Project Examples and Key Insights
One Talk Away | Inclusive Zoning gave us a delightful insight into the world inclusionary Zoning. As we dove deeper into the conversation with our guest panelist Heather Way, we had an opportunity to explore the innovative solutions the City of Austin developed to promote affordable housing and reflect on the new insights we gained.
Austin, as we learned, has been a test bed for many innovative solutions to create affordable housing. When experimenting with affordability periods Austin started with a 5-year requirement, which after community outrage and assessment evolved to 40-year requirement. The city was also successful in getting some amendments to SB 267 which allows them to prohibit discrimination to veterans.
A partnership through The University of Texas School of Architecture, The University of Texas Center for Sustainable Development (UTCSD), The Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation (GNDC), and the Austin Community Design and Development Center (ACDDC) let to the creation of the The Alley Flat Initiative (TAFI). This innovative partnership created new policies that allow for the adoption of Accessory Dwelling Units on underutilized alleys, often referred to Alley Flats. In addition, the Alley Flat Initiative developed a “one-stop shop” for income-qualified homeowners that provides personalized support through the development process. This unique partnership yielded the initiative an Ivory Prize in 2019 for remarkable innovations in affordable housing policy.
Mueller Airport Redevelopment utilized a formal airport in the City of Austin to develop a robust mixed-use community with twenty five percent of the units designated as affordable. This success was a culmination of efforts including an obligation bond that the City of Austin put in place to subsize infrastructure when it sold the land. The city also partnered with the master planner of the project to rezone districts to ensure affordability and allow the unique uses of land, such as the shared courtyards and community yards. This created a more compact, affordable, and innovative development. Another intriguing feature is the equity of the design standards. The affordable and non-affordable unit have no visible aesthetic differences. To maintain affordability, homeowners are obligated to sell to other income qualified households.
University Neighborhood Overlays (UNO), similar to the TCU Overlay we mentioned earlier, is an amendment and addition to the existing zoning. Unlike the TCU Overlay though, this overlay provided incentives for developers to build dense and affordable housing. West Campus was the first project to utilize this new ordinance as a joint collaboration between property owners in the neighborhoods directly adjacent to The University of Texas and The City of Austin. Affordability levels are tied to financial aid requirements, and the framework utilizes a form-based code to provide consistent guidelines for design. Since its implementation in 2004, the UNO program has yielded 53 built projects with over 10,000 new units. Of the total, 800 units will be on a 40-year affordability period, with an additional 447 in development.
Vertical Mixed Use (VMU), another innovative land use policy in the City of Ausin, allows relaxed development requirements and expands the capacity of existing land when developers dedicate 10% of their units as affordable. The zoning for 5350 Burnett, originally only allowed for 88 units. By utilizing VMU, the project was able to expand their capacity to 279 units with 27 dedicated to a 40-year affordability period. It allows the city to expand its portfolio of affordable housing and grants the neighborhoods compacted services such as smaller grocery stores that otherwise would not be possible. This can help with reducing commute times to day-to-day trips and improving the vitality of a neighborhood.
Affordability Unlocked takes a bold leap to provide enticing incentives and waivers in exchange for extreme affordability requirements. For the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation, these waivers allowed them to redesign the project to allow 8 additional units, making it economically more feasible and better able to deliver on the intended results. Although aimed to assist non-profit development organizations, Affordability Unlocked has been utilized by for profit developers as well, resulting in a total of 26 certified projects, 2700 new units, with 2300 dedicated as affordable since its adoption earlier this year.
The Grove, a master planned development, was built on former land owned by the Texas Department of Transportation. The land originally did not have any designation and was rezoned as a Planned Unit Development which carries a 10% affordability requirement for all rental units. This yielded 92 affordable rental units and 46 affordable homeowner units.
These examples showcase Austin’s plethora of incentivized housing programs available to increase density, waive fees, or relax permitting requirements. It is in such excess that city leaders have called for consolidating the best performing programs into a systematic land use policy. A recent vote by Austin City Council to rewrite the land use codes resulted in a lawsuit being filed by property owners demanding specific rezoning protest rights be granted as part of the reform. This grievance highlights the importance of having oversight over a program to insure it performs as expected. Monitoring is an important component of administering incentive programs, but as discuss prior, it requires proper calibration. Excessive regulatory hurdles can add additional cost to developments, which can hinder affordability goals. Too excessive and the options in addition to the firms that can participate in a project will be limited. However, without adequate monitoring, there can be difficulties ensuring the projects are delivered as intended and could lead to community disgruntlement.
Proactive zoning measures can be an effective tool to deliver affordability and accessibility guarantees when drafted with care. As a tool, they can also help nullify some of the challenges a team may encounter with NIMBYism, and the battles with rezoning. In that arena, it helps to have political support from state and federal institutions to grant funding based on inclusionary tactics. This is lacking in Texas currently, but some of the examples shared in Austin could be models to reference for building more robust public policies.
As community members, we can be advocates for the challenge. Most of the success in Austin are the byproducts of community organizations taking efforts to advocate for affordable housing policies. It stresses the importance of having a robust narrative on the problem, and the specifics of the outcomes desired. To echo our discussions at our last forum on The Developer’s Story, we could use a small prototype to test new ideas that we can then advocate for as policy. That said, we also understand that solutions in this arena require patience and persistence. For Austin, some of these policies required a 10-year journey from idea, to campaign, and to adoption.
