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Housing Affordability in Austin: Progress & Potential

On January 30, St. David’s Foundation, in partnership with the Austin Community Foundation, hosted a panel on the progress and potential solutions to addressing Austin’s affordable housing crisis. Moderated by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT housing reporter and host of the podcast, Growth Machine, and featuring a panel of local leaders working to advance housing affordability in Austin, the discussion centered on ideas on policy decisions, the role of philanthropy, and how organizations can make an impact toward a thriving and equitable community. A video recording of the conversation is available here. In addition, the full transcript can be found below.

TRANSCRIPT: Housing Affordability in Austin: Progress & Potential

Mike Nellis 

Good morning, friends. I’m excited to see everybody this morning. We do not have Austin City Limits to offer. We have affordable housing to offer, maybe not quite as sexy, you might think. But we’re going to do our best. I am the CEO of the Austin Community Foundation, and we are thrilled that you could all join us today. Thanks to our friends at St. David’s Foundation for partnering with us on this important event.

We hope to shed some light on some of the progress that’s been made to improve housing affordability and the potential to do even more in our community. Your presence here today tells me that at the very least you have an interest in housing affordability and potentially share our commitment to the issue in Central Texas. I get a little nostalgic this time of year when it’s cold because I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But after the last couple of winters that we’ve had here, I’ve become quite the worse around winter. But it’s important to me because having safe stable affordable housing for folks has become a matter of survival. And we think about what our friends and neighbors have experienced over the last handful of weeks with the cold. It’s challenging. So affordable housing for those folks and our entire community has become more important than ever.

For those of us who are lucky enough to enjoy stable, comfortable homes in this extreme weather, that might be the only time that we’ve thought about things like our faucets and our pipes and furnaces. But for many folks finding a place that they can afford is increasingly out of reach–nearly impossible for many, many folks in our community. That’s why the Community Foundation board a few years ago decided to make affordable housing one of our top priorities. We wanted to learn and understand about how philanthropy can meaningfully invest in and engage in this issue. That question led us to the publication of this report in 2021, which we developed in partnership with St. David’s Foundation and JPMorgan Chase. It revealed that not only could philanthropy invest meaningfully in affordable housing, but it really should, and it must.

After reviewing the data and talking to lots of you in the audience, lots of stakeholders, and lots of developers, we realized there’s a missing piece of infrastructure in our community. And what we heard from developers was they needed fast, short, flexible, cheap financing. That sounds pretty great if you’re a developer in the room. And so in some cases, what they needed was capital for land acquisition, in some cases, they needed capital to smooth out cash flows, they waited for public dollars to come in and be released, while others needed to bridge their construction costs in anticipation of your homebuyers. Seeing this gap, we created the housing accelerator. It’s a program to accelerate the pace of affordable housing in Central Texas. We do that through research, collaboration, and philanthropic resources. One key component of the accelerator is the Housing Accelerator Loan Fund, which seeks to support affordable housing developers and advocates in our community who are making the impossible possible for our neighbors experiencing homelessness, our workforce, and everyone in between.

We’re excited to officially launch the accelerator in a few weeks, but we didn’t want to let this moment pass to give you a sneak peek of what we’re up to. Okay, I know you’re eager to hear from people who know what they’re doing, on the ground doing this work. We’re lucky enough to assemble a group of experts today that I think you’re going to enjoy hearing from. How many folks have heard Growth Machine in the morning? It is amazing, right? It is just fantastic. It was a no-brainer for us to support that effort.

Understanding the history of how and why we’ve ended up in this affordability crisis we think is part of the solution. So if you haven’t listened to Growth Machine, get on KUT and listen, it’s fantastic. So I’m excited to introduce KUT housing reporter Audrey McGlinchey, who wrote and produced the podcast though. For many of my fellow public radio nerds, she needs no introduction. Audrey is a native of Philadelphia and holds degrees in literature and journalism from Wesleyan University and the City University of New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR, Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Planet Money, and It’s Been A Minute with Sam Sanders. Her long-form work has been rebroadcast by the Third Coast International Audio Festival and performed as part of Pop Up Magazine in 2021. Audrey won a national Edward R. Murrow award for her feature reporting. Audrey, thanks for being here.

Audrey McGlinchy 

Hi, thank you all for having me. I talk to a microphone every day but doing it in front of people is extremely nerve-racking. So thank you all for being here with me. As Mike mentioned, my name is Audrey, and I cover housing for KUT News, Austin’s NPR station. I feel so privileged and grateful to cover a topic that I think everyone in this city talks about. And frankly, I think so many of those people are worried about it. As Mike mentioned, this summer, colleagues and I made a podcast about housing. It was about so many other things because housing is not simple, it’s very complex. And we wanted to look at how Austin went from being this affordable college town to this very hard-to afford tech-tropolis and this podcast was born out of frankly, just a frustration of mine.

As I was reporting on city government initially and then specifically housing, I started to notice patterns across the city and wondered why they existed. Why is there so little affordable housing west of Mopac, for example. Why does it seem like the only houses that get built in the city are either single single-family homes or large corporate-owned apartment buildings. Why are all these people moving here? All these questions are really hard to answer in four minutes, so we got to making this podcast. The way we went about it was we decided to look at a century of decisions, essentially public policy decisions that had been made that got Austin to where we are today. And some of these impacts were felt immediately while in other cases it took decades to fully realize the consequences of these choices. So we began in 1928 with a plan to forcibly segregate the city. We traveled down a little further ahead in history to the 1960s with the building of I-35. We went to the 1990s with a fight over the health of Barton Springs, back a bit to the 80s, when Austin first began courting early tech companies, and then back to the 2010s, with a battle over rules determining what can be built in the city. That’s a lot but the story underpinning all of these episodes was growth, population growth. For decades people have moved to Austin, the city is really good at attracting new people. It’s not really good at building housing for everyone. So as Mike mentioned, we call this podcast Growth Machine: How Austin Engineered Its Housing Market. But what I wanted to talk about here very briefly, was one story from the podcast, the story of how we came up with the name Growth Machine.

