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Don’t build affordable housing hurdles

There are times when a test has more than one right answer.

In our view, the question about whether affordable housing should be located near public transit to receive city bond money or in neighborhoods across Austin with jobs and good schools — but scarce public transit — is such an example.

Transit concerns must be balanced with the city’s stated goal of spreading affordable housing across the city so that all sections of Austin share the responsibility of providing lower-income homes to residents. Packing affordable housing in just a few sections of the city is a sure way to undermine public support for affordable housing.

It also must be balanced with market factors, such as the cost of building in one area versus another. After all, the gap between the demand for affordable housing in Central Texas and the supply of such units continues to widen. The challenge going forward for city of Austin staff is to write rules that balance all of those goals. Because of a new proposal the Austin City Council passed recently, there now are serious concerns that the gap might grow.

Certainly Council Member Chris Riley had the right idea in introducing a resolution directing that affordable housing be within a half-mile of a bus stop or rail station to be eligible for city money or other development perks. If such decisions are based strictly on land prices, he told us, “There is a real risk that affordable housing will be put in the most auto-dependent, isolated areas around the city.”

He has a point.

Most projects in Austin that received financial support from the 2006 city bond program are within a half-mile of bus stops, according to a city analysis provided to us. But where Riley’s proposal might well lead to negative consequences is in another change. That measure would require that affordable housing financed in part by the city be located where there are sidewalks that have accessible routes to bus stops. City staff has interpreted that to mean that sidewalks have to be constructed in ways that do not impair people who use wheelchairs.

Those are worthy goals. But given the huge shortage of sidewalks in Austin — accessible or otherwise — those requirements are high hurdles for the city to clear. It means, for example, that sidewalks would have to be in place before housing could be built in those locations. The same would be true for bus stops. All of that adds more costs to the city. And it flips the way things work now in which housing can be built and then sidewalks and bus stops follow.

Taken together, those directives have the potential of limiting locations for affordable housing, as Council Member Kathie Tovo rightly points out. Market factors, such as land costs, are part of the equation for developers regarding where to build affordable housing. And because Riley’s proposal would formalize such decisions by making them part of city land use rules, city staff no longer would have the flexibility they’ve exercised up to now on such decisions.

“We have a lot of sidewalk gaps throughout our city,” Tovo told us. “The (proposed) code amendment says those things (sidewalks and bus stops) have to be present in order for the city to make an investment in affordable housing. A lot of opportunities will be foreclosed with the amendment we will have in place.”

She has a point.

In making her case, Tovo pointed to a project planned by the nonprofit Foundation Communities on Zimmerman Lane near RM 620 and RM 2222 in far Northwest Austin. The site is nearly a mile from the nearest bus stop, and there are no sidewalks on the route to the bus stop. But it’s located in an area with good schools and hundreds of service sector jobs. The lower-income residents who rent those housing units would no longer have to drive across town to those jobs and could enroll their children in good public schools. Those are worthy considerations that should not be excluded from decisions regarding housing partially financed by city bond dollars.

Because Riley’s rules exempt projects that use federal tax credits, the Northwest Austin project won’t be affected by the proposed code amendment. But most affordable housing projects the city helps finance are built without federal tax credits. So those that do offer jobs and good schools, but lack nearby bus stops or sidewalks, would be ineligible for city bond dollars under the amendment.

As we said, there are multiple right answers to this test. The challenge for city staff is to craft a code amendment that incorporates all of those goals.

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