New Ideas / Open Discussion:
Taking a deep breath, we realize there is some room for improvement in Fort Worth with some of our zoning policies if we are going to prioritize affordability and availability of housing. If we are going to serve a college population that experiences a 52% rate of housing insecurity, we will need solutions greater that one off projects. Given that many of the students will only have access to minimum wage jobs, we recognize that subsidies become a crucial necessity for any project serving communities that make less that 50% of average median income. We explore the idea of utilizing Montgomery County model to create partnerships with the local housing authorities to take ownership of the land to eliminate the tax burdens. This could help create long term partnerships with key organizational partners and help provide a platform to reduce the overhead of a project.
Nashville similar to Austin, utilizes incentive and funding programs to encourage affordable housing developments. The Incentive Grant stands out from the bunch and offers developers a grant to pay for the difference in rent between market rate and affordable units. The grants cover a 12-month period and give developers and cities another tool to achieve affordability. Given the plethora of approaches other cities have taken, we entertain the value of doing a collective effort to assess, share, and present alternative options for key city leadership.
Reflecting on some of our previous discussions at our forum on The Developer’s Story, we wonder if incentives could be based on the percentage of affordable occupants the development housed. This could help create healthy competition between developers to attract a more diverse mix of occupants in exchange for tax incentives, grants, or other perks that could increase the economic performance of a project. This might also spur efforts to design spaces with intention to serve economically diverse communities.
There is a daunting challenge with implementing inclusive zoning policies. It highlights the importance of working collectively and starting small with a few key champions that support the challenge of college homelessness. That said, Inclusionary Zoning would be a valuable tool to help diversify Fort Worth’s housing portfolio and give families greater economic mobility. Though there will be challenges with getting any of these policies implemented, it is important to not wait. One possible avenue to start the process is being aware of when Fort Worth plans to update zoning policies and when positions for the oversight committees become open. Open positions become opportunities for pro-affordable housing members to participate in helping script and administer zoning changes. Through an inclusive zoning group, advocacy efforts could be conducted across the region in partnership with other key groups that could benefit such as transit organizations or universities.
We identify that Texas Wesleyan University could be a viable partner in developing solutions in this arena. The area has already seen some remarkable growth and has been a great test bed for local entrepreneurship. Establishments like Black Coffee have made the area home and have the multiple new projects have be built given students access to many new resources. Texas Wesleyan University worked with Triple B’s a new bar and restaurant to bring a social element to on campus life for their students. This could be an open invitation to work strategically with a major university partner to test a new policy in inclusionary zoning. Reflecting with the success with West Campus in Austin, a student group could be brought in similar fashion to help advocate affordable housing and inclusive zoning reforms. Furthermore, could this be a model we could take to the City of Fort Worth to align their revitalization efforts to other joint causes around affordability.
For community colleges housing is not a common commodity that is provided. However, that trend has been changing and both Amarillo College and San Antonio College provide housing solutions to students. On a research trip to San Antonio I had a chance to explore the Tobin Lofts in full. They provide fully furnish apartments and use a unique pricing model that only charges students by the bedroom. This helps provide stability in a student's rent in the case a roommate becomes delinquent or needs to vacate. However, there is a stigma with community colleges as serving a commuter student base that can make the justification for housing difficult. This raises the importance again of a strong challenge narrative. Tarrant County College as we discuss does have an abundance of land, but it is matter of identifying if housing is on the list of priorities. Our group has been making grass roots efforts to foster the student narrative with the hope it will direct the much-needed attention to this challenge. Opportunities also lie with encouraging key trustee members to make this an agenda item or if deemed necessary vote in replacements if the challenge is not taken seriously.
Lifting zoning barriers has been discussed as a strategy in Fort Worth. However, as mentioned throughout the conversation, the policies must include incentives or requirements to ensure the desired affordability outcomes are met. A zoning policy operating blindly without requirements is unlikely to achieve any affordability milestones. It can definitely increase the supply of rental units, but more than likely serving the top brackets of average median income. Coming back to Tarrant County College, we learn about the investments the college made into developing the Early College High School Program which was paid for primarily through Tarrant County College’s budget. The college could be willing to invest in affordable housing projects if he right core partners can be recruited. Additionally, supporting data to illuminate how unstable housing conditions effect academic performance could help align the challenge to core college principals.
Churches have been discussed in detail at previous forums as prospective sites to do affordable housing projects due to the tax abatements naturally offered to religious centers. However, the abatements are only applicable for land being specifically used for religious purposes. For non-profit sites, there are certain tax exceptions available that can be leveraged. However, as we learn, this process is not consistent and depending on interpretation, the project can have its tax exemptions revoked.
A grass roots solution might lie in the form of a ‘Participatory Housing Group’ that could uplift the voices and needs of students. They could be a representational force to ensure the student voice is present in discussions with stakeholders around zoning, housing, and insitutional policies. The group could help bring the narrative to neighborhood discussions and work to find mutual agreements between NIMBY groups and the housing needs of students.
Closing Thoughts / Next Steps:
Developing affordable housing for college students is daunting challenge. Aside from the multiple environmental challenges, the plethora of policy and development challenges will provide barriers on their ow, along with the general population failing to acknowledge there is a problem in the first place. That said, zoning policy is the long term solution. Successful implementation of an inclusionary zoning program will bring the constancy and guarantees needed to ensure housing is affordable and available. We leave like most nights with many questions, but a clearer vision of what key steps we need to take next to move us closer in the right direction. The valuable insights gained will be additional tools that will support us on our journey. Together, we take a step closer to being One Talk Away from ending college homelessness.
Jesse Herrera | Executive Director | CoAct
Tanner Williams | Project Coordinator | CoAct