Tag Archives: Austin affordable housing

Does Austin Really Have “Affordable Housing?” – And If So, Where Is It?

By Bill Oakey – October 28, 2017

Once upon a time, a little girl named Dorothy took a walk with her friends, the scarecrow, the tin man and the cowardly lion. They had been told there was a wizard in Emerald City and they were off to see him. Here in Austin, some folks have tried a similar quest along a different yellow brick road. They are in search of something popularly referred to as “affordable housing.”

So, just this morning, I called a City Council office and asked what I hoped would be a simple set of questions. Here they are:

  1. How many agreements has the City made with developers over the last 20 years to allow density bonuses or other types of waivers and exemptions in exchange for the promise of “affordable housing” units?
  2. Does the City maintain a database of these agreements, with the addresses of the properties, the number of “affordable units” promised and the criteria used to define those units as “affordable?”
  3. Over those 20 years of so, were procedures put in place to monitor each of those approved agreements to ensure that the affordable units actually got built, and were actually marketed at the agreed upon prices?
  4. Did each of those agreements include fines or other penalties for failure to adhere to them?
  5. Were followup actions taken in every case, to ensure that the agreements were fully enforced, and all applicable fines or penalties assessed and collected?
  6. Did each of these agreements contain language that required the units to remain affordable  into the future, after the sales to subsequent owners or the turnover of tenants?
  7. How many units in each of these approved development projects or subdivisions exist today within each project covered by these agreements?
  8. Is there a public webpage or a City office where citizens can go to find a list of these affordable units currently on the market for lease or for sale?

Are You Ready for the Answer That I Got?

I cannot reveal the name of the Council Aide that I posed these questions to. He is one of the very best of the bunch, and he gave me the only answer he could. What he said was…

“Those are all very good questions!”

While you are reading this, jack hammers, drills and buzz saws are pounding and whirring away in all quadrants of the city. Huge and controversial developments are now being built, with everyone who participated in the approval process tucking themselves into bed every night, believing that some of those new units will become “affordable.”

But does anybody know if that will really happen? How would we ever find out? Will any of the folks who pack their baskets and bring along their dogs for a journey down the yellow brick road ever get to the affordable pot of gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow? Or will they simply click their heels together and wake up to find that it was all just a whimsical dream?

Stay Tuned, Because This Blog Posting Is Going to the City Council

This may be one of those situations where if nobody knows the answer, then there is no answer. If that’s the case, I will be making a formal proposal to put in place the procedures that are outlined in my questions.

The Race Is On!

While you are reading this, developers, developer lawyers, lobbyists and engineers, etc. are very hard at work. The mad scramble is on to push for a speedy conclusion to the CodeNext final approval. Imagine a hundred thousand race cars on a giant track in the sky above Austin. There is a great golden starting gate and a humongous cannon set to go off to start the race. At precisely one second past midnight on CodeNext’s start date, the cannon will blow. Then every square inch of land within a zillion miles of the center of Austin will get a proposal for a new development project. A hundred thousand motors will roar to life in a hundred thousand bulldozers. HIgh above the sprawling streets in cities around the world, from Austin to Boston, from Dallas to Dubai, the champagne corks will explode in bankers’ and developers’ offices.

And somewhere in Austin, off on a grassy hill along one of the many corridors slated for new development, a little tiny mouse will whisper to the other little tiny mouse crouched next to him…

“Wasn’t there supposed to be something in CodeNext about affordable housing?” And the other mouse will reply, “Yes, I read that same story. Did you hear the one about Wendy and the Lost Boys? She can make them fly! Just by sprinkling pixie dust. Maybe we can fly too, and be like Peter Pan!”

Musical Accompaniment for this blog piece:

  1. “The Race Is On” by George Jones
  2. “Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland
  3. “We’re Off to See the Wizard” by the Munchkins
  4. “(Such An) Easy Question” by Elvis Presley
  5. “Answer Me My Love” by Nat King Cole

CodeNext Songs

  1. “Who Will the Next Fool Be?” by Charlie Rich
  2. “Next Door to An Angel” by Neil Sedaka
  3. “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” by Freddy Fender
  4. “The Next Time” by Cliff Richard
  5. “Next In Line” by Conway Twitty

Austin’s Economic Divide – Is There Hope On The Horizon?

