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Travis County seeks new tool to spur affordable housing


Highlights

Draft policy will be circulated among developers and affordable housing advocates in coming weeks.

Developers would either build affordable units or be required to pay fees to build them elsewhere.

Travis County is considering creating a new tool to encourage developers to build more affordable housing.

Under a proposed policy, the county would require landowners and developers who create public improvement districts — special districts that fund projects such as road construction or wastewater lines — to either build a certain amount of on-site public housing or pay a fee that would go toward funding affordable housing projects elsewhere.

Diana Ramirez, director of economic development and strategic investments, outlined how the policy would work at Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting. County staffers say it would be the first of its kind enacted by a local government, according to their research.

Public improvement districts are new additions to the county’s policy book as of the start of last year. Once a district is created, the county can then authorize revenue bonds that are paid back first by the developer but then gradually, as properties are developed, by the property owners through fixed-amount assessments.

If the district were created in an area that the county determined to be “high opportunity,” then it would require the developer to build a certain amount of affordable housing.

If the project were within a “low opportunity” area — for example, an area where sufficient affordable housing already exists— then the developer would be required to pay a fee based on the size of the bonds issued.

The county’s staff is still considering how to calculate the fees and how it would handle requests for exceptions to them. The fee money would be used for affordable housing projects elsewhere.

The county plans to ask for feedback from affordable and fair housing advocates, public improvement district developers and city of Austin staff, Ramirez said. She plans to take it back to Commissioners Court for a vote sometime in early summer.

Pete Dwyer, developer of the Wildhorse Ranch improvement district, was at Tuesday’s meeting and cautioned the court against setting fees too high.

“We’re bending as far forward as we can in assessing these fees, and it’s a stacking of the layer cake,” Dwyer said.

Commissioners Jeff Travillion and Brigid Shea were optimistic about the prospects of another incentive for affordable housing development.

“My main goal on the PIDs, since we’re slapping a very significant future assessment on people, in some cases $1,000 per year, is that our community gets more affordable housing out of it,” Shea said. “That’s, to me, one of the greatest benefits of the PIDs.”

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt warned against adding so many requirements that they deter potential developers or land owners from creating the districts.

“I’m not interested in creating the perfect policy that requires all the perfect stuff that nobody ever uses,” Eckhardt said in an interview. “Because then you only get the sound bite of being able to brag as a politician that you were a ‘true believer’ on this issue, that issue, that issue. But if nobody ever uses it, then the perfect became the enemy of the good.”



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