Can Housing Advocates Help Give Austin a New Lease on Affordability?

Sep 19, 2014

In 2006, the last time Section 8 housing opened up, 7,000 low-income Austinites signed up. Since then, Austin’s growth has been exponential and many expect the waitlist for housing to follow suit with Austin’s growth.

Housing advocates expect the signup to draw at least 20,000 applicants, but a long-time Austin housing advocate and recent MacArthur Genius Grant winner is working to increase Austin’s affordable housing stock without Section 8 by expanding low-income housing in existing neighborhoods.

Mike Gerber of the Housing Authority of the City of Austin estimates 20 to 30,000 people will apply. He says in 2006 people waited in lines for hours at the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex in East Austin just to fill out an application.

He says this time the system’s been tweaked.

“We think that there’s a better way to do it,” he says. “So we are doing an online lottery system.”

He says the center is following the lead of other Texas cities that successfully used the system. Unlike government websites like the Affordable Care Act online marketplace, these online lottery sites haven’t experienced crashes during traffic-heavy sign up periods.

But Section 8 isn’t the only tool Austinites have to increase affordability.

John Henneberger has worked to expand affordable housing stock in Austin since he was a student at UT-Austin in the 1970s. Henneberger says the city’s growth has offered a teachable moment to create geographically diverse affordable housing.
“[Austin has] learned the lessons of creating segregated public housing and only putting it on the East Side,” he says.

His proposal is that neighborhoods move beyond that – embracing affordable housing as a means to achieve diversity.

For over 25 years, Henneberger’s worked as co-director at the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service works towards that goal across the state, but one of his earliest projects was right here in Austin.

Henneberger advocated affordable housing in the traditionally affluent Clarksville neighborhood. Neighbors bought 19 properties and leased them out at affordable prices, which increased both socio-economic and ethnic diversity in the neighborhood because, Henneberger says, the perception of diversity evolved into actual diversity.

John Henneberger was awarded the MacArthur Foundation's Genius Grant earlier this week for his efforts to expand low-income housing.
Credit MacAruthur Foundation

The project helped Henneberger become a nationally lauded housing advocate and earlier this week he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant for his efforts.

His next goal, he says, is to have similar projects in every Austin neighborhood with even a few units reserved for low-income residents who can’t quite qualify for Section 8 housing.