Austin policy lets builders forgo red tape. The result? More affordable housing, less public input.
Tomás Ramírez moistens a reed, puts in his teeth, gulps down the last of his coffee and begins to play. The sound that comes from his alto saxophone is a mournful riff.
“I just sort of make things up when people ask me to play,” Ramírez says. The 75-year-old has played on Carole King albums and with the Latin pop band Beto and the Fairlanes. Last year, the Austin Jazz Society inducted Ramírez into its Hall of Fame. And four months ago, he got his own apartment.
“It’s mine,” Ramírez says, gesturing around the 430-square-foot studio apartment in South Austin that he says he rents for free. He spent the last couple of years staying with friends, couch surfing his way around Austin. But after suffering two strokes, he needed a safe place to live and play his music.
Ramírez now lives in Zilker Studios, a recently completed apartment building on South Lamar Boulevard. The building houses roughly 100 people, many of whom have lived on the streets.
Zilker Studios opened its doors in May. Walter Moreau, the head of the nonprofit that owns the building, estimates that construction wouldn't have even been finished until the end of the year if not for a city program he and others say make it easier to build affordable housing.
Affordability Unlocked lets developers bypass certain building rules as long as they promise to rent or sell at least half of what they build to people earning low incomes. When it was adopted by City Council members in 2019, the program was seen as a way to increase the building of low-income housing as a salve to Austin’s ever-rising housing costs.
And it appears to be working. According to a recent report by the Urban Institute, Affordability Unlocked has helped developers build affordable housing at a faster pace than any other city program. Builders and affordable housing advocates have called it a “game-changer” in a city that is hard to afford for teachers, first responders and service workers.
But what makes Affordability Unlocked popular among some is precisely what makes others question its validity: the ability to bypass steps in the process, particularly those that open these developments to public debate.
Like many municipalities in the country, Austin has hundreds of pages of rules that dictate how land can be used. The city’s controversial land development code not only determines whether someone can build a house or an apartment building, but it also controls how tall a building can be and how many people can live there.
If a property owner wants to build something other than what is allowed, they typically need to go in front of a government body and ask permission. Cities are required by state law to alert neighbors to any requested changes and to hold a hearing where members of the public can weigh in.
More often than not, residents protest new development, even if it promises to house some of the city’s lowest-income residents. In Austin, developers who build large, affordable apartment complexes estimate this process can add six to eight months (and sometimes more) to a building timeline.
“That's time and money,” said Megan Lasch, who owns O-SDA Industries, a real estate firm that works on affordable housing projects in Texas.
So in 2019, City Council members set about making this easier by estabilishing the Affordability Unlocked program. It allows developers to build without rules that restrict height, density and parking, and allows them to bypass some of the public process. In return, these builders have to rent or sell at least half of the homes they build to people earning less than the city’s median income.
“I know many of us have gone through lots of painful affordable housing zoning cases,” then-Austin Council Member Greg Casar said before the vote in 2019. “My hope is that … we will see way, way fewer of those and just help people that are trying to do the right thing by housing low-income people, by helping people stay in this city. That we will just get out of their way.”
His hope appears to have materialized.
On a recent weekday morning, Lasch donned a yellow hard hat atop her wavy black hair. Workers walked past her focused on the job at hand: finishing the framing of a five-story apartment complex in Northwest Austin.
Lasch said these homes would have taken longer to build without Affordability Unlocked. She would have had to go in front of city officials to ask for permission to build less parking and to put the building closer to the property lines.
In the spring, when Lasch anticipates construction will finish, more than half of the 116 apartments will be rented to people earning less than $49,000 a year. Depending on their exact incomes, tenants will pay anywhere from $650 to $1,300 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. (This is based on the federal government’s definition of “affordable,” which is that people should pay no more than 30% of their income toward housing.)
Income-restricted apartments like these are being built as renters and homebuyers shake off several years of incredible price rises. Between 2020 and 2022, the average rent in the Austin area rose 32%, peaking at $1,687 a month last summer. Prices have begun to fall. But they remain far above pre-pandemic numbers.
That's why, supporters argue, Austin needs programs like Affordability Unlocked.
According to an analysis of city data by KUT, developers using Affordability Unlocked have built or are set to finish roughly 6,100 homes that will be rented or sold to people making less than the median income. (In 2023, that number is $85,600 for someone living alone.)
About a third of these homes will be set aside for people earning half of the median income; for a family of four, that equates to less than $58,400 a year.