By Bill Oakey – May 9, 2016

The unfortunate dilemma of income inequality is alive and well in Austin. But Austin American-Statesman business writer, Dan Zehr, recently highlighted a new report that shows one positive change. From 2007 to 2012, there was a drop in the concentration of affluent families in affluent neighborhoods. The bad news is that Austin and some other Texas cities remain among the most economically segregated in the United States. Worst of all, the segregation of the lowest income families in Austin increased during the five years cited in the report. You can read the entire report from Stanford and Cornell University here.

City Officials Have Gotten the Message, And Help May Be On the Way

One of the things I learned over the past few years is that “Affordable Housing” (capitalized) means something different in official parlance from “affordable housing.” The capitalized term refers to subsidized housing for low-income households. The HousingWorks organization, under the direction of Mandy De Mayo, is a strong community leader in that area. Here in Austin, we face an affordability crisis across several income strata. The hopeful news on the horizon comes from the City Council and the City’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Dept. (NHCD).

Last month on April 7th, the City Council passed Resolution # 20160407-024, which addresses gentrification and the economic divide. This resolution calls for NHCD to develop a set of options for permanent affordable housing. Preliminary findings are due to be presented to the City Council by June 14th, with a final report to be presented by August 2nd.

On Tuesday of this week, I participated in a stakeholders meeting with NHCD to discuss both types of affordable housing options – publicly and privately funded. This was a very interesting and productive gathering. Kudos to Erica Leak, NHCD Housing Policy and Planning Manager, who hosted and led the stakeholder discussion. Those in attendance included community members from financial, real estate, community housing and various other related backgrounds. We divided into groups to try to come to consensus on recommendations for affordable housing options. Some of the options discussed came from the Homeowner Retention Initiative, proposed on this blog.

There are some high mountains to climb in order to make significant progress in the housing side of Austin’s affordability quagmire. Here’s hoping that the City Council and City Staff will go big with innovative strategies that break new ground. Austin should lead, not follow, in the quest to build bridges across the economic divide.

And Now for the Music – Affordability Songs and Tales From the Economic Divide

  1. Blue Water Line – The Brothers Four, 1961
  2. Somebody Bought My Old Hometown – Bobby Bare, 1967, from the album, “A Bird Named Yesterday”
  3. In the Middle of the House – Rusty Draper, 1956
  4. A Dollar Down – The Limeliters, 1961
  5. Busted – Ray Charles, 1963
  6. Poor Boy – Elvis Presley, 1956
  7. Sixteen Tons – Tennessee Ernie Ford, 1956
  8. The Money Tree – Patience & Prudence, 1957
  9. Saginaw, Michigan – Lefty Frizzell, 1963
  10. Down In the Boondocks – Billy Joe Royal, 1965
  11. One Piece At a Time – Johnny Cash, 1976
  12. Patches – Dickey Lee, 1962
  13. Rag Doll – The Four Seasons, 1964
  14. Poor Side of Town – Johnny Rivers, 1966
  15. Above and Beyond – Rodney Crowell, 1989, first recorded by Buck Owens, 1960
  16. Ruby Ann – Marty Robbins, 1962 (Rare stereo version)
  17. Little Boxes – Pete Seeger, 1964
  18. You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly – Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn, 1978
  19. (We’re Not) The Jet Set – George Jones & Tammy Wynette, 1974
  20. Can’t Buy Me Love – The Beatles, 1964
  21. Uptown Girl – Billy Joel, 1983
  22. Dawn (Go Away) – The Four Seasons, 1964
  23. Crystal Chandeliers – Charley Pride, 1972
  24. King of the Road – Roger Miller, 1965
  25. Queen of the House – Jody Miller, 1965, totally hilarious “answer song,” country Grammy Award winner, #12 national pop hit

City Council Should Support Afforable Housing Resolution

April 6, 2016

To Our Blog Readers,

This is a guest posting from David King, a longtime volunteer neighborhood advocate. David sent this message to Mayor Steve Adler and all City Council members. I encourage everyone to join in this effort and contact the Mayor and Council as well.

