Council Recap: Too Little Affordable Housing, or Too Much?

Photo by John Anderson

At its Aug. 27 meeting, City Council approved several state grants to the Austin Police Department in relatively short order that will provide additional funding for victims services, the mental health first responders program, and processing evidence for sexual assault cases.

All but one of the 10 grants was approved on consent, although Council Members Jimmy Flannigan, Paige Ellis, and Natasha Harper-Madison abstained from voting on a $88,750 grant that would help pay for an attachment to an APD helicopter that would allow the aerial vehicle to carry more passengers. The grant does not require any city matching funds. Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, who ultimately voted against the grant, raised questions about it at Council’s work session, Aug. 25, because she pointed out that the Starflight helicopter, which is operated by EMS, typically handles aerial rescue missions.

A grant that would fund a controversial “safe neighborhoods” program was postponed to the Sept.3 meeting so CMs could have more questions answered by staff. At the Tuesday work session, Harper-Madison raised concern that the program, which purports to utilize “targeted enforcement” to reduce violent crime, could lead to over-policing in the Downtown and East Riverside areas where it would be implemented.

With the police grants passing with little controversy, Council spent most of its time wrestling over two zoning cases. Each would take single-family greenfield lots in low-income East Austin neighborhoods and upzone them for modest increases in the number of units, and so drew opposition from growth skeptics and neighbors, citing gentrification concerns and threats to sensitive environmental features.

The first case, located at 508 Kemp Street in Montopolis, would take a vacant two-acre SF-3 lot to SF-6, which allows for townhomes and condos. Initially, the developer proposed a market-rate project, which Council was uninterested in. The revised plan would use the Affordability Unlocked density bonus, with just over half the units (17 of 33) to be sold at 60% or 80% of median-family income.

McDowell Housing Partners has pledged to form a restrictive covenant with Habitat for Humanity and price homes at around $140,000 on the low end, compared to the market rate of $325,000. Still, neighbors feared displacement pressures from the 16 market-rate units. (If the zoning were left at SF-3, the larger homes that could be built on the lot could cost more than $800,000.)

The debate on the dais reflected the same strategic differences on land use and affordability seen in Council’s work on revising the Land Development Code. Council Member Ann Kitchen suggested it wasn’t enough: “I just challenge you all to do better,” Kitchen told the applicant. “How are we assured that we’ve gotten enough affordability as we can? I’m not sure that we have here.”

Other CMs expressed fears of pushing developers to avoid the lengthy and expensive rezoning process altogether and just build to existing entitlements, producing fewer units and without any affordability measures. “I get a little worried about votes like this, because developers might just say ‘Why should we jump through these hoops?’” Harper-Madison said. “My hope is moving forward, we don’t make the barriers too steep for entry to achieve affordability.”

The debate on the dais reflected the same strategic differences on land use and affordability seen in Council’s work on revising the Land Development Code.

In this case, though, the barrier has been raised by a valid petition from surrounding property owners, meaning the rezoning needs nine votes for approval. CM Pio Renteria, whose District 3 includes the property, said the developers would be wasting their time if they don’t change the neighbors’ minds; other CMs were more optimistic. The case was approved on first reading, with CMs Kathie Tovo and Alison Alter voting against and CMs Leslie Pool and Kitchen abstaining, indicating they’d be willing to support rezoning with more affordable units.

The second case would take nearly 10 acres of SF-2 greenfield at 4400 Nuckols Crossing and convert it to MF-4 for a project developed under the city’s longstanding SMART affordability program (Safe, Mixed-Income, Accessible, Reasonably Priced, and Transit-Oriented). Like the Kemp St. project, this one has taken a winding road to Council; it was first proposed as market-rate condos back in 2017, before morphing into a 100% affordable rental project for residents aged 55 and older.

In the latest plan from Thrower Design, most of the 179 units’ rent would be calculated for people making 80% of MFI, with monthly costs at around $1,400 for a one-bed/one-bath apartment. Ten of the units would be locked in at 30% MFI, with 1BR/1BA rents at $470/month, less than half of the median rent for that census tract. Opponents said this would concentrate poverty in the Franklin Park neighborhood, with its existing apartment complexes. They also cited dangerous conditions on that stretch of Nuckols Crossing (a sharp curve and no sidewalk), showing a video at the meeting complete with a dramatic score.

Garza, whose D2 includes the site and who supports the project, secured agreement from the Austin Transportation Department to mitigate these concerns – prohibiting left turns out of the development (into the blind curve) and connecting to existing sidewalks to surrounding amenities, including bus stops on Stassney, the Southeast Library, and Mendez Middle School. Those are all about a mile away, however.

“The community has been asking for affordable housing and we are delivering that,” Garza said of the project. “There is no perfect site for affordable housing, because then you get market rate (units). It’s not the perfect one and we have worked really hard to mitigate every single concern in this project.” The case was approved 8-2-1 on all three readings, with Pool and Tovo voting against and Alter off the virtual dais.