One year after Austin voters rejected a $78.3 million bond measure for affordable housing, the city will ask voters this fall to OK $65 million in bonds to build, repair and renovate such housing.
The City Council on Thursday called the Nov. 5 election and settled on the amount, which is the most the city could borrow without increasing the portion of the property tax rate that pays off debt.
Council members said Thursday that the need is too great not to try again at the ballot box.
A 2009 housing study, the most comprehensive in recent years, found that Austin needs 40,000 more low-cost housing units for people who earn less than $20,000 a year.
On Thursday, Council Member Bill Spelman proposed putting $55 million on the ballot instead of $65 million.
Spelman noted that voters had approved $55 million for affordable housing in a 2006 bond package. Also, taking on less debt would assuage critics who say the city spends too much, he said.
“Just because we can go to $65 million without a tax increase doesn’t mean we have to go to $65 million,” he said.
He added: “Given that this is the only bond proposition that did not pass (last fall), we need to take as many arguments out of the hands of opponents as we can.”
His idea failed to get enough support; only Spelman, Council Member Chris Riley and Mayor Lee Leffingwell voted for it.
Next, the council considered putting $65 million on the ballot, and all seven members voted in favor.
“I realize we don’t have to use $65 million just because we can. But we’ve heard a lot about the tremendous need” for low-income housing, especially to serve women, children and veterans, Council Member Sheryl Cole said.
The 2012 housing bond measure was the second-biggest of seven city bond measures and the only one to fail, stunning city leaders. Housing advocates and even council members blamed the defeat on several factors, including vague ballot language and a lackluster campaign.
Housing advocates have vowed not to repeat the same mistakes, and they have begun raising money and hiring staff to run a more robust campaign this fall. The council also approved ballot language Thursday that more clearly explains how the money will be spent.
Since the fall 2012 defeat, council members have grappled with how to pay for low-income housing.
To build affordable housing and offer other low-income housing programs, the city typically uses a mix of federal funds, bond money, fees that appear on utility bills and some property taxes from a handful of city lots that have been redeveloped. But those sources can be small and uncertain.
Budget staffers have urged the council to rely less on bonds and more on paying for housing through the city’s general fund, which is made up mostly of property taxes and pays for most city services, including libraries, parks and police.
Council members didn’t warm to that idea, saying it would force housing to compete with other critical needs in tough economic times, when the general fund is usually the first thing to be cut.
The council did agree in February to spend $10 million in surplus budget money on affordable housing projects that were already planned.
The $55 million that voters approved in 2006 has helped build, renovate or repair more than 3,000 units of housing.
Most of the units are apartments rented to people who earn less than half of Austin’s median family income, or $25,650 for a single person and $36,600 for a four-person family.
Monthly rental rates affordable for those people are $665 for an efficiency for a single person and $986 for a three-bedroom apartment for a family.