Inching Toward Higher Heights to Get More Housing

Coming through loud and clear at City Council’s June 10 meeting were deep anxieties about expanding the Vertical Mixed Use density bonus program, designed to create affordable housing on Austin’s core transit corridors.

Representatives of Go Austin/Vamos Austin (GAVA) urged council to slow down and rework the ordinance to create a new “V2” zoning district, warning that displacement of low-income families living on the corridors now would be too high a cost.

Residents of the Old Homestead apartments near Highland are experiencing this now, with a rezoning on Council’s agenda for next week, and the tenant relocation fund the city was to pull from to support those residents turned up dry. “There is zero dollars in the tenant relocation fund,” Council Member Chito Vela said, confirming what several speakers had pointed out. “There is no process to fund it. And again, I’ll let staff speak to this in the future, but there’s also … substantial, both administrative and legal concerns, with the fees that were set out in it. So anyway, I think we’ve got a hill to climb with regard to tenant relocation assistance.”

Planning Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido, also executive director of GAVA, noted the same issue that attorney Doug Becker, who prevailed against the city and overturned Council’s prior votes to approve a new Land Development Code, brought to council in a memo last week. Allowing V2 entitlements to developers by right, without notifying neighbors and allowing them to protest, would also violate state law. Llanes Pulido told Council she’d “try to stay diplomatic,” before also noting that, “You give this gift to developers if you deregulate VMU. If you get rid of compatibility, if you give by-right entitlements we lose the public process that allows us to negotiate better deals.”

Monica Guzmán, policy director at GAVA, followed Pulido to urge Council to redefine affordable housing in the VMU ordinance to capture more truly low-income Austinites, by basing income guidelines for these properties on the median family incomes for the census tract where they’re located, rather than countywide. Council approved the VMU ordinance anyway, as amended, and also gave the OK to the plan advanced by Mayor Steve Adler and Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter to relax compatibility standards and parking requirements for multi-family projects on selected transit corridors, to encourage further development of affordable units (despite some complaints that transit infrastructure should be improved further before reducing parking minimum requirements).

While it had already signaled a delay on the Old Homestead case, it heard emotional testimony on behalf of its residents. Mario Cantu put it, “Are we going to stick those veterans back down under Ben White Boulevard after this is done?” That said, the proposed redevelopment would replace the existing 15 apartments with 249 units, 25 of which would be affordable “at the MFI level that you just adopted,” the developer told Council.

Meanwhile, Council also postponed (to July 28) final action on a case designed to align the overlapping plans controlling development on East 11th and 12th Streets, which are primarily hung up on changes to 12th Street to allow cocktail lounges as a conditional use. Despite voting to approve the 12th Street provisions on second reading, CMs Kathie Tovo and Leslie Pool both made a point to ask that the record reflect that they’d “vote no” on cocktail lounges, which was not an option before them.

The East 11th/12th Street plans, which date back decades (this present zoning case itself was initiated about seven years ago), show by example how the city lacks a stable and sustainable process for creating small area plans for the activity centers identified by the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, approved about a decade ago. That may change after Council voted on June 10 to remind city staff that it had voted to create a “district level planning process” in 2019, and asked that City Manager Spencer Cronk please get on it in time to include small-area planning in the upcoming Fiscal Year 2023 city budget, to be presented in late July.

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