The Austin City Council revived efforts Thursday to increase fees tied to density bonus programs, a move that could steer developers toward building low-income housing.
However, the council stopped short of creating an approval process for every density bonus project in which a developer chooses to pay a fee instead of building the additional affordable housing units.
The city’s density bonus programs allow developers to construct buildings taller or larger than what is allowed by zoning rules. In exchange, the developer must commit to building a certain number of low-income housing units as part of the development or to paying into the city’s affordable housing trust fund.
Among City Council members, it is generally accepted that the fees are too low, which has led to varied results for the city’s 10 density bonus programs. Some, like the University Neighborhood Overlay bonus program for the West Campus neighborhood, have generated hundreds of housing units for residents who earn less than Austin’s median income.
But others, like the downtown density bonus program, have produced little or no low-income housing.
According to a 2016 city report, density bonus programs had generated $4,831,364 in fees and 1,653 affordable units overall. Nearly half of the units were built in West Campus, and many house students attending the University of Texas. The downtown density program had generated $2,352,960 in fees but had produced zero affordable housing units.
Before the council approved the resolution, Council Member Kathie Tovo proposed an amendment that would have called for council approval of all projects in which developers opt to pay fees in lieu of building affordable units.
“I just think we need to set a very clear policy that our expectation is that density bonus programs will yield on-site units,” Tovo said. “And if there are good reasons for those units not to be on site but to be a fee-in-lieu, then that would require a council (vote).”
However, Tovo’s amendment was watered down by another amendment, put forth by Mayor Steve Adler. His amendment kept language that expressed the council’s preference for developers to build affordable housing, but removed the requirement for the council’s approval.
“I’m concerned that if we just take actions like this, that we may put ourselves in a position where, inadvertently, we’re actually ending up with less affordable units or less money in the housing trust plan,” Adler said.
Adler’s amendment passed by a 6-2 vote, with Council Members Tovo and Leslie Pool voting against, Delia Garza abstaining and Ellen Troxclair and Alison Alter off the dais. The council then passed the resolution 9-0, with Troxclair and Alter off the dais.
The council also approved an ordinance lowering the maximum fee companies can charge for booting vehicles from $150 to $100 as well as a resolution that calls for using the affordable housing fund to help preserve and rehabilitate multifamily developments near transit corridors.