Austin:

A HOME FOR ALL

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Celia Israel Introduces a Bold Plan to Address Austin’s Housing Crisis

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.

 

The interests of a powerful few fostered a fundamental misunderstanding of the needs of our city, and have created a historic housing crisis. The housing 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.

"Our city is at a CRISIS POINT. 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. Housing and affordability remains our biggest challenge as a city and we cannot delay on moving forward given the urgency of the moment. In doing so, we must  acknowledge the powerful interests who have embedded a culture in city government that protects the status quo. It will require bold action to make the city affordable for all of us.

 

Some will surely consider this plan too bold, but I welcome the debate. Our city is at a crisis point. This election is about who can afford to live here, and who gets to decide.

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STEPS TO MEETING THE AFFORDABILITY CRISIS

1. More Housing for Working Families.

A limited supply of housing is at the core of Austin families being priced out and displaced. The city’s process for building anything more than a single family home is exponentially more time-consuming and expensive. Because developers are only incentivized to build expensive single-family homes, we are left with a housing gap for the “missing middle” – duplexes, four-plexes and up to 12 units that provide lower cost housing while maintaining neighborhood character and allowing more Austin families to thrive. These regulatory barriers to housing have only stoked the flames of our housing crisis. • Create “site plan light”: Currently, the site plan review process at the City takes roughly two years for anything larger than a duplex. We should not treat a six-plex the same way we treat a 300-unit apartment complex. Create a light version of the Commercial and Site Permit review process to speed up approvals of six to twelve-plexes • Expand qualification for the 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. • Our over-regulation is reducing our available housing options. Relax burdensome standards for missing-middle homes for families.

Marcia Bolois,

Educator and Counselor

Marcia was born and raised in East Austin, where she wants to stay and raise her family, but the rising cost of livings threatens to force her family out of Austin and into the suburbs.

2. Use our Public Land for Public Good.

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. We’ve studied and analyzed, but we’re not delivering or working with a sense of urgency to meet the city’s housing needs. We need more housing, not 10 years of debate over a complicated mix of community benefits to move forward – long-term leases, public-private partnerships, and other creative solutions should be 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 moving forward on workforce housing opportunities with their own real estate holdings, but it’s a reminder of how much more is desperately needed. Within just four days of announcing their partnership with Habitat for Humanity, AISD received over 1,000 inquiries from families interested in the 30 available homes. Under an Israel administration, we will partner with AISD, ACC, and Travis County, as well as nonprofit partners to maximize our current real estate holdings and land. These partnerships will result in 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. 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 should play a lead 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. If a builder is taking a dated commercial space with unused space (like parking, for example) the city should be a partner in rezoning that property at a faster pace to allow for workforce or deeply affordable housing.

3. Grow Transit-Friendly Housing.

Land use, equity, and transportation are all closely connected and the City has a responsibility to maximize opportunities to grow in a safe and thoughtful way as we grow our transit system. The passage of Project Connect will dramatically advance public transportation in Austin, with 27 miles of rail lines connecting to the airport, work centers, entertainment, and shopping, and it will not succeed without the City of Austin being a strong partner in how our land is utilized. • Corridors Unlocked: Unlock our corridors for more types of housing for more types of Austinites to meet the needs of our growing transit system. • The $300 million anti-displacement funding provided in Project Connect must be effectively spent and in play as quickly as possible, given the current real estate market. • Allow for increased height for Equitable Transit Oriented Development (ETODs) with higher affordability requirements. • Reduce minimum parking requirements, allowing for improved response to the market and flexibility in parking options 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 Our Seniors.

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 backyard. • 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. • Preserve existing homes and neighborhood character by passing a “Preservation Bonus” program to allow for two units onsite, instead of a single ADU, if the existing home onsite is preserved.

Wolf,
Retired Social Worker and Craftsman

When Wolf moved to Austin 40 years ago, the low cost of housing ensured he could live here on the money earned as a self employed woodworker. Today’s skyrocketing property taxes have upended the livability factor. He and others like him see their options shrinking as the cost of living outpaces earnings.

5. Provide Relief for Renters.

Because our housing supply hasn’t kept pace with our rapid growth, the market pressures are responding harshly to those who haven’t yet been able to buy. They are competing with so many others in our city that they are left with no leverage and few options. In 2021 alone, rents rose an average of 35%, making Austin second in the nation in rising rents. Other cities, including Minneapolis, have shown the direct correlation between increasing supply and calming rents. • While federal support like the American Rescue Plan is unlikely to reoccur, we need to examine the success of the City’s RENT program, should we be able to replicate it with city resources in the future to prevent displacement. • A reduction in parking requirements, mentioned previously, has also helped spur greater housing supply to meet demand. • If we can truly transform our regulations to spur more housing options in every corner of the city, we can relieve the pressure on the market and also pressure on renters and their family budgets. • Since rent control and other stabilization tools are banned by the state legislature, we have to use market incentives to encourage more workforce friendly supply, while also exploring every financing option to subsidize and support renters.

Jason Blum,

Musician

When Jason moved to Austin in 1998, he found a community that welcomed and supported musicians like himself, but dramatically increasing rents are pushing the creative community out of Austin. 

6. Make Government Work for Austin Families.

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, improve communication, and resolve conflicts across departments. • Consider outsourced inspectors and others to address workforce challenges of the moment. Partner with local higher ed institutions, with a focus on career tracks relevant to our staffing shortage.

There is no doubt this is the most difficult challenge we face and it is one we have faced for well over a generation now. As the city has grown, our systems have not adapted to the growing demand and have left many behind in the process. This is a challenge to change the culture. City staff need leadership and incentives to create and innovate and accelerate their processes and procedures.