Dec 8, 2021 - Real Estate

Austin City Council addresses housing crunch

Austin City Hall
Austin City Hall. Photo: Asher Price/Axios

Desperate to address the city's housing crisis, Austin officials are trying to ease construction rules.

Driving the news: This Thursday, the council will consider directing the city manager to figure out how to cut the cost to build homes.

Context: The dizzying spike in rent and housing prices — home values are up about 25% over a year ago — has forced people to move out of central Austin.

  • Between 1990 and 2019, the quantity of affordable single-family homes fell from 20% of all homes to 2%, per University of Texas research.
  • Meanwhile, property values citywide have also increased at a faster rate than median income during the past 15 years.

What they're saying: "Our existing rules make it extremely difficult to build anything other than the most expensive housing type," Austin Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison tells Axios. "If we want to be a compact, connected city then we need to allow more units, more types in more parts of town."

Historically, resistance to such moves has come from some of Austin's central, historic neighborhoods.

Yes, but: Market forces are outstripping the city's best intentions.

  • Since 2017, the city of Austin has built only 7,010 units of affordable housing — less than 12% of its 10-year goal, city officials observed in a 2020 progress report.
  • City action is valuable, but "not enough,“ Awais Azhar, a board member of the affordable housing advocacy organization HousingWorks Austin, tells Axios.
  • Affordable housing bond money, gentrification, homelessness, evictions, roadblocks in state law and transportation are also key pieces, Azhar said.
  • Meanwhile, Austin's land development code rewrite is mired in the courts.

Recently, city and county officials have turned to transforming public land into affordable housing options.

  • Last month, Travis County and nonprofit Travis County Housing Finance Corp. celebrated the grand opening of the Travis Flats apartments.
  • The complex offers 146 apartment units mostly aimed at residents at or below 60% of the metro area's median income. For Travis County, that is about $59,340 for a family of four.
  • Sitting on Helen Street near Airport Boulevard, the complex is near an HEB, restaurants and public transportation options.
  • "​We know affordable housing is not just where you lay your head. We have to make sure that when we build housing units that our residents have access to public transit and are close to schools, medical offices and day cares," Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion, whose district includes the area, told the American-Statesman.

The bottom line: Affordable housing is an important goal to preserve the city's fabric, but one increasingly difficult to achieve.

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