A HOME FOR ALL
Celia Israel Introduces a Bold Housing Plan to Address Austin’s Affordability Crisis and Keep the Diversity Our City Needs to Thrive
FOR YEARS, Austin has been under the false belief that “if we don’t build, they won’t come.” We’ve slowed the permitting process, initiated endless studies, debated, stalled, and obstructed. Today we see the serious consequences of inaction. Wishful thinking and a misunderstanding of market forces failed to slam the door on the “they” they didn’t want here. Instead, the impact is being felt by “us” struggling to afford to stay here. The housing supply shortage is pricing the workforce we depend on the most out of the city limits. We need to keep Austin affordable for teachers, nurses, public service workers, childcare providers, artists, retail service employees and more.
"We are a city at a CROSSROADS and this election is about who can afford to live here, and who gets to decide."
Our schools are feeling it, our small businesses are feeling it, and too many families of all forms and stages of life are stressed, struggling and left housing insecure.
The affordability crisis can’t be wished away. At the heart of it is a supply issue, but we must also be honest about the powerful interests who have embedded a culture in city government that protects the status quo. It will require bold action to balance out both market forces and powerful interests to make the city affordable for the people who make it work.
Some will surely consider this plan too bold, but I welcome the debate. We are a city at a crossroads, and this election is about who can afford to live here, and who gets to decide.
STEPS TO MEETING THE AFFORDABILITY CRISIS
1. More Supply. Less McMansions.
Limited supply of housing is at the core of families being priced out and displaced. And because developers are only incentivized to build expensive single-family homes, we have a “missing middle” – duplexes, four-plexes and up to 12 units that provide lower cost housing while maintaining neighborhood character. • We should not treat a six-plex the same way we treat a 300-unit apartment complex. Allow six to twelve-plexes to undergo a light version of the Commercial and Site Permit review process. • Expand qualification for Residential Review process to anything "house scale" that is a four-plex or less. And if there is an affordability component, make expedited permitting available. Forcing these small projects to undergo the full Commercial Review and Site Permitting process dramatically extends the project timeline and disincentivizes the development of anything but McMansions and high rises.
Sarah Mitchell, a 4th grade teacher, shares her story of how Austin's home prices have made life a challenge while continuing her career and providing for her family.
2. Make Underutilized City Property Available for Housing
Half the cost of any new construction project is the cost of the land. The City of Austin is one of the largest landowners in the region, yet it has rarely taken its own land and dedicated it to workforce housing developments. It’s time to put everything on the table to address the affordability crisis. • The Austin Energy site at Justin Lane and N Lamar is one example. It has been "in the works" for over ten years and is only finally now moving forward. These delays are inexcusable. • AISD is starting to talk — and move forward in some ways — on workforce housing opportunities with their own real estate holdings. We need to aggressively explore partnerships with AISD, ACC, Travis County, and nonprofit partners to maximize opportunity of our current real estate holdings and land, to build deeply affordable housing for educators, essential workers, and low to middle income families. • We should also explore furthering the work of the Austin Community Land Trust (ACLT) that separates the ownership of the house from the land. It creates affordable housing by taking the cost of land out of the purchase price of an ACLT Home. It keeps housing affordable for future buyers by controlling the resale price of ACLT Homes through a Ground Lease and resale formula. If a homeowner sells their ACLT Home, the Formula Price ensures the ACLT Home remains affordable for the next family. To be successful, CLTs need access to land. Public land, such as surplus land and city land bank lots, can be an excellent resource in many cities to support CLTs. We should be providing city real estate to a capable nonprofit under the CLT model. • The city can also play a role in helping pivot dated commercial property to residential/mixed use zoning. We are shopping differently and we're banking differently. The commercial spaces of the 70's and 80's are no longer working for today's businesses and their customers. The city can set up dedicated teams for those who want to redevelop these spaces to assist with the creation of workforce housing.
3. Grow Transit Friendly Housing
Along with the increase in remote working since the pandemic, Austin voters passed Project Connect which will dramatically advance public transportation in Austin with 27 miles of rail lines connecting to the airport, work centers, entertainment, and shopping. Encouraging affordable development here reduces the need for parking, making more space available for housing. • Allow for increased height in Transit Oriented Development (TODs) with higher affordability requirements. • Reduce minimum parking requirements, allowing for improved response to the market and flexibility to meet unique needs of neighborhoods and coordinate with access to transit and proximity to major corridors. This would also provide the flexibility to allow for more housing space on certain lots.
