Austin City Council signs off on new housing ‘blueprint’

The Austin City Council approved its strategic housing plan Thursday evening, signing off on a document that calls for building an additional 135,000 housing units in the city by 2025.

The 38-page plan — now called the “Strategic Housing Blueprint” — offers more than 50 suggestions to help combat Austin’s housing crunch, including calls to revamp the city’s permitting process and purchasing unused land to preserve it for affordable housing projects.

“I am not ready to admit defeat to gentrification,” Mayor Steve Adler said.

Austin’s need for housing is fueled by the region’s booming population. Travis County, which contains most of Austin, is expected to add about half a million people by 2050 — growing from about 1.1 million in 2013 to nearly 1.6 million by 2050.

The housing shortage has driven up costs, with average rents hitting $1,227 in June.

The plan approved Thursday calls for building more than 13,000 new housing units a year, with the goal of adding 135,000 units to the city in the next decade. Almost half of those units — an estimated 60,000 — will need to be targeted at families making less than 80 percent of Austin’s median wage, about $62,000 a year for a family of four in 2016.

The council unanimously voted to back the first half of the document, which largely lays out the scope of Austin’s housing shortage.

However, Council Member Ellen Troxclair, who represents Southwest Austin’s District 8, voted against the second half of the document, which includes policy recommendations she said she couldn’t support, including calling on the Legislature to allow Austin to implement rent control.

While no council members challenged the idea that Austin needs more housing, where the housing should go proved to be a significant flashpoint for the second straight week.

The “blueprint” calls for building 75 percent of the new housing along or near major transportation corridors, or placed in major city centers, such as the Domain or downtown. That has raised the hackles of politically powerful preservation groups who fear that concentrating housing in the areas surrounding the transportation corridors would eat into old Central Austin neighborhoods.

Supporters say it will help limit sprawl and boost mass transit ridership. Opponents say it will fuel gentrification.

“We have nothing in place to protect the people who are already here,” said Council Member Ora Houston, whose District 1 includes Northeast Austin and parts of East Austin. “The people who live there don’t have the capital, they don’t have the financing — I’m not sure we understand all the nuisances when it comes to making Austin a compact and connected community.”

Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria, a supporter of the plan, countered.

“There has been no plans for Austin, especially East Austin and the inner core,” said Renteria, whose District 3 includes much of East Austin and parts of Southeast Austin. “If we don’t do anything, in my neighborhood, they’re already saying ‘hey, I can’t afford this.’”

The document also calls for establishing a goal for 10 percent of all apartments in each City Council district to be affordable for families making just 30 percent of Austin’s median income, $24,300 a year for a family of four in 2016.

The 50 recommendations brought by city staff also included calls to:

• Develop a “strike fund” that would aim to buy and preserve up to 20,000 affordable units over 20 years.

• Purchase and “bank” undeveloped and underdeveloped land along or near major transportation corridors for the future development of affordable housing by private or nonprofit developers.

• Create a consistent program that allows developers to add height to buildings in certain neighborhoods in exchange for providing affordable housing, effectively unifying the city’s current patchwork of neighborhood “density bonus” programs.

• Streamline the city’s permitting process and expand its affordability programs to speed development, increase the number of affordable units built and extend the amount of time such housing units remain set aside for lower-income families.

Council members also adopted two resolutions that called for the city’s staff to develop plans to help protect existing affordable housing in the corridors and centers.

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