Viewpoints: City should define ‘affordable housing’ in CodeNext talks

Like its predecessor, the second draft of CodeNext — the city’s proposed overhaul of its land-use and zoning code — largely has been sold as a way of increasing affordable housing for residents who cannot find homes in Austin’s hot housing market.

But does it live up to its hype?

The answers are elusive in large part because the “affordable housing” label has morphed into a catch-all category that encompasses housing not just for service-sector employees, construction workers and others who earn below 80 percent of Austin’s median family income, but for young professionals and others, who need so-called “missing middle” homes. Those are homes or apartments that fall between low-income housing and market-rate homes.

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It would be wise for Mayor Steve Adler and the City Council to take a step back and analyze whether CodeNext realistically can deliver on city housing goals of 135,000 units over the next 10 years with as many as 65,000 being affordable through zoning changes that promote more density.

They also need to be frank about the limitations of the zoning code against market forces and the potential unintended consequences of that combination in shrinking Austin’s stock of affordable apartments and homes, rather than increasing that supply.

That starts with defining “affordable housing” and “missing middle housing” and acknowledging the shortcomings of any zoning code in slowing or stopping displacement, so real solutions can emerge.

“What I’m afraid of are the unintended consequences,” said Walter Moreau, executive director of Foundations Communities, a nonprofit that builds housing for low-income families. “We’ve lost a lot of affordable apartments that get torn down and replaced with expensive apartments. Will CodeNext accelerate that trend?”

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It’s a good question — one without an answer so far, because the cost of housing is not solely determined by supply and demand, but by profitability, location and what the market will bear. Simply building more housing units won’t generate the kind of affordable housing Moreau and advocates are working to increase, such as two-bedroom apartments that go for $800 a month in locations with access to public transportation — not when renters are willing to pay $1,400 for such units, as they now are doing.

The city can start with defining “affordable homes” for lower-wage workers and “missing middle” homes for higher-wage city or state employees, artists and teachers. The public also needs greater clarity on which category of homes – affordable, missing middle or market-rate – CodeNext is likely to boost.

The city can lessen confusion by clarifying “affordable homes” as those aimed at serving people who earn no more than $65,100 annually for a family of four, which is 80 percent of Austin’s median family income. For one person, that income is $45,600.

By contrast, “missing-middle” homes could be defined as homes targeting people with incomes ranging from $65,100 to $97,680, the latter being for a family of four earning 120 percent of Austin’s median family income.

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Too often in discussion about CodeNext, missing-middle homes are represented as affordable because they are less expensive than market-rate homes. Even so, they aren’t affordable for low-wage workers.

Clarifying the two and projecting how CodeNext will increase or decrease either category will help lessen confusion and provide greater transparency.

City staff and the council also should explore more deeply the unintended consequences of CodeNext. Already, density is having a negative impact on once-affordable East Austin neighborhoods, displacing many families who for generations have lived there, but no longer can afford to, as mortgages, rents and property taxes have skyrocketed.

Austin school district officials blame the city’s shortage of affordable housing as a key reason for its declining enrollment and empty classrooms in several East Austin schools. The district projects enrollment at 81,427 for this school year, a drop of 1,640 students from last year. In financial terms, the Austin district will lose about $12 million under the school funding formula.

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With more development steered to east-central Austin than any other district under CodeNext, Council Member Ora Houston worries displacement of families there will accelerate as even more “land owned by Austinites of African and Mexican ancestry” is “acquired by speculators and developers.”

Moreau cites another problem with CodeNext that ignores zoning for special-needs housing, such as housing for the homeless or near homeless, called supportive housing, that is addressed under the current code.

“I am not sure under CodeNext how we deal with exceptions, such as special needs,” he told the editorial board, adding, “What will be the process for unintended consequences on such a massive rewrite of the code? There will be some.”

CodeNext also suffers from its name and topic regarding zoning. That can be daunting or a low-priority for residents working long hours while juggling the demands of family. Keep in mind that zoning determines the size, character and affordability of your neighborhood. It doesn’t get more personal than that.

Austin residents can’t afford a laissez faire approach on neighborhood zoning. Get involved. There still is plenty of time and a meeting in your neighborhood coming soon.

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