City, activists differ on what makes housing truly affordable


By Jeremy Schwartz
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Thursday, May 05, 2005
(Story originally published in the Austin American-Statesman on January 30, 2005)


When Del Barron first saw the Pedernales Lofts emerging on the vacant field near her home, she thought they were building affordable housing. In a way she was right, but in another, she wasn't.
"Over the past 10 or so years, an important group of residents has been priced out of the downtown area," Larry Warshaw, who along with Perry Lorenz developed the Pedernales Lofts, said during a city-sponsored celebration of the lofts' opening.
"Musicians, artists, young professionals, teachers, government employees and others want to be downtown but cannot afford the inflated prices of Hyde Park or Travis Heights, let alone a million-dollar loft downtown," he said. "Our goal from the start has been to make downtown living affordable for this group."
For new residents, the lofts were truly a great deal. At prices ranging from $96,000 to $200,000, the lofts were their chance to leave apartments and become homeowners. As proof of the demand, 90 percent of the lofts were sold before workers had finished building them.
But when Barron learned how much the lofts cost, she quickly decided that lofts were not the low-income housing she had thought. "People like us, we couldn't afford that," she said.
Those different perspectives highlight an ongoing tension between East Austin activists and city housing officials about what qualifies as affordable housing.
The city defines housing units as "reasonably priced" if they are affordable for someone making 80 percent of the region's median income, or about $56,900 for a family of four and $40,000 for a single person. Enough of the units at the Pedernales Lofts fit that criteria that the project was eligible for waivers of permit fees.
But activists say the 80 percent threshold prices out most long-term East Austin residents. For such residents to buy into the new developments, activists have urged city officials to encourage projects with more affordable units, closer to 40 percent to 50 percent of the region's median income and more in line with average East Austin incomes.
Such a project is going up near the lofts: the Villas on Sixth, an apartment complex that will reserve some units with rents aimed at people making 40 percent to 50 percent of the region's median family income.
And under a proposed gentrification ordinance, the city would give tax breaks to developers who set aside 10 percent of their units for people making 65 percent of the region's median income.

Original Austin American-Statesman article may be seen at http://www.statesman.com/search/content/metro/stories/
archive/race/013005_housing.html
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