Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Affording Austin

EDITOR'S NOTE: One of five final projects the Spring 2013 Data Visualization class for the University of Texas School of Journalism

By Emily Donahue, Ning Sun and Mary Ellen Knewtson

Photo by David Ingram
Austin is booming. The population grew 37 percent in the decade ending in 2010. It ranks as one of the fastest growing cities in the country, regularly topping “Best of” lists for events such as SXSW, Austin City Limits Music Festival and F-1 racing. And, Austin fared better than most of the nation throughout the recession that started in 2008 – in February (the most recent statistics available) the unemployment rate was a mere 5.4 percent compared 7.7 percent for the nation as a whole.

If that’s not enough evidence to convince you, just take a look at the skyline. Big developments dot the landscape and construction cranes dot the horizon. And the real estate market is on fire. Austin’s median home price reached $220,000 in March 2013, the highest ever, according to data from the Austin Board of Realtors.

But all that glitters is not necessarily gold. That same real estate boom has priced many families out of the market. And it’s not just home prices. Rental prices have climbed steadily for the past 12 months.

Tableau project missing for some reason

Steven Tamayo is a Social Work major at the University of Texas at Austin. He rents a one-bedroom at The Axis in the West Campus neighborhood. It normally would have cost $1,200 a month. But his financial aid package qualified him for the SMART program – a developer incentive to incorporate affordable housing into mixed use housing units. He pays just $799.
Currently, there are no requirements that developers include affordable housing in their plans, but there are incentives. The City of Austin’s SMART Housing Policy provides fee waivers to developers who meet the policy’s standards, among them providing affordable housing options for low and moderate income families. “SMART” is an acronym for “Safe, Mixed-income, Accessible, Reasonably-priced, Transit-oriented.”

“Whenever I found out I was going to be able to pay rent that was significantly cheaper than what it was supposed to be I just took it and ran with it,” Tamayo said.

“Finding affordable housing stock has been a challenge for this city for a decade,” said Paul Hilgers the President of the Austin Board of Realtors. “It’s a huge issue for every urban community but now with the demand we have it’s really a huge issue for Austin.”

The city’s skyrocketing housing prices are simply a matter of supply and demand, Hilgers said. “There are challenges, that continue to and obstacles to affordability that when compounded with the market, make it very difficult for housing to be built.”

Austin currently has a limited supply of affordable housing available to lower income families and individuals. And it’s not clear whether the city will boost that any time soon. Last November, Austin voters did not approve a bond proposal that would have built new housing units within Austin’s city limits. Prop 15 was the only one of 18 ballot proposals that did not pass.

Affordable housing advocates are preparing a revised proposal for this November. Although the details aren’t yet finalized, it’s likely that a bond measure would include similar provisions to the last, which the City of Austin’s website says included money to fund development of affordable rental housing, preserve existing affordable housing and develop transitional housing for the homeless.

“Austin has gone through tremendous growth but part of that growth has meant there are fewer options for lower income families,” said Elliot McFadden, the manager of a pro-bond group called Keep Austin Affordable. “We see housing bonds as a critical part of creating more of that kind of housing and helping those folks stay in Austin.”

McFadden said a new affordable housing bond would have both home ownership and rental components, geared to serve families making half or less of Austin’s average income. For a family of four that would be about $39,000 per year, he said. The bond’s home ownership component would fund home repair programs for seniors, the disabled and fixed-income individuals. It also would go toward so-called “land banks”, which are plots of land purchased by groups such as Habitat for Humanity that will eventually be used to help low-income individuals purchase a home.

Photo by Jennifer Morrow
The Austin Board of Realtors is waiting to see the revised ballot language before it makes a decision to support a bond proposal this November, according to Board president Paul Hilgers.

In a city that has historically and politically opposed both density and sprawl, Hilgers said, developers are facing the complex problem of meeting marketplace demands while finding ways to meet the city’s need for affordable housing.

“[Voters] want to protect their neighborhood’s character,” Hilgers said. “In many cases that means they are fine with affordable housing as long as it’s not in their neighborhood.”

Because of these competing interests, the eventual solution will have to be one that is multifaceted, he said.

Keep Austin Affordable’s Elliott McFadden agrees. “Certainly housing bonds are not the only solution, but they are a good part of the solution,” he said.

Both also agree affordability is critical to the city’s long-term health. As Hilgers put it, “it impacts our transportation system, our air quality, our education system, our educational system, our healthcare system. Having good safe decent affordable housing is a critical component for any community’s sustainability.”

Data Sources: Austin Board of Realtors, City of Austin


Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.