.

For instance, proposed upzonings all but surround the historic Stonegate neighborhood. As described in an earlier story, Stonegate is a small neighborhood immediately south of Martin Luther King Boulevard and just west of Webberville Road, and a few blocks west of U.S. 183. I call it historic because at the time of its creation in the 1960s, Stonegate was one of the few neigbhorhoods in Austin where African Americans could purchase a new house. Many of the original families still live there. The neighborhood is also within one of the census tracts with the largest remaining percentages of African Americans in East Austin and one of the largest percentages of African American home ownership.“

The neighborhood association is not opposed to higher density, but has tried to negotiate a compromise with specific protections for the neighborhood; so far without coming to an agreement. The case on this week’s agenda (October 1) is at at 5201 East Martin Luther King. This is the case where the developers, Redbud Development, describe themselves on their website as “Opportunistic investors with an eye for the overlooked.” Under a section of the website, titled, “Our Method of Adding Value,” Redbud adds: “Much of the success of a project is determined by how you acquire the asset and the price you pay. We focus on properties where value is not easily visible and requires a creative approach and skillset to bring the property to its best and highest use.” 

Update: The Independent learned, after posting this story, that the developer and neighborhood residents have reached agreement on the zoning change. We will report further on this in a future edition.

Meanwhile across the river in Montopolis the Council is also considering a series of upzonings and one of those, at 508 Kemp Street, is on the Thursday agenda. Developers have discussed potential affordable housing on this site, but that drew a press release from Community Not Commodity (CNC), the lead opposition group to the Land Development Code rewrite. In a statement released September 29, CNC questioned developer and Council claims about the application of the Affordability Unlocked program in Montopolis.

Explained the press release: “So let’s get back to the much-touted Affordability Unlocked program, and look at it in terms of a neighborhood like Montopolis. The 2020 Area Median Family Income (MFI) for Travis County is $97,600.  The MFI that triggers the many entitlements given by Affordability Unlocked’s home-ownership program is 80 percent of MFI, or $78,080.  However, the MFI of the census tract that includes Montopolis is around $30,000. So developers are seeking large bonus entitlements to produce housing units for people earning over 250 percent of the MFI of the Montopolis community—raising a question as to whom the ‘affordability’ is actually intended for.”

CNC’s point is that the level of affordability being discussed will be beyond the reach of most Montopolis residents. The CNC release quotes an unnamed Montopolis resident as putting it like this: ‘“That means no one from Montopolis will be able to live there. This is not affordability unlocked, but unaffordability locked. Just another displacement scheme.’”

The CNC release also discussed the Stonegate case and maintained, “According to the City of Austin’s Neighborhood Planning Guide, Mixed Residential requires that at least half of the property must be developed as single-family. The applicant’s project conflicts with that requirement and therefore with the neighborhood plan. By ignoring that requirement, the city’s staff is effectively rewriting the neighborhood’s city-approved plan without authorization to do so.”

The Independent asked for comment from Council Member Greg Casar, the creator and lead champion of Affordability Unlocked, and from Council Member Natasha Harper Madison whose district includes the Stonegate neighborhood.

Casar replied, “CNC’s press release is misleading and incorrect. The median sales price of a home in 78741 this year is around $340,000. New homes are selling for even more than that. Without the Affordability Unlocked rules, developers will continue to build expensive, large homes here, without any of the affordability protections that the City Council has unanimously created. With Affordability Unlocked and a partnership with Habitat For Humanity, the City can require that two bedroom homes sell at $140K-$187K, which is half of the price of the homes selling in the area right now.”

Harper Madison did not reply.

Meanwhile in Govalle

On another East Austin matter recently reported here, Council partially heeded the pleas of East Austin residents and advocates regarding award of contracts for an affordable housing development on City owned land in the Govalle/Johnston Terrace neighborhood. Led by neighborhood resident and Contact Team member Daniel Llanes, neighbors and activists strenuously objected to two staff recommendations in which the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation (GNDC), a highly respected affordable housing builder that has operated in East Austin for around four decades, did not get recommended for either contract. 

After a racous hearing, the Council, led by Council Member Pio Renteria, forged a compromise. One contract was awarded to a firm recommended by City staff and another, where GNDC finished second in the staff matrix, was awarded to GNDC.

Now, the Continuing Travails of Governor Greg Abbott

In closing this week’s installment, let’s turn to state politics, Governor Greg Abbott, and Dallas beautician turned right wing hero and now Texas Senate candidate, Shelley Luther. This is one that goes on the pandering doesn’t pay side of the ledger.  

Readers may recall that in May Luther objected to Abbott’s closing of businesses to protect against the spread of the coronavirus. She opened her salon in direct defiance of Abbott’s order. A Dallas area judge sentenced her to a week in jail. Abbott responded by changing his order to remove jail penalties and thus sprung Luther from jail. Not one to be out pandered, Ted Cruz then rushed to Dallas for a haircut. 

For his part, Abbott soon abandoned his public health approach on coronavirus and began reopening Texas way ahead of CDC recommended guidelines. As we know, the results were predictable — a rapid increase in coronavirus cases and deaths — and Abbott partially backed off his aggressive reopening. 

Now, Luther is showing her gratitude by running for the Texas Senate in a campaign in which she frequently refers to Abbott as a “tyrant governor.” As quoted by Jonathan Tilove in the American-Statesman, Luther says her top priority would be reopening Texas, just like Florida: “the first thing that I would do is start going after Gov. Abbott’s lockdown and getting these nursing homes open, the bars and then restaurants all the way open, because I think it is absolutely ridiculous that places like Florida can open all the way today, and here we are in Texas being embarrassed that we’re still closed down, and we’re supposed to be the ones that are leading the way, the ones with personal responsibility and strong Republicans.”

This week Luther made a runoff in a special election to fill a vacant seat in a heavily Republican area. Stay tuned.


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