Dear Mayor Adler and Council Members:

Please support Council Member Ora Houston’s request to include preservation of existing affordable housing in the resolution (item #24 on this Thursday’s agenda). It directs the City Manager to develop recommendations to use bond funds for permanently affordable housing. Please include in the resolution the use of bond funding for low- and middle-income homeowners to make repairs to their homes.

The City’s strategies to generate new permanently affordable housing units through upzoning and density bonus programs have fueled gentrification in Central Austin neighborhoods. These programs incentivize higher density housing specifically in Central Austin; thereby increasing demand for a finite amount of land. As a result, land prices have skyrocketed in Central Austin and the new housing units are unaffordable to low- and middle-income families.

Gentrification has pushed thousands of low- and middle-income families out of our Central Austin neighborhoods while upzoning and density bonus programs have generated relatively few permanently affordable housing units in Central Austin. Why do we keep utilizing strategies that worsen gentrification while producing so little permanently affordable housing?

Please enact an affordable housing monitoring fee for development projects that are required to provide onsite affordable housing or pay a fee-in-lieu. Austin has various affordable housing programs that require developers to provide affordable housing but does not have the resources to effectively monitor and enforce all affordable housing agreements and requirements. As a result, the effectiveness of Austin’s affordable housing programs is uncertain and most likely diminished. A monitoring fee paid by developers will provide the City with resources to verify compliance with the affordable housing agreements and requirements.

Please enact an affordable housing impact analysis requirement for demolition permits for existing residential housing. Existing housing is more affordable to low- and middle-income families than new high-density housing. We should do more to help preserve existing affordable housing.

David King

Click on this link to get to the City Council agenda. Then click Item #24 and click again on “Draft Resolution.”

San Francisco’s Affordability Crisis – Is This The Future For Austin?

By Bill Oakey – March 31, 2016


You can surely expect to find San Francisco on many historic lists of America’s most charming cities. But these days, the City By the Bay is in the throes of a major affordability crisis. That long ago dream popularized in the 1960’s by Tony Bennett with the words, “To be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars,” today feels more like a nightmare to many longtime residents. If we think affordability is bad in Austin, which of course it is, then we need to look to San Francisco and ask if there is still time to keep things here from getting a whole lot worse.

The recent HBO documentary, “San Francisco 2.0” lays out the sad reality of a once diverse and progressive city falling victim to the encroachment of too much wealth and the perils of the economic divide. Here are a couple of snippets from the synopsis on HBO’s website:

“San Francisco has long enjoyed a reputation as the counterculture capital of America, attracting Bohemians, mavericks, progressives and activists. With the onset of the digital gold rush, young members of the tech elite are flocking to the West Coast to make their fortunes, and this new wealth is forcing San Francisco to reinvent itself. But as tech innovations lead America into the golden age of digital supremacy, is it changing the heart and soul of their adopted city?”

“Alexandra Pelosi (filmmaker) has always been proud of San Francisco, in particular its ‘long tradition of embracing nonconformity.’ She sets out to explore how the arrival of innovators – the so-called “IT invasion” – is reshaping its iconic neighborhoods and forging a tech paradise in the City by the Bay. Pelosi talks to a range of subjects, from ambitious trendsetters bringing an unprecedented wave of wealth, to the entrenched communities of artists and immigrants who are hoping to hold onto the place they call home.”

Then There Was the Recent New York Times Article

Early in March, the Times published an article entitled, “In San Francisco and Rooting for a Tech Comeuppance.” It’s not much of a stretch to think of similarities to Austin. These short excerpts explain it well:

“The consequences for people who do not make their living from technology are increasingly unpleasant. The city is bulging at the seams, adding about 10,000 people a year to a record 852,000 in 2014. A one-bedroom apartment goes for a median $3,500 a month, the highest in the nation.”