So it begins with a now-retired sociology professor, his name is Harvey Molotch. I got him on the phone, he’s a super nice guy, and in the 1970s Harvey had been trying to figure out how power and authority work in American cities. He decided it was about population growth and development, and that anyone in power wanted the city’s population to grow. If you think about it, if you own a business, more people moving here might mean more people coming to your business. If you’re a builder, you get to build more. If you’re a car salesman, people moving to a place, especially like Austin, need cars.

More people moving here, more money, grow, grow, grow, and all these people benefiting from more people moving here were financially supporting the politicians and helping make decisions about growth. Harvey told me he was mulling over these ideas and he was walking around one day in one of the cities he was living in at the time. He couldn’t remember if it was Chicago or Santa Barbara, which is really funny to me because I was like, Was it cold? Was it warm? Was there a beach? but he couldn’t remember. Anyway, so Harvey is walking around and he said it kind of just hit him, the theory he’d been trying to put a name to was “growth machine.”

He said this whole thing is just a growth machine. Harvey theorized that people in power in American cities use the city–its natural resources, its culture–to market the city to people outside of it, continuously growing the city’s population. Cities and the people who run them function as a growth machine. So I asked Harvey in talking about this with him if it was possible to turn off the machine, to stop people from moving here. He said in a place like Austin, no. The machine’s been running for decades, and she’s done her job. He said you can adjust the spigots, which made this like a water-powered machine. You can do things like, I don’t know, stop providing big incentives for companies to move here. But you can’t turn the machine off, Harvey said. So if we don’t have much power over the waves of people coming to the city we have to turn to what we can control. How do we house all the people wanting to live here and trying to stay here?

So in the final episode of Growth Machine, I considered a few solutions. We talked about building market-rate housing and the limitations of this as the only strategy, and then we considered more creative solutions. We talked about public housing, an institution that grew out of a desire to improve living conditions for low-income families, but has since, as many of you know, been vastly underfunded by the federal government. We talked to people about community land trusts where a government entity or nonprofit owns the land, selling the house to someone and thereby keeping the price of homeownership much, much lower. But in the podcast, we only had time to gesture to possible solutions.

I could be wrong, but it really feels like right now there’s a lot of momentum to try new things, to throw out the systems or at least parts of the system, and to really reconsider how we can make sure people have safe and affordable homes. So I’m excited to continue the conversation I tried to begin in that final episode of the podcast and to do that with a panel of people working on solutions to Austin’s affordable housing problems. I’m really excited to talk with them because they are the true experts. Thank you so much and you guys can come on up here and I’ll introduce them. So with us this morning we have Awais Azhar, HousingWorks Austin; Ashton Cumberbatch, Equidad ATX, Sally Gaskin, SGI Ventures; and Shoshana Krieger, BASTA: Building and Strengthening Tenant Action.

Audrey McGlinchy 

So I wanted to start with a question for everyone: say you were handed a check for $100 million today for you and your organization to use to further your affordable housing efforts. What would you do with that money?

Awais Azhar 

Gosh, let’s make it happen because I’ll take it! But I would think of dividing it almost into three buckets, there’s three things I would want to focus on. One is a little more self-serving. As you know, HousingWorks is a nonprofit that works in education, research, and advocacy. So I think there is a certain part that really has to go into that part about research and education and really advocating for policies that further a lot of these housing goals that folks are working on and sort of a large tranche of things. I think there’s a second part that is really critical, which truly is creating more affordable housing and preserving affordable housing.

So it’s a big, giant bucket of the production but also preservation and making sure that we’re stabilizing housing and the last one would really be this sort of anti-displacement slash stabilizing families bucket. And that includes the work honestly, for a lot of folks here as well. I’m sure they’ll talk about it. It works everything from stabilizing tenants and making sure that they have a good quality of life, they’re not being evicted, they’re not being removed. There’s supporting unhoused people as part of this conversation as well. But then also how do we keep homeowners in their homes and stabilize them as well? So really, it’s pretty much everything under the sun. But you can imagine, honestly, that really a lot of these things require a significant amount of resources to do that. And we have folks in our community who are doing it, part of it is scaling a lot of that work.

Sally Gaskin 

Wow, $100 million. You know, what I have found as a developer for funding is what the city is doing in Austin with the general obligation bond funding, the gap funding, that they’re using for affordable developments, because there’s always a gap between your available resources, either through the bond program, and 4% tax credits or the 9% tax credit program that are your primary funders of affordable housing. There’s still a gap and so that $100 million would go would be a great assist.

As Awais said, I think that we really do need to spend some money on policy and on the prevention of homelessness. We’ve got to come up with a way to have an evergreen fund, for affordable housing and for services for at-risk and for permanent supportive housing. And everything we can do to keep people out of homelessness is huge. Once we already have this issue with homelessness, we’ve got the stabilization process of wraparound services. In many ways, the actual development of these permanent supportive housing communities is almost the easy part. And trust me it’s not easy. But the services are so critical and and they are so expensive.

So there’s there’s just way too many ways. Can we increase that tack? But it would be a great start, and also to help fund the organizations that are doing some of this heavy lifting. The impact funds, the Austin Community Foundation fund, the St. David’s Foundation, those organizations are coming in and just filling gaps that, as Mike said, these are gaps that need really quick resolutions. They’re not all that big, all the time, but they take a good amount of money, but they are filling some really important gaps in this delivery of units.

