Affordable Housing Advocate Says Austin's Land Code Rewrite Is An Improvement, But Could Be Stronger

Dec 11, 2019

An affordable housing advocate says the city's rewrite of the land development code would boost affordable housing, but there's room to do more.

The city needs to restrict redevelopment in areas that are "vulnerable or gentrifying," Awais Azhar says, while also increasing housing capacity in high-opportunity areas.   

Austin City Council members are moving toward a first vote on the code, which determines what can be built on a piece of land in Austin.

Listen to Azhar – who serves on the city's Planning Commission but is not speaking in his official capacity – explain what he thinks is positive about the proposal and where there is room for improvement.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.

Awais Azhar: We have a more robust density bonus program. It's essentially a program whereby we provide developers with an incentive in the form of increased entitlements. In lieu of that, they have to either provide onsite affordable units or they have to pay a fee. That goes towards affordable housing. We've had those in the past. We've expanded them substantially under the new code. And so they're spread out all over the city now. They're not geographically constrained as they were before.

Another thing that we're also doing is really preserving what we call "naturally occurring affordable housing." These are not income-restricted housing. They do not have any subsidy or program or any policy that is linked to them to the public means, but essentially have become affordable over time because they’re smaller in size or more aged out. Essentially, they stay on their lot as is, and they're not going to have a lot more development incentive in them so that we do not incentivize redevelopment.   

KUT: You said there was a third thing that you think the rewrite of the land development code does for affordable housing in Austin. What's that third?  

Azhar:  I think the third thing is really providing more housing choice. And I think this is not related to what I would call capital “A” affordable – that's income-restricted – but essentially increasing the level of affordability through the number of housing choices that we have.

Currently, a lot of what our code allows is you can either live in large multifamily complexes or you can live in single-family homes. It's very hard to find those things in the middle. And what we know from data around the country, and what we know pretty much from Austin as well, it's what we call that “missing middle” in the middle. I'm talking about the housing typology, not income here.

So certain of those units that are smaller in size actually happen to be more affordable – what traditionally what we call the “mom and pop” apartments. And we see these in large parts of our older parts of town. And so, we would like to encourage more of that kind of development.  

KUT: So a term – “high opportunity areas” – what is the kind of opportunity that we're talking about and how does that manifest itself in the code rewrite proposal?

Azhar: High opportunity areas are essentially areas that have been defined by various data and metrics -  and this conversation has been happening around the country – areas where we have better outcomes in terms of employment, better educational outcomes, we see better schools, better access to parks. And so we as a city have long held this belief that we need to provide more housing and more housing options in high opportunity areas.

So really in the code, we've made a move in that direction. We've increased some of our housing capacity or income-restricted housing capacity in high opportunity areas. I think it is something on which we need to keep working on and pushing in that direction.

We've had parts of the city that have been historically excluded because of - we talk about the 1928 masterplan. We talk about our historic injustices, racially restrictive governance. How do we create a more equitable city means we move more for housing in high opportunity areas because this conversation cannot simply be about equal increase in entitlements or equal dispersion of housing. It has to be a conversation about equitable dispersion of housing, which really includes us focusing on high opportunity areas.

KUT: We've talked about homeowners; we've talked about developers; we've talked about renters. Let's focus on renters for just a second. How have renters been represented in the process and how does the land development code address them? Can you talk a little bit about the role of renters in all of this?

Azhar: As a renter myself, that's something that's really important to me. I lived in rental homes for over six years in Austin – more apartments that I should care to mention at this point, because I've had to move for affordability reasons and other reasons.

And so, yes, I think that voice has traditionally been left out of the conversation in Austin and around the country. We see renters are not well represented. But I have to say, in this process, one of the things we're fortunate is we have more council members now who are renters. So I think there are folks who are really keeping an eye on that. We also have some commissioners who are renters, so we're keeping an eye on this as well.

But beyond that, I feel like when I go out there and I look at my advocacy work and I'm meeting committees, I do see renters are really empowered. I'm seeing a lot of renters and renters of color who are really going out and speaking for what they think is important for them. I'm seeing a move in the right direction and very excited to see that renter movement in the city. I wish we could do more.  

KUT: Do you think there are any tweaks that you would like to see in the land development code or anything that in this first version maybe didn't come out in a way that is quite like you think would be most effective for affordability in the city?  

Azhar: Really ensuring that we do not incentivize redevelopment of multifamily is particularly, I think, important in vulnerable areas, but definitely around the city. One thing I would mention in this regard, I think, folks might have heard Mayor Pro Tem [Delia] Garza came out with this concept of an equity overlay. I will be honest, on a personal level, I'm very excited to see that. And what she's saying is really redefined the geographies of areas that are vulnerable or gentrifying. And we try to really restrict any sort of redevelopment in them. We make sure the multifamily doesn't get redeveloped, and we provide increased affordable housing opportunities.

So I think that for me that is one of the ways which I think we looked at in the code, but we need to really do better. And I think I'm seeing that in conversations from everywhere that people are focused on that, and we're moving in the right direction. The way our current code functions - a lot would be better than that. So I think I'm definitely excited.

Are there things that we need to tweak and improve? Yes. But again, I'm very excited to see people are really focused in our community on this issue.

Listen to Azhar – who serves on the city's Planning Commission but is not speaking in his official capacity – explain in his full interview with KUT what he thinks is positive about the proposal and where there is room for improvement.