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Did Austin just unlock affordability?

City Council approves plan to increase construction of lower-cost homes


A potentially game-changing plan to increase the amount of affordable housing got a unanimous thumbs-up from the Austin City Council Thursday. By loosening zoning restrictions and providing incentives for higher density in affordable and mixed-income developments, the Austin Monitor reported Friday, city leaders hope to make more housing available to residents for whom the cost of living in Austin is becoming out of reach.

Affordability Unlocked, the density bonus program proposed by District 4 representative Greg Casar, aims to cut through barriers in the city’s land development code that can make building of affordable and multifamily housing difficult, if not impossible, by waiving many requirements as well as granting incentives in exchange fo building housing that meets the program’s criteria.

As a baseline, 50 percent of housing in a development must be affordable. That means rentals must be priced for families earning 60 percent or less of median family income for the area, with some required at 50 percent of MFI. Home-buying prices must be affordable at 80 percent of MFI and below.

If their projects meet baseline criteria, those offering deeper affordability could earn additional site privileges (essentially amounting to bonuses that increase density and thus total rentable or sellable space), including height increases above a zoning district’s current limits.

The program is applicable in commercial and residential zoning districts (except in industrial zones and without waiving rules regarding residential uses near health hazards) and in most special-use zoning and overlay districts.

Other loosened restrictions in developments that meet basic requirements include the reduction of setbacks and minimum lot sizes, waiving compatibility standards related to heigh and setbacks, and bringing accessible-parking requirements up to current code. Impervious-cover requirements are not waived under any scenario.

Qualifying rental units must remain at affordable rates as described in the ordinance for a minimum of 40 years and owner-occupied units for at least 99 years.

Developers who want to demolish existing multifamily affordable housing and replace it must provide at least as many affordable units with at least as many bedrooms as are available in the existing building. They must also prove that rehabilitating the existing building would cost more than 50 percent of its market value before gaining permission to demolish and replace it.

The ordinance was amended to make cooperative housing structures eligible for participation in the program.

Casar first introduced the Affordability Unlocked proposal in February, with stated goals of maximizing affordable housing dollars, making it easier and less costly to build affordable housing, and allowing affordable housing in high-opportunity areas and areas facing and susceptible to gentrification.

The councilmember’s case studies for the proposal included the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation’s La Vista de Guadalupe apartments and affordable housing Habitat for Humanity was able to build in the Plaza Saltillo project due to benefits similar to those agreed to in the new ordinance.