Shoshana Krieger 

I think BASTA would give some of the money to a community land trust because we would want to use some of the money for organizing ourselves, but we think organizing should be separate from the housing provider. And the community land trust would be investing in rental housing, because contrary to much of the kind of narrative around CLTs is they don’t just need to be for homeownership projects. This CLT would buy properties, existing multifamily Class C properties in areas like Rundberg or parts of South Austin where there’s kind of a sweet spot of still being close enough to the central city but the prices are more affordable. Buy those properties, and create a management company: a huge gap in our ecosystem right now is we don’t have mission-based good management companies.

So even if we have CLTs, we have Community Development Corporations, we don’t have people who actually care about the tenants they live with managing the properties, then we have a gap. We have some in-house management at some of our existing affordable housing providers who are doing a great job but we don’t have a management company, which can contract with a whole bunch of small CDCs throughout the city.

So I’d use some of that money to be like, how are we getting a management company that wants to do eviction prevention plans to make sure that tenants have opportunities and we’re working with people before they get an eviction notice, that we’re stabilizing people before they’re on the street. How do we make sure that tenants are not traumatized going into the office by bullying managers day in and day out? How are we not just creating units, but also focusing on the quality of the units. And then some of that money would go into organizing because organizing is also the way to always have that check on power, right? That’s the way of tenants making sure that they have a voice. They also would be represented on the Community Land Trust, of course, but that organizing is also a key.

Ashton Cumberbatch 

Well first, I say thank you for the check. To put it in context, let’s focus in on one of the communities we’re working in: Colony Park. For those that don’t know Colony Park is bracketed by, let’s say 969, 290, and Decker Lane. So about 20,000 folks who live there, the community was created about 50 years ago, but there are 208 acres of vacant land that the city is now negotiating Catellus to develop, right, so Colony Park was identified in the Uprooted study by UT and the city as an area very susceptible to displacement. Folks who live there already knew that but it’s nice to have UT confirm that. 20,000 folks, 22% in poverty, about 60% Spanish speaking, and about 22% Black: the displacement pressure is strong, particularly with these 208 acres being developed there. So I would take that $100 million and divide it into at least three buckets. Co-creation: that is working with the residents in co-creation and helping them implement their 2011 plan, which has eight holistic platforms for education, health, etc. Right? Because building communities is not just about the structures, right? We need the amenities that go with it as well.

So co-create a holistic plan and implement that plan. So money would go into that. Displacement policies and strategies, right? You can’t just say, no displacement, you’ve actually got to do something. So many of the strategies, some of which Shoshana has talked about. So management with a heart, if you will, and a social equity lens, but also some tools as far as the policy that Awais was talking about, but also some things that sort of some of our residents need that own homes that need some significant repairs but they can’t afford it. They’re seniors or whatever. So funds to help them with significant repairs so they can stay in place and live in safety, etc., etc. Education.

There’s some folks that live there, whether they’re renting or buying, and not everyone needs to be an owner, but maybe they need some education on how they can do better as far as living with landlords. Maybe they want to buy a house. So buyer education, so I need some funds for that and equip them with tools for that. And then acquisition. Alright, because for some of the folks who don’t have the right mindset for managing and letting their properties go down, and don’t care about the situation folks live in, we’d like to buy some of those properties or with our partners, buy some of those properties or give some money to some of our partners so they could buy some of those properties so that we can retrofit those properties, renovate them, make them safer, make them nicer.

Just because it’s a low-income or affordable property doesn’t mean it can’t be aesthetically pleasing. Right. We’ve gotten in with one of our partners, ARA, and bought some land and we’re putting in four owner-occupied aesthetically pleasing homes in the Colony Park area and we’re looking with one of our other partners, Habitat for Humanity, to buy some existing places. So acquisition would also be one of the things we would use the funds for. Yeah, amazing. And again, thanks for the money.

Audrey McGlinchy 

What can I say, journalism pays very well. I want to drill down on some of these points you guys made, I’m gonna go back to you Awais, as you mentioned education, one of the things is understanding not only how affordable housing works, but how much we may need, how much we don’t have, where it is, where it’s going to be built. Housing Works and the City of Austin released the latest scorecard, basically, the latest numbers from 2022, tracking the city’s housing goals. When you look at these numbers, what do you see?

Awais Azhar 

As might be expected, I feel like there’s good news and bad news. Let me think, do I want to do bad news first or good news? First, I’ll do good news. There are a number of metrics on which we seem to be doing really well. I think one of the biggest ones is there were goals around preservation and preserving existing multifamily, and we’ve actually hit that mark, and gone beyond it. And really, most of that effort has happened in the past two or three years, not necessarily since the start of the five-year mark. So, the housing courts were thinking they were 10-year goals, like you said, we’re right in the middle of them. So we’re sort of assessing: what does this mean for our community?

We’ve done really well on things like that. Other things we’ve not done really well at all. I think the biggest one is really having housing that’s below 30% median family income. We have income brackets within the city, and these would be folks who are around the $35,000-$40,000 income mark. And so for folks who are within that, for either rental or ownership, there’s not that many housing opportunities, and we have not been able to create a lot of that housing. There are other structural reasons, and Sally knows these really well, like she was saying, it’s a mix of how you continue to construct the housing, you need to maintain and operate the housing, but you also need to have wraparound services often. So it’s expensive, but it’s really critical. We have a large population of folks who do need that housing so we’re lacking on that housing.