4. Ensure Housing for Every Stage of Life
Austin has one of the fastest growing senior populations in the nation, and housing is increasingly an obstacle for older Austinites. It’s time to revisit the city’s policy on ADU’s (accessory dwelling units) allowing families to take in aging parents and allowing everyone to earn additional income to cover property taxes. • Loosen restrictions and improve this process to ensure all accessory unit types are permitted, whether they are in-unit, separate, front/back, etc. We need to remove size restrictions on an accessory unit, instead relying on other site development standards like impervious cover to determine eligibility. • Establish city pre-approved building plans for ADUs in order to grow our inventory more quickly. • Permit ADUs in all single-family zoning categories and on duplex lots. • Delete lines of code that says an ADU has to go in the back yard. • Eliminate age limit restrictions to build some types of ADU type housing. • Facilitate permitting of approved designs and pre-fab micro housing (mobile trailers/mini homes/tiny homes on wheels). This is another housing opportunity to allow people to age in place, and we can utilize the Austin Economic Development Corporation (AEDC) to provide interest-free, 20-year loans to those who are interested.
Will Mockup, a 5th generation Austinite, shares his story of how living in Austin has changed and has relied even more on his family for better living conditions as a senior citizen in an ever-changing city.
5. Create Stability in the Rental Market
Renters face even greater instability in the housing market than owners. In 2021 alone, rents rose 35%, making Austin second in the nation in rising rents. • While federal support like the American Rescue Plan is unlikely to reoccur, we need to examine the success of the RENT program and replicate whenever possible to prevent displacement. • Other cities, including Minneapolis, have shown the direct correlation between increasing supply to stabilizing rents. • A reduction in parking requirements, mentioned previously, has also helped spur greater housing supply to meet demand. • Rent control in Texas requires approval by the Governor, which is unlikely to say the least, but that’s why we have to use market incentives to encourage more workforce friendly supply, while also exploring every financing option to subsidize and support renters.
6. Make City Government Housing Friendly
The city’s housing permitting process reflects the nature of our politics: gridlocked. Powerful interests have created not just a slow, bureaucratic process, but inequities that have accelerated displacement. While supply is one part of the solution, rethinking our internal processes that favor the wealthy over public service and essential workers is a key and necessary step to achieving equitable housing solutions. • Break up silos: Despite the demand for housing in Austin, it takes far too long for projects small and large to go through the city permitting process, whether it’s a minor improvement on a residence or a larger affordable housing project. When it takes months – and in some cases, multiple years – before completing necessary approvals to build, the result is significantly higher costs passed down to future renters and homeowners. Stories are abundant of people who want to do good things and build creative housing projects, but the delays created by the city make good intentions a non-starter due to costs. • Provide Affordability Assessments: We have seen a significant increase in city fees to build homes and ADUs in Austin over the last five years. Additionally, application fees for simple zonings can cost $10,000 an application. These rising costs are directly passed down to future residents. As policies change, there is no current consideration by the city as to the impact on affordability. Having city staff provide a brief affordability analysis of the impact of implementation would facilitate the discussion on how we can make it easier and cheaper to build more housing that serves all of Austin. • Hire a Development Ombudsman who reports directly to the city manager and can troubleshoot delays and improve communication across departments. • Establish developer fees to improve staffing. Stakeholders have expressed that they would be willing to pay a processing fee if it would create adequate staff to get housing approved in under three months. Create additional "process fees" to support increased city staffing to expedite the permitting timeline for multifamily units. • Consider outsourced inspectors and others to address workforce challenges of the moment. Partner with local higher ed institutions, with focus on career tracks relevant to our staffing shortage.
Taken as a whole, these six steps represent significant steps towards stabilizing our housing market and making needed room for middle income families. I offer this bold housing plan with a commitment to preserve and strengthen the community bonds that tie us together. I get, though, how the pace of change we’re all experiencing can make any of us question in the moment whether this is still the Austin we love. But an Austin that loses its artist and musicians, that prices out teachers and social workers, simply does not represent the Austin values we cherish and should call us all to action. It’s the diversity ‑ people from all walks of life, skillsets and lived experiences — that make cities like Austin vibrant. As I said before, the affordability crisis has brought our city to a crossroads, and this election will shape who gets to live here, and who decides. In that light, I consider this housing plan less an act of boldness, and more an act of love.