years ago, Cliff Fisher became another casualty of Austin's high-tech bust,
losing his job as a computer sales manager at Dell Inc. But getting downsized
might have been the best thing for Fisher when it came to finding a house
With the dip in his yearly income, the 28-year-old qualified for the city's affordable housing program and was able to buy a two-story, 1,400-square-foot home on the city's east side, overlooking Oak Springs Elementary School, for $115,000.
As part of the city's SMART Housing program, the house was reserved for someone making less than 80 percent of the median family income in Central Texas, which is $66,500.
In Austin, that meant that an individual making nearly $40,000 qualified for the home, which received tax breaks and a sped-up review process that probably saved the builder thousands in development costs.
Previously a renter in the Hyde Park neighborhood, Fisher could not afford a home on the city's west side.
"I bought into this neighborhood hoping it was on its way up, like Hyde Park was 40 years ago," said Fisher, who has since been rehired at Dell. "I love the diversity over here."
Critics of SMART Housing say Fisher's story illustrates a disappointing trend in a program that they had hoped would make significant inroads into the city's affordable housing shortage and would help combat gentrification.
And with city officials pushing for a controversial change to reduce the amount of time SMART homes must be reserved for lower-income residents, they say the program is in danger of becoming an affordable housing program in name only.
When city leaders unveiled SMART Housing in 2000, it was seen as the most aggressive city program yet to encourage affordable housing in Austin. And shortly after its creation, SMART Housing was named by city officials one of the city's best tools to fight the problem of gentrification in East Austin neighborhoods.
Gentrification — an established neighborhood being infiltrated by and eventually filled with wealthier residents — has long been an East Austin concern.
There's no doubt that in terms of numbers, SMART Housing has been a success: Nearly 3,000 single-family homes and apartment units have been built under the program, almost 10 times the number built under three years of the city's previous affordable housing program.
That's 3,000 homes and apartments built to exacting environmental, handicapped-accessibility standards that might otherwise have been built outside the city limits or not at all.
But whether the program has met goals of increasing the city's affordable housing stock and combating gentrification is another matter.
Three years after SMART Housing began, numerous housing experts say the program has created few units they would call affordable, and instead of halting gentrification might actually be stimulating such unwelcome change in East Austin.
"I think it's an infill housing development program," said Elizabeth Mueller, a University of Texas professor who co-authored a 1999 study that outlined Austin's dire affordable housing situation. "I don't think we should allow (developers) to do the minimum, get the benefits and not add to the amount of affordable homes."
"We have these units, but they're not affordable," said Susana Almanza, co-director of PODER, an East Side activist group. "They're not helping anyone by building these units, but they get to claim them. It's not fair to say they're doing so much for the working poor when they're really not."
SMART Housing officials say the economics of building new homes in Austin, where land values are steadily rising, make it nearly impossible to create housing for truly low-income residents without significantly more subsidies than the city can afford.
City officials say the program has filled a need for residents in the range of 80 percent of median family income. They use the term "reasonably priced" and say that before the program, there was little production of such homes.
They also note that most SMART homes are significantly less expensive than the city average of $184,826 and include the benefits of green building and handicapped accessibility standards.
Those benefits also apply to the third of SMART homes that are sold at market value: In a subdivision, developers do not have to sell all the homes at reduced prices but get higher fee waivers if more of the development is dedicated to lower-income buyers.
In essence, the program seeks to lure developers into the city limits and to stimulate growth of homes and apartments.
SMART Housing — which stands for Safe, Mixed-income, Accessible to the mobility-impaired, Reasonably priced and Transit-oriented — is separate from the now-defunct Smart Growth policy, which sought to move growth from environmentally sensitive lands in the southwest part of town to the city's core.
With a team of officials dedicated to permitting SMART Housing, funded with a budget of $500,000 a year, developers can pass through the city's notoriously labyrinthine review process in a fraction of the time regular projects take. The savings, which can be into the tens of thousands of dollars, are passed on to lower-income buyers.
City Housing Director Paul Hilgers said aiming single-family homes at people making 80 percent of the median income — and apartments at folks in the 60 percent range — is the most effective way to leverage funds and allow the city to funnel federal housing money to lower-income residents through other programs.
"SMART Housing is really the foundation of the housing policy; it's not by itself the solution," Hilgers said. "We require other tools."
about the rest?
folks interested predominantly in affordability focus on one year as if
we're losing something, as if we're giving up affordability," he
said. "But if the truth is, we will have less housing because of
a five-year requirement, then we will have less affordable homes coming
through the door."
Austin American-Statesman article may be seen at