Dispersion is a really big one, or building in high-opportunity areas. So if folks don’t know, the high opportunity areas are areas that are essentially designated where people have better educational outcomes, better access to employment, better access to health care, and so many different things, and environmental factors factor in as well, and we had a goal of having 25% of our new affordable housing within those areas, but we’re honestly at 18% so we’re not where we would have liked to be and as you said, we don’t have a lot of housing that’s gone west of Mopac. That remains a very significant challenge, to be honest.

You know, we look at numbers by district and there were goals by district. The good news on this is when we started tracking this data years ago, I used to be an intern at Housing Works in 2014, folks, so 10 years ago, when I was literally crunching the data. What I can tell you is we really did not have a lot of affordable housing west of IH-35, and it took a while to break that barrier and go west of IH-35, and then it took us a while to break the barrier to go west of Lamar, and I think we’re slowly getting there. So my hope would be that we’ll get somewhere west of Mopac. But it requires a concerted effort.

Again, there are reasons why that remains a challenge. And there’s a lot of data, so folks should go and look at the scorecard, the last thing I’ll mention on the data is, you know, permanent supportive housing is another area where we have not met the goals the way we would have wanted, to be honest. The good news there is I think we have a lot of units in the pipeline, thanks to folks like Sally and the folks she’s working with, we have units in the pipeline that I think will start coming online very soon.

But we really are not meeting those goals right now. And I really want to remind folks that, you know, housing, in general, takes around three years in the development process, it’s a really long process, and it does require patience. When you go to affordable housing, some of those projects can take five-ish years. So from the time when the investments were made, and when the plans were made to when we’re going to see some of this permanent supportive housing and other things, there is a lag.

I’ll just end by saying one last thing, which is, regardless of all the data, we do see that there is a need for affordable and attainable housing, so not income-restricted affordable housing, across an entire spectrum. Everything from folks who are unhoused, moderate-income folks who might be looking for rental or switching, and frankly, up to folks who are either trying to enter the homeownership market, or seniors who are trying to sell and stabilize and move into other units as well. And so really the need is across the board. And it really is a challenge that our community continues to face.

Audrey McGlinchy 

Awais, you mentioned in those numbers, we saw that there are so few housing built affordable for people earning less than 30% MFI, which is roughly 25 grand a year. But someone on this panel probably knows so correct me if I’m wrong. I went to a press conference just last week about a new development opening and the numbers are always 60%, MFI, 60%, MFI, 80% MFI, and folks may know, our median family income in Austin has gone up incredibly so some of those are relatively high incomes and 80% of MFI is close to $70,000 a year. And so, Sally, I wanted to ask you, you’ve worked on projects like Cady Lofts, which is permanent supportive housing, what does it take to fund housing that is reaching people who are really not earning those 60%, 80% MFI?

Sally Gaskin 

I will tell you it takes a lot, and it takes a lot in addition to our traditional tools for affordable housing, which the kind of the core of that is your low-income housing tax credits, our bond financing, but primarily for deep targeting, income targeting, it’s the 9% low-income housing tax credit program that brings in a significant portion of the equity to the development and then you’ve got to fill in from there, and I’ll give you an example.

Cady Lofts is a $24 million project. We got from our tax credit equity provider about $13 and a half million dollars. That’s when we sold the tax credits to an investor who then became a partner in the transaction, and they pay an upfront discounted value for those credits because they take those credits over 10 years. And so we got out of the $24 million, we got $13 and probably just under $14 million. And then the city of Austin has the general obligation bond funding that’s phenomenal, it’s huge for filling some pretty major gaps. And that’s a Rental Housing Development Assistance Loan Program. So it’s at a very low, below-market interest rate, and it’s for permanent supportive housing development, and even in traditional affordable, it’s typically soft pay, meaning is cashflow dependent. So that’s huge.

In a permanent supportive housing development, you don’t you can’t have permanent debt. You can’t have hard pay debt, because of the services. For Cady Lofts, our 100 units are all dedicated to formerly chronically homeless. So we are getting referrals for every unit through the local COC which is ECHO, their coordinated entry system, they refer. We’re not going out and marketing. Cady Lofts. We’re getting referrals from this system, the folks that have been identified in Austin as chronically homeless, and that means they’ve been unhoused for a year or more, and the majority have been enhanced for quite a bit longer than a year. I think in some cases, five to even 10 years, and they have one or more disabilities. So they do not have income. Hopefully, they’ll have some benefits that we can help them apply for and start getting regularly but they’re not going to have income for rent.

So we have in addition, project-based rental assistance vouchers, 75 through the Housing Authority HACA and 25 through a program that the city started a couple of years ago, and they call their vouchers, Local Housing Vouchers. But they are project-based rental assistance vouchers. So we have the rental assistance vouchers, we’ve got the RHDA soft funding, we’ve got a grant from the Texas State Affordable Housing Corporation. We have a grant that will come into the property from the Federal Home Loan Bank. We’ve got assistance from the developer fee, the fallback for all projects whether it’s permanent supportive or just traditional affordable.

And then we have some amazing assistance from organizations like Austin Community Foundation, where we have some gaps. In fact, we were the pilot for their acquisition loan product and it made a huge difference because we had to purchase this property a year before we were able to get our permits completed, our equity stack and financing stack all in place, and partnership agreements done. That took a year and our seller had already waited a year from the time that we actually contracted for the land to when we closed on the land after we got our award of tax credits.

We knew we had the path forward and our seller stood still until we got that but that was almost a year that the seller had waited, they were not going to wait another year. In a seller’s market that just wasn’t going to happen. So, you know, the Accelerator Fund started this pilot and it was huge. It saved the development significant dollars in terms of interest carry that wasn’t going to do anything for the actual development, it was just the holding costs. So that was huge.

