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ATX Breakfast Series 2013
Austin Affordability Crisis

Austin affordability crisis impossible to solve in short term, say experts

Alicia Dietrich Leadership Austin blog
Leadership Austin breakfast
Leadership Austin's December 18 Engage Breakfast Photo courtesy of Leadership Austin

Editor's note: CultureMap Austin partners with Leadership Austin — the region's premier provider of civic and community leadership development — in this ongoing series of editorial columns meant to inform Austinites about issues facing our city. The current series of columns originate from participants in Leadership Austin's monthly Engage Breakfast SeriesIn all cases, columns do not necessarily reflect the opinions of CultureMap Austin's editors. The following is guest blogger Alicia Dietrich's recap of the December 18 breakfast on the topic "The Price You Pay: Austin's Affordability X-Factor." 

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As panelists gathered for the December installment of Leadership Austin’s Engage breakfast series, everyone agreed that the issue of affordability in Austin is complicated and all but impossible to solve in the short-term.

Panelists Brian Kelsey (Civic Analytics), Frances Ferguson (HousingWorks Austin) and Chris Bradford (Land Development Code Advisory Group) discussed ways that Austin can work to keep the city affordable amid very rapid growth that shows no signs of slowing down. The discussion was moderated by KXAN anchor Robert Hadlock.

Kelsey pointed out that Austin is a much wealthier city than it was 12 years ago. In 2000, one in seven households had an income of $100,000 or more. Today, it’s one in four, and that statistic is a reflection of the fundamental demographic changes that are happening in a city that's gaining 60,000 residents a year.

"We constantly need to figure out — with land economics going this way, which tends to really throw up housing costs — how we keep both the low end and the low-middle end served in our housing stock," said Ferguson. "And that’s going to take some very creative policies."

Austin is a much wealthier city than it was 12 years ago.

Panelists discussed multiple ways to address housing affordability, including facilitating new construction, preserving existing housing stock, using creative loan programs to create and sustain an affordable stock of homes, raising wages and improving education and workforce training for high-wage jobs.

Probably the most effective solution, however, is one of the most tedious and complicated pieces of the puzzle: rewriting the Land Development Code in Austin.

CodeNEXT is an initiative to revise the Land Development Code, which determines how land can be used throughout the city — including what can be built, where it can be built and how much can (and cannot) be built. The process is a collaboration between Austin's residents, business community and civic institutions to align land-use standards and regulations with what is important to the community.

Bradford noted that the housing stock in Austin must increase to meet rising demand as 150 people who need a place to live move here each day. However, the current code in Austin was written 30 years ago and has been amended many, many times since to become a complicated document that severely restricts the types of housing that can be built in the city.

Notice how many enormous new apartment complexes are going up on Lamar and Congress and Burnet? Bradford pointed out that the code is written in such a way that these are often the only types of projects allowed for those areas. The current code makes it very difficult to build all types of housing for all types of people needed in a city with diverse incomes and needs.

"We need to figure out how we keep both the low-end and the low-middle end served in our housing stock." — HousingWorks Austin's Frances Ferguson

"There's no breathing room to build small, multifamily buildings," said Bradford. "It’s very difficult — unnecessarily difficult — to even build things like garage apartments in central neighborhoods. One of the things we should be focusing on is making it easier to build small infill projects: garage apartments, making it easier to build duplexes, making it easier to build small multifamily buildings, to build four-plexes or six-plexes. Those can be added all over the place and provide a kind of invisible density that will be an important source of new supply."

Bradford and Ferguson both advocated for policies that preserve existing multifamily properties. Housing units built in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s are a lot more expensive in Austin than in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. While that should be where affordable housing exists, demand is high enough to keep prices high.

As part of HousingWorks Austin, Ferguson has worked on projects that create affordable housing in central neighborhoods through shared appreciation programs. Homeowners who buy an affordable home can't just flip it to sell it at market value and pocket the profit, and this approach allows a stock of affordable homes to stay in the market through multiple sales in the future.

She pointed to the Mueller redevelopment as a great example of this type of housing, and she encourages all city leaders and policy makers to tour these homes that are integrated into central neighborhoods.

Beyond finding ways to lower housing costs, Civics Analytics' Brian Kelsey pointed out the need to address ways to increase wages for residents. 

"When people see the solutions that Austin has, they change their minds," said Ferguson. "Because the picture that they have in their mind is something they built in the '70s. And the solutions Austin has are remarkable, are effective, are well-managed, and when they see that, the other thing they understand is that they can put this kind of housing in every part of town and not have a problem at all. In fact, it becomes an asset in their communities in terms of being able to have a mix of homes to serve their workforce. And the third thing they begin to understand is this notion of all kinds of homes in all parts of town."

Beyond finding ways to lower housing costs, Kelsey pointed out the need to address ways to increase wages for residents. He advocated raising the minimum wage and noted that improving schools goes beyond simply increasing funding.

"We need a different mindset in how we educate and train future workers," said Kelsey. "I would like to see a different conversation about the role of career and technical education to prepare people for high-wage job opportunities here. We need to figure out ways to make education and workforce training work better for more of our residents."

Though the panelists approach the issue of affordability through different lenses and with different solutions, all agree that the housing issue must be addressed now if the city wants to maintain its character.

"Housing is the only way you have an integrated city," said Ferguson. "It is the only way. Busing people around is not an integrated and diverse city."

Dietrich is a public affairs representative at the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin. 

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