Some argue that Austin can regain affordability simply by loosening development standards and increasing construction of new market-rate units, assuming that as new housing is added, older homes and apartments will become available for lower-income households. However, a 2016 University of California Berkeley study 1 found that these “trickle down” or “filtering” effects will take decades to occur (a CodeNEXT consultant pegged the timeframe at roughly 40 years) and that even after decades of filtering, these units may still be unaffordable to low-income households. CodeNEXT consultants also repeatedly stated that no amount of code changes could produce the deeply affordable housing Austin needs, given our overheated real estate market.
Clearly, Austin residents cannot wait 40 years for a fix that may never come. We must look for immediate tools to address our city’s growing problem affordability.
Unfortunately, Texas law prohibits many common affordability tools in use in other states, including linkage fees, inclusionary zoning and rent stabilization. But there are some things we can do as a city. In addition to those outlined in my answer to the previous question, I would support the following actions:
- Initiate plans for affordable housing in all parts of Austin. Ensuring affordable housing is available throughout the city will provide better options for those facing displacement through gentrification of their own neighborhoods. We need a community- driven process to identify specific approaches to achieving this in each area of Austin.
- Place public properties in Community Land Trusts (CLTs). The City of Austin must take the lead by immediately placing its own public properties in a land trust
1 Berkeley IGS Research Brief http://www.urbandisplacement.org/sites/default/files/images/udp_research_brief_052316.pdf
reserved for affordable housing or other critical public needs, and work with other local governmental entities, including AISD, Cap Metro and Travis County, to take similar actions. As land prices in Austin continue to escalate, use of public lands is one of the most effective tools we have to create deeply affordable housing for residents.
- Establish a land-banking program. In addition to CLTs for existing public properties, the city should establish a land-banking program to allow government entities or nonprofits to acquire land with the purpose of developing affordable or workforce housing. Properties in a land bank may also be sold to a nonprofit or private developer, conditioned on a binding agreement that the site will be used to create permanent affordable housing.
- Implement a commercial fee-in-lieu density bonus program. Austin already has a number of density bonus programs for residential properties. These allow a proposed development to achieve greater entitlements, including increased height or density or a reduction in parking requirements. In exchange, the developer must either provide affordable units onsite or pay into a fee-in-lieu fund to support affordable housing in another location. The city should act to extend the fee-in-lieu component of its current density bonus programs to all commercial properties in which a developer seeks additional entitlements above what is allowed by existing zoning.
- Strengthen affordability requirements for developers receiving public subsidies. For example, Detroit now requires developers who receive more than a set threshold of public subsidies — $500,000 from either the city or state and federal programs — to set aside at least 20 percent of their units for lower income residents. This requirement also applies to projects involving city-owned property transferred at a rate “less than true cash value.”
- Support home repair programs for low-income residents. The city should continue to fund home repair programs for low-income residents in gentrifying areas to prolong the lifespan of existing affordable housing and help longtime residents remain in their homes.
- Make publicly subsidized units permanently affordable. Affordable units in projects receiving any form of city subsidy, including increased entitlements through a density bonus program, should be protected as affordable for the life of the project. Austin’s current affordability periods vary from zero to 99 years, with many affordability periods as short as 5 years or less. Clearly, Austin’s affordable housing shortage will not be solved within these time frames.
Any affordable units in projects that receive city subsidies, including increased entitlements through the density bonus program, should remain permanently affordable.
This may be achieved through regulatory agreements, community land trusts, deed restrictions or other binding legal instruments.