At the November 6 Austin City Council meeting, the relationship of CodeNEXT to affordability was raised by Council Members Mike Martinez and Kathie Tovo. Council Member Martinez expressed interest in learning which of two CodeNEXT approaches, “Option 2” and “Option 3,” would make housing more affordable. AURA strongly believes that Option 3, which represents a more thorough revision to the code than does Option 2, is the approach that will yield the greatest household affordability for the city.
Affordable housing can refer to two different concepts. The first concept is the plain meaning of the words: low costs, rents, and taxes necessary to acquire housing, whether that housing is provided by the private market or through public programs. In its other meaning, Affordable Housing (capitalized here for distinction) refers to important government programs that directly assist some residents with housing costs. AURA believes CodeNEXT Option 3 is a superior choice for both senses of affordable housing.
Option 3 will provide more Austin residents with affordable housing than would Option 2, for many reasons:
- Increasingly, as people in the greater Austin area have looked for affordable starter homes, they have found them not in Austin, but in surrounding suburbs. There are not enough homes in the central city to accommodate all who wish to live here and those who are left behind are those who have the least money. Option 3 will apply to more of the city, allowing more people to live in more parts of the city, and reducing the vicious competition for homes that has driven prices so high.
- As land costs in central Austin have risen sharply, our outdated land development codes continue to restrict housing largely to two very expensive types: land-expensive single-family houses, and materials-expensive high-rises. CodeNEXT envisions updating our code to allow “missing middle” housing types between these two expensive poles, such as duplexes, townhomes, and small apartment buildings. These housing types may be both relatively inexpensive to build and relatively land-cheap on a per-resident basis. These “missing middle” homes have historically also been attractive options for families. Option 3, by allowing “missing middle” housing in more of the city, will allow more households to take advantage of this type of housing.
- CodeNEXT is the implementation of Imagine Austin, Austin’s comprehensive plan. Imagine Austin expanded the concept of affordable housing to address “household affordability.” Household affordability addresses all costs a household faces in their housing choice; not just rent or mortgage, but also transportation and utilities. The Imagine Austin vision correctly understands that a compact, connected city leads to greater household affordability not just by lowering housing costs, but also by lowering transportation costs. CodeNEXT looks to actualize that vision through the creation of more transit-oriented development. Option 3, by creating more options for transit-oriented development in more of the city, will create lower transportation costs.
For these and many more reasons, Option 3 is the plan for household affordability. But Option 3 will also help Austin’s government advance Affordable Housing programs:
- Affordable Housing providers have been successful recently by building innovative, cost-effective Affordable Housing projects using newly-permitted types of housing, such as the Foundation Communities’ Capital Studios, built using the zero-parking downtown model. By allowing more types of affordable options in more parts of the city, Option 3 gives Affordable Housing providers more opportunities for cost-effective Affordable Housing developments.
- Our Affordable Housing system is overwhelmed. The recently-opened voucher program saw almost 20,000 applicants for only 2,500 slots on the waiting list. This is for a combination of reasons: ongoing problems with poverty in our city, as well as a lack of affordable homes provided by the private market. By allowing more types of private market affordable homes in more of the city, Option 3 will allow the Affordable Housing system to concentrate on those who need it most.
AURA is one of many civic groups that support the selection of Option 3. Other civic groups pushing for Option 3 include HousingWorks Austin, Downtown Austin Alliance, Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, Austin Apartment Association, Austin Board of Realtors, Real Estate Council of Austin, and Congress for the New Urbanism. This coalition of groups held a press conference at City Hall on October 22 in support of Option 3.
The affordability problems in our city are acute. We need to tackle them with as much urgency as we can. Affordability is a responsibility for the whole city. Option 3 is the only option that approaches the problem with the comprehensiveness and urgency needed.