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Austin is in court over state law and affordable housing. Here's what you need to know.

A housing complex under construction.
Ivy Fowler
A group of homeowners is challenging city policies that allow developers to bypass certain requirements if they agree to build affordable housing.

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Housing in Austin has become extremely hard to afford. About a quarter of renters in the region spend half their paychecks on housing, leaving them to scramble to afford transportation, food and education.

In response, elected officials have passed policies to encourage developers to build more affordable housing. This housing can be rented or sold only to people making no more than $64,450 a year, a figure the federal government has determined is a low income in the Austin area.

But how Austin gets developers to build more housing for people making low incomes has landed the city in court. A group of homeowners is questioning the legality of these policies. They’re asking a local judge to order the city to scrap these polices or be fined.

The court hearing is scheduled for Tuesday. Let’s get into it.

When did this all start?

In 2019.

That’s when 19 homeowners sued the City of Austin over its attempt to rewrite its land development code. Their argument? That state law affords property owners the right to be individually notified when the city considers changing rules that dictate what can be built on their property or nearby.

They also have the right to protest these changes and raise the number of votes needed for City Council to approve the zoning revisions. (Renters do not have these rights.)

A local judge sided with the homeowners, ruling the city ignored state law. The city appealed. It lost again, this time in a Houston appeals court. These decisions effectively ended the decade-long attempt to revise Austin’s land code rules.

So how is this related to today’s hearing?

This hearing stems from the 2019 lawsuit.

The same group of homeowners argues the City of Austin has continued to violate their rights. They say that by adopting four new policies meant to get developers to build affordable housing, the city has changed the rules of what can be built near them without notifying them or letting them protest.

One of these policies is called Affordability Unlocked. Passed in 2019, it lets developers build beyond what’s typically allowed if they promise to rent or sell at least half of what they’re building to people earning low incomes. (That $64,450 number.) Builders and affordable housing advocates have called it a "game changer" in the quest to build more housing for low-income residents.

Three other policies called out in the legal filing don’t require developers to build as much affordable housing (and one requires it only in specific cases). These policies let developers build taller on busy roads and build housing on land typically reserved for retail or office space.

So, what happens if the judge rules against the city?

The attorney for the homeowners has asked the judge to force the city to throw out the four policies.

It's unclear if the city could then reinstate these policies, making sure to notify homeowners and let them file protests. The city did not respond to that question when asked.

Audrey McGlinchy is KUT's housing reporter. She focuses on affordable housing solutions, renters’ rights and the battles over zoning. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.
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