And then they’ve also come in on our construction loan because we had a gap between some of our home ARP funding we got about $1,100,000 through THCA’s home ARP loan. But we still haven’t been funded on that. So the accelerator fund has helped to bridge the gap on timing for other sources of income. We got awarded a Federal Home Loan Bank grant and we’re still working through the process of getting those funds released. But all of these funding cycles have timelines that don’t always and rarely, actually, coincide with the development timeline.

So, for Cady Lofts, we have like seven different layers of financing. And that’s on the permanent side. On the construction side, it’s about that many as well, different sources of financing on the construction side. So it’s not for the faint of heart. But then, the other challenge, of course, is the services because the services are to do the wraparound services for permanent supportive housing, we’ve got a budget of over a million dollars a year. And for Cady Lofts, we were extraordinarily fortunate that our service provider, which is Family Endeavors out of San Antonio, submitted an application through ECHO to a HUD special NOFO and has funding for the initial three-year period.

The initial contract is for three years, we are keeping our fingers crossed that it’s going to be a year-over-year renewal after that, but they are providing the services, the funding for those services of about $1.2 million to a year, for the first three years. I think St. David’s was really involved in that application as well. So outside of that service funding that will be project-based, there is also health care, which is part of that special NOFO that we have so many community partners that are contributing to that as well.

Audrey McGlinchy 

So it’s a puzzle.

Sally Gaskin 

It’s a huge puzzle. Yeah. It’s very rewarding. It’s amazing to see the community partners that are really coming together and creating these impact funds. I mean, it’s just phenomenal. It really is phenomenal.

Audrey McGlinchy 

So we’ve talked a lot about building new housing, what we’re building, where we’re building it, what it takes to build affordable housing, but Shoshana, a lot of the work you do is in older housing, that tends to be cheaper, but where there are a lot of issues for tenants. So talk to me about what it takes to do this sort of preservation and protecting people who are currently living in affordable housing. What does that take and talk me through some of the work that BASTA does.

Shoshana Krieger 

So one thing I would say is we don’t just work in older housing, we actually work in some new affordable housing projects, possibly run by some folks in this room. A lot of the new construction is not very well constructed, right? Or the new construction has managers who are like the managers at the older properties, where tenants are having the same issue. So I think that that’s really important, too.

So I think it’s really important not to conflate the production of affordable housing with quality of housing and production as units with the needs of renters, and we often see in displacement and affordable housing conversations, there’s a whole litany of: what are the things we’re doing for homeowners? Really important things like Ashton, you talked about home repair programs, right, like that is meeting the needs of the homeowner, of what they need to stay in their property. But when we talk about homeowner displacement, we don’t say oh, the answer to homeowner displacement is we build a bunch of homes somewhere else and then ship them there.

But when we talk about rental housing and being like this meets renter needs, we just talk about the production of units. And so we need to be thinking about what BASTA does, we organize tenants and multifamily properties to form tenants’ associations, and then we work with those tenants to collectively prioritize what issues they want to work on and then collectively strategize on how to get the solutions they want.

So we fundamentally believe that the folks on the ground have the solutions and have identified their needs and that’s who should be directing the conversations. And when you talk to tenants about their needs related to affordability, we have, as Sally you were talking about, this gap that our MFI is 30% or 60%, which doesn’t actually meet people’s affordability needs. We have folks at senior properties we organize in who are on fixed incomes and their incomes are going like this, and our MFI is going like that. So how are we how are we thinking creatively about local voucher programs, like you talked about Sally, but not just for new production of housing, but also for our existing Low Income Housing Tax Credit stock, right? That’s meeting the needs of the tenants who we’re talking to.

Another campaign, which we’re working on right now at a few properties is about fines and fees. We are seeing just in the last probably five years, more and more fees being tacked on, the decoupling of utilities. And then one property we’re at has three different trash fees. We have the regular trash fee, which is like $8. Then we have the trash administrative fee, which is like $5. Then we have the valet trash service, which is $25, which doesn’t even come around in and cats are getting into people’s trash and it’s a big problem. That same property, they charge a mandatory $85 for cable and internet. And this is a property receiving tax exemption for low-income housing, but they’re not calculating any of these fees into what the rent is.

So we really need to be thinking, if we’re talking about affordable rent, are we making sure utilities are included? Are we making sure fees are included, and that tenants know when fees are optional? We’re working at one tax credit property where technically, cable is optional, but none of the tenants know that and it’s really hard to opt out. So effectively even though that should be included in the income limits, it’s not, right? That’s meeting tenants where they’re at and being like, what are your needs?

We’re a majority-renter city, right? I think most people in this room know that we’re majority renters, 55% of Austinites are renters, but white Austinites are only 48% renters, and then we will look at Latine Austinites, 65% of Latine households are renters, and then of black househouseholds, 72% are renters, right. And those disparities we all know in this room and from Growth Machine, right, like that’s no accident. And so when we’re thinking about our policy solutions, if we care about equity, if we care about the folks who are the most vulnerable in our community, where we’re in Texas with some of the worst tenant protections in the country, we need to be investing in renters, and oftentimes, we I think policymakers, not intentionally, but make decisions which ignore renters.

One example recently was the fire department came to our office and was teaching us how to use fire extinguishers and all sorts of such good things, and they were talking about how you can call them and they will put a smoke detector in every room of your house. And so I asked, okay, well, what about if you’re a renter in your apartment? Will you come out? And they’re like, oh, no, that’s what the landlord’s supposed to do. So that means we as a city are paying for 10 smoke detectors for a house west of Mopac, and we’re not paying for smoke detectors in the majority of Austin households. And it’s a good program, right? But if we’re spending money disproportionately on homeowners there, then what are we doing to also be investing in fire protection for Austin renters?

