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Austin housing bonds headed toward approval

By Sarah Coppola - American-Statesman Staff

With nearly all votes tallied late Tuesday, a $65 million Austin bond measure for affordable housing was headed toward approval — just a year after voters rejected a nearly identical item.

The money will help build, renovate and repair an estimated 2,800 units of housing to be rented or sold at below-market rates. That could include apartments, condos and single-family homes.

Housing advocates who campaigned aggressively for this year’s measure were ebullient Tuesday night as they celebrated at Scholz Garten downtown.

“The result reflects the values of Austin,” said Elliott McFadden, campaign manager for Keep Austin Affordable, the political action committee that campaigned for the measure. “It shows that people do want to keep Austin a place where everyone can live, not just the super wealthy.”

Austinites will pay off the bonds through property taxes.

The city will increase the debt portion of Austin’s tax rate from 11.71 cents to 12.08 cents per $100 property value. That will mean an extra $7.40 a year in city taxes for the owner of a $200,000 home.

Travis County Taxpayers Union, a political action committee, campaigned against the measure, saying it would make Austin less affordable by increasing property taxes.

That group raised a few thousand dollars — far less than the $428,000 raised by Keep Austin Affordable — and ran a more limited campaign.

The outcome “is disappointing,” said Don Zimmerman, founder of the taxpayers’ union. “It shows that money can buy votes.”

Last November, a $78.3 million Austin bond measure for affordable housing failed by 51.4 percent to 48.6 percent.

It was the only one of seven city bond measures to fail. Housing advocates blamed vague ballot language and a brief, poorly funded campaign.

This year, advocates pushed the city to use ballot language that more clearly explained how the money would be spent.

Keep Austin Affordable also began campaigning months ago — calling residents, knocking on doors and speaking to dozens of neighborhood and business groups.

Advocates focused their message partly on Austin seniors, veterans, disabled people and families who live in the three dozen developments that were built or renovated with $55 million from a 2006 voter-approved bond measure.

“We had to tell the stories of who is being served and how critical the funding is,” said Walter Moreau, executive director of the nonprofit Foundation Communities, which has built or renovated five properties of affordable rental housing with 2006 bond money.

Supporters also touted the economic upsides of the bond money, such as generating construction jobs.

In the next few years, the city will allow nonprofit and for-profit developers to apply for pieces of the $65 million. Applicants will have to have specific projects in mind and other financing lined up.

The goal is to house people who earn less than 50 percent of Austin’s median income, or $26,000 for a single person and $37,000 for a four-person family.

Monthly rents considered affordable for those people are $700 for the single person and $1,000 for the family.

A 2009 study commissioned by the city found that 40,000 units of housing are needed for Austin households that earn less than $23,000 a year.

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