Builders using Affordability Unlocked are constructing affordable housing at a faster rate than developers using other affordable housing programs. For example, developers working with Affordability Unlocked are building just over 1,500 homes a year for low- and middle-income residents. In the decade before the city adopted the program, developers using other incentive programs built about 900 affordable homes a year.
“Affordability Unlocked is absolutely a game-changer in terms of dramatically expanding the number of locations in Austin where you can build an affordable housing project,” said Conor Kenny, a principal at Capital A Housing, an affordable housing developer.
Builders told KUT that without having to go in front of city officials and get permission to ignore certain building rules — a process that involves a level of risk — they can be more aggressive when bidding for land. That’s not to say that suddenly affordable housing developers can build in parts of town like pricy West Austin; most of these homes are still being built east of MoPac.
But they’re getting built — and quickly. To some in a city where you need to make roughly $65,000 a year to afford the average rent, Affordability Unlocked is a no-brainer.
“I don't know how many studies you have to do to say we need affordable housing,” said Sarah Andre, CEO of Structure Development, an affordable housing consulting firm. Andre is currently using Affordability Unlocked to build condominiums in South Austin, half of which will be sold to people making less than $65,000 a year. Currently, you’d have to earn about $180,000 a year to afford to buy the median-priced home in Austin.
“At this point, average citizens understand [affordable housing] and know we need it. So, adding a year to that process, it’s just time and money and effort," Andre said. "In the meantime, somebody could actually be living there.”
Affordability Unlocked heads to court
On a Tuesday morning in late August, dozens of affordable housing advocates, politicians and renters gathered on the sidewalk outside a courthouse in downtown Austin. They held signs that read, “Your property rights end at your property line” and “Affordability Unlocked Rocks.”
They had come to protest a court hearing that, it turns out, ended up being rescheduled.
This week a local judge will hear arguments from attorneys representing nearly two dozen Austin homeowners. The plaintiffs argue programs like Affordability Unlocked, that do away with some of the public process, violate their legal right to know what's being built near them.
“It’s not about Affordability Unlocked,” Frances Acuña, the lead plaintiff in the case, told KUT. “It’s about the process.”
State law requires municipalities to notify property owners when a neighbor asks to change building rules on their land. Property owners have the right to file protests over these changes. If a certain number of them do, the government body needs more votes to rezone the land. (These rights do not extend to renters.)
In 2019, the same group of homeowners that includes Acuña sued the city over its failure to notify residents about potential citywide changes to zoning rules. They won that case: Two courts sided with the plaintiffs and voided the city’s attempt to rewrite its land development code.
Now, they say the city is ignoring these rulings. They’re asking a local judge to void Affordability Unlocked and three other city programs.
Roger Falk, a retired business owner and one of the plaintiffs in the case, called the city’s failure to notify property owners through programs like Affordability Unlocked an “ambush.”
“[Homeowners deserve] rights in addressing how their environments and their greatest asset and investment in their life is being affected and impacted,” Falk told KUT.
Supporters of Affordability Unlocked say the city does not have to notify property owners because waiving certain restrictions in exchange for affordable housing is not a permanent rezoning of a piece of land; it’s an opt-in program.
When asked what notification the city provided homeowners, if any, a city spokesperson did not respond to the question. Instead, Shelley Parks said the city "complied with [S]tate law notice requirements," including the judgment in the case over the land code rewrite. She also said the lawsuit over Affordability Unlocked was filed too late and the program could no longer be challenged in court.
Regardless, a hearing is schedule for Tuesday. And one person who may be following the outcome is Nicholette Lindsay. Lindsay said she is sympathetic to homeowners wary of tall buildings being built near them.
“I could definitely see from a lens of a homeowner that when you have new properties moving in, how that can change the landscaping of what you're accustomed to,” she said.
But Lindsay said she is also keenly aware of the difference affordable housing can make in someone’s life. A veteran and the owner of a private security company, Lindsay lives with her son in a home built by a developer using Affordability Unlocked. She pays roughly $1,200 a month for a three-bedroom apartment near the Mueller neighborhood.
Eight years ago, Lindsay and her son lived at a Salvation Army shelter after being evicted from their home because she couldn't pay rent. She said she felt uncomfortable, at times, sharing a bedroom with strangers.
Lindsay said that experience upped the urgency she felt to find a place of her own, “something that can be yours and is not going to be taken away."
Now with a home and a bedroom all to herself, she has decorated it in a way that makes her feel serene. She’s currently turning her third bedroom into a nursery for a child she’s expecting later this week. And in her bedroom, she has hung a canopy over the bed, adorned with soft lights and fake foliage.
“I feel very safe in my environment,” Lindsay said. “The idea is to make it look like an angel bed.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Shelley Parks.