What Can Austin Actually Do To Increase Affordable Housing?

Jun 19, 2017

For years, talk of affordable housing has dominated discussions at Austin City Hall. As the cost of living continues to climb, Mayor Steve Adler has expressed concern that the city is on its way to sky-high real estate prices like those in San Francisco. But how much power does the city actually have to influence the housing market?

Mandy De Mayo, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group HousingWorks Austin, says there are essentially two types of affordable housing in the marketplace: "affordable housing with a capital A and affordable housing with a little A."

"Affordable housing with a capital A" is legally binding. The city gets this in a number of ways. Take Austin’s density-bonus program, for example. It provides developers incentives – like allowing them to build taller buildings – if they add a certain number of units that are below-market rate.

There's also Adler's proposed fund to work with the private sector to buy and restore market-rate units. Housing that’s incentivized or funded through city programs is locked into an affordability requirement for a number of years. That means you have to make below a certain income to live there. 

Then there's affordable housing "with a little A": market-affordable housing, which occurs naturally without city regulation. De Mayo says these tend to be older properties, perhaps located farther away from the city center. Residents don’t have to meet any income restrictions, but they have to hunt for it themselves.

De Mayo says her group is working to develop an app that would create a database of affordable units.

“It would kind of pull together all of the different resources, and you could input what your specific needs are, whether you need a one-bedroom or a three-bedroom, how many kids you have, what you earn,” she says.

By the federal government’s standards, people should pay no more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Those who pay more are classified as cost-burdened; that is, they’re paying too much for housing and don’t have much left over for other essential expenses.

Jonathan Tomko, senior planner with the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office, says Austin’s definition of household affordability is more contextual.

“The city of Austin’s Imagine Austin comprehensive plan – it’s a 30-year plan – includes housing costs, transportation and utilities in that affordable housing definition,” he says.

But there are limits to what Austin can do. State law doesn’t allow rent control or mandates on affordable units. Still, the city continues to explore new approaches. On Friday, it released new guidelines for its density-bonus program under CodeNEXT. The proposed changes would expand the program to cover three times the land area that it currently does.