“Signs of distress are plentiful. The Fraternite Notre Dame’s soup kitchen was facing eviction after a rent increase of nearly 60 percent. (It was saved for a year after its plight received worldwide publicity). Two eviction-defense groups were evicted in favor of a start-up that intended to lease the space to other start-ups. The real estate site Redfin published a widely read blog post that said the number of teachers in San Francisco who could afford a house was exactly zero.”

“All the renters I know are living in fear,” said Derrick Tynan-Connolly, a teacher at a high school for pregnant teenagers and young mothers. “If your landlord dies, if your landlord sells the building…and you have to move, you’re gone. There’s no way you can afford to stay in San Francisco.”

San Francisco has even had their own short-term rental battle, only theirs came in the form of a referendum. The proposition, which would have placed some restrictions on Airbnb got crushed  under the weight of big money. There were 1,959 minutes of airtime opposing it, compared to only 16 minutes in support.

The Clock Is Ticking for Austin…

Austin Photo By Bill Oakey

Austin Photo By Bill Oakey

The best thing we can do as a community is stay informed and engage with our local officials. One thing that does not bode well for us is that we do not have California wages here. And we have a State government that seems hell-bent on continuing to rely on local property taxes to support schools. Not only that, the declining enrollment in AISD fueled by families with children fleeing the city is destined to get much worse. Portland school enrollment took a steep nosedive in the 1980’s when their boom cycle began pricing families out.

We Need Comprehensive Affordability Solutions

City officials are seeking public input for a new housing plan that is now being developed. You can check it out and see a schedule of public forums,  ATX Housing Community Conversations. Then please check out my recent blog posting, “Saving Austinites From Losing Their Homes – A Homeowner Retention Initiative.” And finally, we can look forward to the comprehensive affordability report to be released next month by the local nonprofit, Liveable City.

For some musical accompaniment to this blog posting, listen to “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” by Tony Bennett, 1962 and “San Francisco (Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair),” by Scott McKenzie, 1967.

The Affordable Housing Issue That Nobody Wants To Talk About

By Bill Oakey – July 6, 2015

If you take a stroll around downtown Austin and find yourself within a few blocks of City Hall, the chances are pretty good that you will hear the chatter. If you don’t, just try putting your ear a little closer to the ground and you are bound to hear a certain phrase…

“Affordable Housing…”

As a sometimes City Hall insider, I’ve heard that phrase hundreds of times. But like any other popular buzzword, it has been abused and misused so often that its meaning and its value to the community have become very fuzzy. In fact, the fuzziness of affordable housing in the average person’s mind is surpassed only by the unfathomable convoluted mess of formal City policies on the subject. I will attempt to wade into that morass in a future posting. But first, let’s get one thing out in the open…

Almost All Official Discussions of Affordable Housing Center Around New Housing That Could Be…Might Be…Perhaps Even Ought to Be…Built In Austin Someday. Not Today, Probably Not Tomorrow Either. But Someday…

Walk into a meeting where people are talking about affordable housing, and you will hear about things like density bonuses to encourage developers to include affordable units in their new projects. You will hear about the need for more concessions for developers, more fee waivers from the City taxpayers, etc. Once in a while you will hear about expanding subsidized housing programs. And another popular phrase that keeps popping up this year is “missing middle” affordable housing. That refers to building duplexes and townhouses that should have a place somewhere in Austin, next to the McMansions and the Big-Box-Block-Long-$1,600-to-$1,800-For-One-Bedroom-Rent-With-No-Equity-Apartment-Community-Resort-Type-Buildings. (Sometimes more politely referred to as “walkable and bicycle-friendly, transit-oriented new urbanist activity centers).” Is it even remotely possible to build one of those things without it being so hideously ugly?

Getting Back to My Original Point – The Affordable Housing Issue That Nobody Wants to Talk About. Well, I Guess You Could Say That It Is the…Elephant In the Room!


