Ris­ing costs ID’D as threat city fab­ric


Austin American-Statesman - - THE SECOND FRONT - Con­tin­ued from The failed bond pro­posal re­veals a city with sharply dif­fer­ent opin­ions on af­ford­able hous­ing. Con­tact Marty Toohey at 445-3673.

forces driv­ing up the cost of liv­ing and stress­ing low-in­come res­i­dents as Austin be­comes a larger and in­creas­ingly af­flu­ent city.

Imag­ine Austin, a 30year “com­pre­hen­sive plan” adopted by the coun­cil ear­lier this year, iden­ti­fies ris­ing costs as a cen­tral threat to the fab­ric of Austin. It is one of the most philo­soph­i­cally and po­lit­i­cally tan­gled is­sues fac­ing the city. For in­stance, there is dis­agree­ment about whether adding more apart­ment and con­do­minium units would ease an over­heated hous­ing mar­ket, as sup­ply-and-de­mand wis­dom holds, or whether al­low­ing denser devel­op­ment would sim­ply cause more peo­ple with money to crowd into es­tab­lished neigh­bor­hoods and drive up prices.

As peo­ple on the pe­riph­ery of City Hall have de­bated the dy­nam­ics of the hous­ing mar­ket, city lead­ers’ main ap­proach to the is­sue has been to pro­vide money to help non­prof­its build rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive hous­ing for poor res­i­dents, sub­si­dize rents and make homes more en­ergy ef­fi­cient.

In 2006, Austin be­came one of the first U.S. cities to in­clude money for af­ford­able hous­ing in a bond package. Since then, nearly all of the $55 mil­lion ap­proved by vot­ers has been awarded to non­profit and for-profit hous­ing de­vel­op­ers who have built, ren­o­vated or re­paired about three dozen prop­er­ties to­tal­ing 1,700 low-in­come apart­ments, con­dos and sin­gle­fam­ily homes. An ad­di­tional 900 hous­ing units are planned or un­der con­struc­tion.

But in Novem­ber, a larger af­ford­able-hous­ing bond pro­posal failed. It was the first bond propo­si­tion to fail in Austin since light rail in 2000.

The coun­cil was in agree­ment that af­ford­able hous­ing re­mains an im­por­tant need, though. Mor­ri­son said she sees that Novem­ber vote as a re­jec­tion of the amount of spend­ing, not the no­tion of government try­ing to coun­ter­act the ris­ing cost of hous­ing.

“We’re talk­ing about peo­ple who serve you at restau­rants, work at our kids’ schools, drive buses,” Mor­ri­son said. “There are many low­in­come jobs in Austin, and we should make an ef­fort to en­sure the peo­ple who work them can live here.”

But the failed bond pro­posal re­veals a city with sharply dif­fer­ent opin­ions on af­ford­able hous­ing — a dis­agree­ment that will prob­a­bly be­come in­creas­ingly rel­e­vant as the City Coun­cil tran­si­tions to a sys­tem in which coun­cil mem­bers rep­re­sent dis­tricts rather than all of Austin.

Fol­low­ing the Novem­ber elec­tion, City De­mog­ra­pher Ryan Robin­son stud­ied the hous­ing-bond re­sults by di­vid­ing the city into four rings, like a dart board. The in­ner cir­cle, the most lib­eral part of the city, over­whelm­ingly sup­ported the hous­ing bonds. That is the part of Austin that, be­cause of its rel­a­tively high turnout, is pri­mar­ily re­spon­si­ble for the elec­tion of all seven coun­cil mem­bers.

Robin­son found that the far­ther from the city’s core a voter lives, the less likely he or she was to sup­port the af­ford­able-hous­ing pro­posal. The outer ring was over­whelm­ingly op­posed. With the coming switch to a district-based sys­tem, those ar­eas far from the city cen­ter are likely to have a big­ger say in coun­cil mat­ters.

Mor­ri­son said she and Tovo ar­rived at the $10 mil­lion amount be­cause city staffers told them that is the amount of money the city can prop­erly man­age for af­ford­able hous­ing at a given time.

Betsy Spencer, head of the city’s Neigh­bor­hood Hous­ing and Com­mu­nity Devel­op­ment Of­fice, said that if the city could find $4.3 mil­lion, Austin would be el­i­gi­ble for and would likely re­ceive $30 mil­lion in fed­eral af­ford­able-hous­ing grants ear­marked for Cen­tral Texas.

But it’s not clear where that city money would come from.

Leff­in­g­well said it would likely have to come from other city de­part­ments or from the city’s re­serves, which he said should be off-lim­its. Coun­cil Mem­ber Mike Martinez, on the other hand, said lev­er­ag­ing fed­eral money might be a good rea­son to dip into re­serves.

City Man­ager Marc Ott said he didn’t want to spec­u­late on po­ten­tial fund­ing sources un­til his staff had re­searched the mat­ter, but he cau­tioned, in light of coun­cil re­quests to fund other ini­tia­tives, that the bud­get is al­ready stretched.

“Our (ten­dency) to go back into the bud­get … on a re­peated ba­sis is just not sus­tain­able from a fi­nan­cial per­spec­tive,” Ott told the coun­cil.

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