The last thing I’ll say is just in terms of the vulnerability of tenants is just where displacement happens for tenants. It happens throughout the city, but we also see this with our current land development code and where rezonings are occurring, right, rezonings occur on the corridors because as Audrey you have talked about, our zoning is no accident. Where we have our single family, we put all multifamily on the corridors, and then where do we say growth should be, oh growth should be on the corridors. So we have renters absorbing a disproportionate amount of that burden. And then we’re seeing policymakers and elected just be like, Oh, well, we have 1,000 units coming where there only was 200 units as if magically 1,000 luxury units are going to the economics of that magically work out tomorrow, and they don’t.

And so I think thinking about: how do we make sure if there are 256 units where the current rents are at 80% MFI, how do we make sure that any new complex has 256 units at 80% MFI, how are we thinking creatively to ensure tenants have a right to return? How are we thinking creatively about making sure that it’s not renters who are pushed out, and that renters don’t feel like second-class citizens in Austin? And then one final thing, since I have my soapbox, is that oftentimes in policy documents what I’ve noticed in sections about homeowners, they use the term Austinite and homeowner interchangeably. And look at this, when you’re reading these documents, think about this, and this is not intentional. But then when you get to the renter sections, it talks about renters and tenants.

Renters are not talked about as Austinites. I was at a meeting over the weekend for a property that is going to be rezoned, and one of the tenants was there with me. When he introduced himself to the neighborhood association, and this neighborhood association is super solid, he said, “I’m so and so and I’m a lowly tenant.” And that’s not an accident. He’s the one who’s probably most impacted by this, so much more than anyone who’s just walking by the project, but he sees himself as a lowly tenant. And so I would challenge us to say as we’re producing affordable housing, how do we change that? How do we work on a culture where renters feel like they are equal members of our community?

Audrey McGlinchy 

It reminds me of when I first started covering city council and I noticed that so many people would come up when they were going to testify and identify as a homeowner. And I was like, I didn’t realize this was like a badge to wear and it took me aback a bit. We’ll wrap it up quickly, but we are running a little over. Ashton, I want to get to you though. Shoshana spoke about really working with communities who are already living in that case rental housing, but just certain parts of Austin, and I wanted to get to the work that your organization has been doing with Colony Park. You mentioned a bit earlier this master plan, some of these solutions and strategies that people currently living there have come up with as this development heads toward those 200-some acres, a huge swath of land in East Austin. So walk me through what parts of that Master Plan looked like, and what some of these conversations have been like?

Ashton Cumberbatch 

Sure. And I see Sergio in the audience from Catellus and he could go into more detail, I’m sure he’ll correct me later if I misstep, but I just want to back up one second. And Shoshana talked about one thing, and I mentioned earlier, co-creation and just the importance of that. And that ties into your question. So the community got a grant back in 2011 to come up with a plan and I think that’s so important, what we call place-based planning, a co-creation where, instead of the government coming in, or someone come and say we have a plan for your life, this is what you need, the community from the very beginning was involved in saying, This is what we want.

Their platform includes education, they have eight pillars: education, transportation, community health and wellness, housing, etc. And it’s important that, as we look at how we’re going to help develop or improve Colony Park, if you will, not only get the community to vote but that we listen to them. And as we’re looking at the 208 acres, and we’re looking at what we need as far as affordable housing, that we don’t just look at the 200 acres, that we consider all of Colony Park, right because otherwise we’ll be out of balance. And what we’ll be doing is creating a network of low-income housing, all right, adjacent to this new development. And so we’ll have not only we already have a city within the city inside Austin, but it’ll be a city inside the city, inside the city, or a community inside a community. There’ll be two Colony Parks.

And what the community wants, and what Austin should want, is to mitigate the displacement so that 25 years from now, when that development is over, we have one Colony Park, not two. There’s a lakeside portion of the eastern edge of Colony Parks Lakeside, and it’s dominated by 110, 112 units that are either fourplexes, duplexes, or mobile homes. And when you talk to residents, they talk about some of the issues: the absentee landlords that I talked about before, the dumping, it’s amazing. I mean, it would not take place any place other than in some of the Eastern Crescent communities. But you can’t picture the dumping. That’s our mountain.

People come from other parts of Austin to bring their dump into this community. The fourplexes, the duplexes, et cetera, and absentee landlord, so the funds that you’re going to give us, the reason that acquisition fund is so important, is that organizations such as myself and other like-minded organizations, ARA and others, we don’t have the ability liquidity to fight with the organizations from California.

We were looking at a property, a fourplex that was for sale, we were on the property, and there was someone in California who was looking at it via Zoom and the broker was taking them around, and he saw everyone there. He already had the highest bid price up. Just because he saw who was there and who was interested, just over Zoom, he added another $100,000. So we need the accelerator fund so that we can have the ability to move that nimble so that we can buy some of those properties and fix them up so that renters don’t see themselves as substandard citizens. Right?

The reason they see themselves as that is because we treat them like that, we allow that. Those of us who have the power to pick up the trash, to move the trash, we have the job, the duty, to do that, to make the neighborhood safe, to put in the amenities they need. We don’t do that and we allow them to do that. And they feel powerless to say anything, they feel that if they say anything… We were just talking to some parents the other day and they said, I’m afraid if I say something, my rent goes up, you know? Or this service will be cut, etc. So that’s why again, the funds are important so we can do the co-creation, so we can let them know what tools and we can fight with them. And we can be their voice to make sure that it doesn’t take place, that the mitigation of displacement doesn’t just become a term but it becomes an actuality. We have the intellectual, the financial resources to do it.

