Austin affordability rule allows developers to bypass public input

A controversial housing project in South Austin is putting a new focus on an even more controversial city ordinance. It's a rule called "affordability unlocked," and it allows developers to bypass public hearings on certain projects.

A small tract of land, along the 7300 block of Menchaca Rd., looks more like a drainage ditch. But according to an Austin development application, a group called Capitol A Housing selected the site for a multi-million dollar, 4-story, 45-room housing complex. It's a project residents like Chantal Byford, who lives in a neighborhood next to the site, recently learned about.

"Very caught off guard. Ordinarily, we would receive a rezoning application notice in the mail and have an opportunity to voice any concerns, if we had any. In this case, we are getting no opportunity to mention any concerns or support," said Byford. 

Water from the property backs up into yards. Developers said an underground stormwater retention system would address that problem. However, Byford is not convinced.

"A development of this size would become a concrete jungle and only make things worse," said Byford.

Doug Rigdon, the principal of a nearby private school, is worried about another potential problem. The apartment complex is to provide housing for individuals with significant mental health issues and substance abuse.

"In the past, when we did have a halfway house near our school, in years past, not a week would go by that we didn't have someone from that halfway house here entering our property, trying to talk to parents, begging for money. It presented a real serious issue for us," said Rigdon. 

The property was originally zoned for light business. But residents never got to challenge the change in use because of the city ordinance "affordability unlocked." 

It allows developers to avoid public rezoning hearings by promising to make units available for low income residents. This fast track, bypass rule can happen in several zoning districts. It even supersedes neighborhood overlays.

"It looks like if they could put it here, they could do this on any major road in our city," said Rigdon.

The ordinance was approved in 2019. Austin City Council passed it on what’s called the Consent Agenda, with no public debate. The ordinance may also violate state law regarding Home Rule and public hearings. 

Connor Kenny who leads Capital A Housing said he believes affordability bonus laws are legal. He said they also provide a critical tool streamlining development and are integral parts of providing housing for the homeless. 

But residents who live near the Menchaca Rd. project site say providing transparency is also important.

"I would hope that they would really take a second look at this ordinance and take a second look at this particular project, because it's really problematic," said Rigdon.

A second look at the property has happened. FOX 7 was told Wednesday afternoon a key player in the development has backed out. As a result, Jenny said the project is on hold and options for the site are being reviewed.