Last week I asked a friend to take me on a drive through several neighborhoods in North Central Austin that…now, listen to this carefully…that ALREADY HAVE EXISTING AFFORDABLE HOUSING! There are, of course, pockets of housing like this in various neighborhoods all over town. Concentrate as hard as you can on a great big wish. Maybe if we all wish hard enough, somebody down at City Hall will pick up the vibrations. Let’s hope and let’s wish that there is a way for Austin to…

Preserve and Protect the Affordable Housing That We Already Have…Before Every Remaining Square Inch of It Is Scraped Away to Oblivion to Make Way for Gentrification!

Remember that I said that nobody really wants to talk about this. But all of you are hereby granted permission to not only whisper about it, but to stand on the rooftops and SHOUT ABOUT IT, until somebody downtown hears you. Now, this next comment means that I am really going way out on a limb. But why not take one final step and suggest that…

Austin Should Create a Formal “Existing Affordable Housing Preservation Plan.”

In order to do that, our local officials could look at other cities from San Francisco to the East Coast to find out how in the heck they have dealt with housing affordability and neighborhood preservation for the past 30 to 40 years. The pattern in Austin of chip-chipping away at every lot in every neighborhood, bit by bit, block by block, street by street until everything except luxury housing disappears is not the only pattern that exists in the United States.

As you gaze at the modest homes in the photos below, keep in mind that the dirt beneath them is most likely pushing up the tax appraisals to the point where some of them are no longer as “affordable” as they once were. But at least they are more affordable than what you will find in a fully scraped, gentrified neighborhood. For musical accompaniment, here is Gene McDaniels’ top 10 recording for Liberty Records in 1962, “Chip Chip.” 

A Photo Tour of North Central Austin’s Existing Affordable Housing







Affordable Housing Builder Hit With Tax Roadblock

By Bill Oakey – July 17, 2014

Today I got an email that really hammers home the critical problems with Austin affordable housing.  An independent builder, Eric Femrite, has been hit with high property tax appraisals that will prevent him from being able to assist the low-income renters on two of his properties.  Mr. Femrite is a dedicated affordable housing advocate.

With ten years of experience in the field, he is the very type of person that our leaders should be encouraging in every way possible.  Instead, we find that his efforts to fight gentrification and continue offering affordable housing have been thwarted.  In addition to the tax appraisal issue, he explained that there is much room for improvement in how funds from local affordable housing bonds are administered.

With an eye toward focusing public attention on this problem and the need for reform, I have obtained Mr. Femrite’s permission to post the letter that he has written to the Austin City Council.  The City Council may not be able to directly help in lowering his tax appraisals, but his dilemma should bring a new awareness of how important it is to fight for affordable housing, combat gentrification, and fix the tax appraisal inequities.  Regardless of how tough the challenges are, we must keep pushing for better solutions.

Here is the letter:

Hello Mayor and Council Members,

I am seeking your assistance.   I am a landlord and provide affordable housing for a living.  I currently have 21 houses, all with families below the median income level.  I am in the process of appealing my property taxes this year, and have hired a firm to protest them for me.   Unfortunately some of the properties taxes have almost doubled.  I originally built these homes under the Affordable Housing Program / SMART Housing.  Two properties  in question are1806 Perez St and 1808 Perez St went from a value of $228,000 up to $352,000.

There is no way I can cover these tax increases and continue to keep the rent affordable.  One of the families on Perez was a Hurricane Katrina Evacuee family.   They lost everything when Katrina hit New Orleans.  They have started a new life in Austin.   I am proud to provide them an affordable home to live in.  Travis Central Appraisal District and their tax increases are going to force me to tell these families they have to move, as they have been gentrified.  Please help me in my appeal to continue to provide Affordable Housing to these families.

The property at 1806 Perez St, Austin, TX 78721 already had its value reduced for 2014 to $336,000.   I have called TCAD to try to get this case reopened.   I have found they used incorrect comps in determining the value, and would like to appeal the case.   They told me no.   Could you help in getting this case re-opened?

I want to continue to provide Affordable Housing in Austin, as I know this is a main objective of the City Council as well.

Thank you for you assistance.  Please contact me.

Thank you,