Colony Park is a great opportunity we have because it’s unlike Mueller where you had 800 acres and nobody was there. This is an existing neighborhood. Been around 50 years. Talk about broken promises: the city, and I’m not trying to pick on the city but it’s a fact, the pool opened up early this summer. That pool was promised to the residents when they first moved into Colony Park 50 years ago. So my grandchildren will be swimming in a pool that you told me I would have an opportunity to swim, right? There is no library east of 183. Central Health has purchased three of the 208 acres so we can accelerate the creation of a northeast health and wellness Center there in Colony Park.

And the city has listened to the community and so the library will have space in there because what we’re trying to do is to have a holistic approach. It’s not just about the houses, it’s not just about the rental units, it’s about all the other amenities. There’s no coffee shop in Colony Park. One of our partners is putting one in, thanks to our request, it should open up later this year. Many of the things that we take for granted in other parts of town aren’t there. So it’s that holistic approach. And that’s one of the things we’re trying to do. We’re using existing facilities, so the Turner Roberts rec center: we’re using that.

One of the programs we have, which we just started in October, was The Thinkery. So they’re coming in six times a year and bringing in STEAM. It’s science, technology, engineering, arts, and music, STEAM, parent and child activities. And it’s going great and we’re doing it there in the community. AVANCE, we’ve had them for four semesters, their parent education program, their entrepreneurship program. We brought ACC into the Turner Roberts rec center and just had a graduation of an HVAC certificate class on October 14, and folks, that’s great because one of the tools we want to give folks is the ability to earn income so they can have some options, etc. You get an HVAC certificate, average salary is $54,000.

So we’re bringing holistic services now, into the community space, we’re not waiting for brick and mortar to be built. Let’s use whatever is there and maybe some of those services will go into the buildings that will be built on the 208 acres, but we’re trying to let the folks know you matter now, as opposed to once the 208 acres come the amenities come in, because people have been asking for those things for 50 years. And what we don’t want is, the new folks come in, they get it and now we’re pushed out.

Audrey McGlinchy 

Well, Ashton, you gave us a lot to look forward to, and in my last very brief question, I wanted to just kind of leave people with action items. So, a listener actually emailed me yesterday and told me that a lot of my housing stories are downers and that I’m a doomsday reporter. And I was like, that’s actually a cool title, I’m a doomsday reporter… No, but it can often feel like that, right? I often feel like a lot of conversations about housing and the lack of affordable housing can feel very insurmountable.

So what are some basic things that folks in the audience or folks watching can do, what’s maybe one or two action items that they can do to get involved?

Awais Azhar 

You’re looking at me, I guess I’ll get us started. I think that I’m gonna say a few things and you folks will have to bear with me. I think one is, to remain hopeful. We do know what the answers are. We don’t know all the answers, but we do know what some of those things are that work and so it’s about funding those and scaling those. So one of the things I would ask folks is if you can participate is to expand the resources to do this work, really put in those efforts. I think that’s worth it. The resources are important because some of it is just scaling what we have, we have some great tools and models but how do we scale them and accelerate them? You know, like Ashton was saying, it’s not promises made over half a century but how do we sort of fulfill those promises much faster? And I think that requires resources.

I think the second thing I would say is also really supportive of affordable housing more generally, like Sally’s saying, I think, whether those are things coming to your neighborhood, whether they’re things coming to someone else’s neighborhood, how we as a community rally behind a lot of these things and sometimes really look at the big picture and say, This is what my community needs, even though this might not be something I need, this is something my community needs, and be able to support that and that’s a challenge that I think we all have to do in so many different spaces. And generally, I feel like Austin is a community that is welcoming and loving in that way, and that’s really supportive.

The last thing I’ll just say, as we’re talking a lot about sort of, you know, how much this costs and how expensive some of this can be, how many resources are needed. I’ll be honest: there’s really good data that shows to us that it pays off in the end in multiple different ways, and not just in terms of stabilizing other people’s lives. I’ll put that aside, the altruistic side for a second.

This does help our economy grow. We look at our affordable housing bonds from $138 million we created 3,500 jobs for construction, 300 jobs annually for services, over a billion dollars in impact in construction, and then ongoing, a billion dollars every 10 years from that housing. So just want to be clear: there are dividends for our economy, and there are cost savings that come from not constantly cycling people to shelters or to the emergency room or honestly the jail which is what we do with a lot of unhoused folks, there are long-term savings that come with this work. So I guess I would just ask people to remain hopeful with me and really challenge ourselves to remain committed to this work.

Audrey McGlinchy 

Ashton, something to stay hopeful about?

Ashton Cumberbatch 

Yeah. So despite what you may have taken from what I said, I’m actually very hopeful. We have some great partners, working in the Colony Park area to get that done. The Neighborhood Association, the CDC there, Catellus, the city, the Thinkery, AVANCE, Child Inc., African American Men’s Health Clinic, Sustainable Foods, and our many partners, etc, etc. And so it reminds me that you know, we’re really big on collaboration. We can’t do this alone, and as Awais said, it’s better for the city, for everybody that lives here, if it works. If we get the housing right, if we get the proportions right, all types of homes, all parts of town, it’s very helpful, right? Folks who work in retail or first responders, if they want to live in Hays County, that’s fine. But for those who want to live in Austin, because they work in Austin, they ought to have that opportunity. So we need to get that balance right.

So I would say that for those who are looking to help out, check and see what your skills are, play to your strengths, right? If we want to get far, when we go fast, we go alone. If we want to go far, we want to go together. And so let’s say plug in to, you know, whether it’s on the advocacy side or the resource side or whatever, where your strengths are, so you can get on board. It’s all hands on deck. And let’s go far together.

