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Austin's Affordability Programs May Drive Up Costs Even Further For Some Residents

Pavel Mezihorak for KUT News
As the City of Austin seeks to provide programs to bring down costs for Austinites, some city council members are calling for a more concrete definition of "affordability" and more data across income levels.

City programs that aim to improve affordability may bring down costs for some Austin residents, but for others, they could make the cost of living even higher. That’s according to a draft report released Tuesday by the city auditor’s office.

The report provides an inventory of 85 city programs that affect affordability. They range from after-school programs to down-payment assistance for Austin homebuyers. Presenting the findings at City Hall, Assistant City Auditor Katie Houston told council members that Austin lacks the data to determine just how effective these programs are.

“Data that is collected is often not done in a consistent manner,” she said. “For example, some programs track the individuals served, while others track services like immunizations administered or number of kilowatt hours of energy saved, and that makes it hard to compare programs citywide.”

The report also notes that some programs may ease affordability for one group while further straining another. Take the lengthy list of special events co-sponsored by the city. Sure, they bring in hotel tax revenue, draw customers to local businesses and allow some residents to earn money by renting out their extra living space. But as those nearby neighborhoods become more desirable, residents may be priced out due to rising rents and property taxes.

"We need to help those most in need, but we also need to make sure we still have a middle class, because ultimately they pay for those programs." – Council Member Jimmy Flannigan

District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said the city needs more data on affordability needs across income levels.

“We need to help those most in need, but we also need to make sure we still have a middle class, because ultimately they pay for those programs,” Flannigan said. “So how are we ensuring that it’s not necessarily subsidization that creates a middle class, but that we’re addressing housing supply, that we’re addressing mobility, and really honing in on the breadth of programs that will do that?”  

Despite all the affordability discussion at City Hall, Houston said Austin still has no official definition of the term. She said that makes it harder for various city departments to work toward a collective affordability goal.

“And without this, departments operate within silos on affordability issues,” she said. “That may limit the city’s ability to define relevant performance measures and assess what progress has been made overtime.”

Not surprisingly, the report identifies housing as the top affordability-related expense for Austin residents, but it notes that the city has limited tools to counter market forces that determine housing costs.

Syeda Hasan is a senior editor at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @syedareports.