Sally Gaskin 

I’m with Awais and Ashton. I think it is hopeful. I mean, you know, I’m hopeful, I’m very energized by the opportunities. One of the things I’ve always appreciated in my life is to be kind of at the beginning of some big initiatives because I think you have the greatest opportunity to help shape that whole situation, whatever it may be, and Austin has just some amazing partners. The city is doing some amazing things and one thing that I didn’t mention in the two developments that I’m working on now, both are permanent supportive housing, Cady Lofts and the Roz, you know HACA, the Housing Authority, is my partner in Cady Lofts. They’re tremendous as a partner that brings a broad base of skills, expertise, and financial stability, in addition to the vouchers and things that we had to compete for, but they are they’re a strong advocate for all levels of housing in Austin.

In the Roz, it’s Austin Housing Finance Corporation that is our partner and bringing, you know their vast resources and opportunities and giving back and being a partner and supporting the housing. So I am very hopeful, I think we’ve got a lot to do. We’ve got a lot of opportunities to do it. I think that the resources are out there, but we just have to build the policy around it, we have to build the coalitions and understand that so many of our issues are, you know, related to all levels of housing. I mean, with the services and the communities that go with that but we just do have to expand our housing stock for all Austinites at all levels of income and and opportunity.

Audrey McGlinchy 

To close, what are you feeling hopeful about?

Shoshana Krieger 

Okay, so I’m gonna first go through a couple of action items and then go to hope. So action items: you can volunteer with BASA, we have our eviction mitigation team where we help tenants who are facing eviction and connect them with resources. That happens every few weeks, we flier properties, go to our website,, and Sign up. Follow us on social media, you can sign petitions, participate in action, and support the amazing work that my team and the tenants we work with are doing. Funding all of the great work on the stage and in the city is an important action item. In terms of hope: the work we do is hard. The work that the organizers on my team do is really hard. And I start to get pretty hopeless, and then I go to a tenant meeting. And then someone says, if we do this together, we have to fight this, we can’t let our children see that this is okay. And the entire room rallies around and then we do a chant: ‘when we fight,’ and then everyone says ‘we win,’ cuando luchamos, ganamos, and that becomes a refrain at the end of every meeting.

And I’m sitting there like, ‘Oh, woe is me, this is so hard.’ And also in that room (oftentimes it’s an outdoor space, under a tree) are folks who don’t have reason to hope, right? Like if I’m playing the violin for myself, they’re in really, really hard times and tough situations, but they have hope and their children are seeing their hope. And I see the person who at the first meeting is too shy to speak in front of a meeting and then I watch them rallying their neighbors and then I watch them testify at City Council and I watch them negotiating across the table from their landlord and feeling a sense of their power. And that’s not changing our affordable housing, you know, overnight, but those just individual personal actions, the building of community as you’re talking about Ashton, that’s what gives me hope, and that’s what kind of fills my tank, and what keeps me going.

Audrey McGlinchy 

That’s a great note to end on. Thank you guys so much. Thank you for coming.

Ed Burger 

I want to thank the panel for a really meaningful conversation. I took a ton of notes here, just to share some of the things that I found interesting and thought-provoking: Thinking about stabilizing family as an issue in terms of anti-displacement, filling gaps as a kind of fundamental need, supporting traumatized tenants, and thinking about the quality of affordable housing, not just the amount of affordable housing, housing, education, and the perception that renters have of being substandard citizens, and of course, the need across the housing spectrum. Then there was this last thought that I found thought-provoking, which was the fact that this is a very huge and complicated puzzle and that it requires patience. And I think that’s right. And I think it’s important to just underline that because if we are trying to make a difference, and we go in and don’t immediately see success, or immediately see change, then we might get out. The truth is, this takes time, and we have to be patient and I appreciate that.

However, we can’t just sit around and wait for it to happen. So we have to take action as well. At St. Davids’s Foundation, we focus on health equity, and I appreciate Sally that you brought up that connection with health because that is essential and to us, health equity means removing barriers so that everyone has the opportunity to flourish. Over the past two decades our approach to housing has evolved, shifting from seeing housing as separate from health to an approach that now acknowledges housing as a key driver of health outcomes as well as economic stability.

Today we view housing as a precondition to health, that’s how we see it, and important findings from our most recent Community Health Needs Assessment, which is echoed in the conversation, is that the lack of affordable housing is one of the top conditions identified by Central Texans as impacting their health. So the bottom line is it’s impossible to sidestep housing on a journey to true health equity. And in that spirit, we must realize, philanthropy’s many different roles to help catalyze and contribute to long-term synergistic solutions to address our housing crisis, especially when singular programmatic investments are not enough to create sustainable change.

Affordable housing is a community issue that requires a community solution where all individuals and sectors come together to do their part. Now happily, within our community, we have some major assets, including having some of the most talented and innovative housing and service providers in the country right here in Austin. And we’ve heard from four of them right here. So there is a lot to be excited about. Our community’s job, in my opinion, is not only to provide sufficient funding for the need but also to create the opportunity for those experts to experiment with new ideas. Now, as Mike noted, ACF has launched this Housing Accelerator Loan Fund, and this is one way to engage as we look to create more affordable housing in Central Texas. St. David’s Foundation has already invested three and a half million dollars in this loan fund.

I hope and invite you and your organizations to join us and support this as well. You know, in my previous life when I was a university president, I was constantly begging for money, and I’ve gotten a little out of shape, but I used to say, Give till it hurts and I love the expression that says, keep giving beyond that until it starts to feel good. And so I encourage you to learn more about this fund, about this opportunity. You can go to ACF’s website. There’s material out as you leave, I urge you to review that and see if you can join us and participate. I look forward to continuing this conversation on how holistically we can advance health equity through housing and create opportunities to promote optimal health across our community. Want to thank Audrey again and this amazing panel for a really thought-provoking morning. Thank you so much, everybody.