Group seeks more input on affordable housing in West Campus

Jillian Bliss

The Community Development Commission voted against a proposal from West Campus developers, property owners and student residents to create more affordable student housing.

The University Neighborhood Overlay working group began creating the proposition earlier this year in hopes of making West Campus more affordable to students from low-income families. Those serving on the commission decided after hearing from the group to develop a separate plan which will be submitted to the Codes and Ordinance Commission next week.

Board members agreed with the working group’s plans to shift the basis for affordability standards to the University Cost of Attendance, but proposed more public comment be generated on the topic.

“We are supportive of adopting standards based on the undergraduate cost of living, but we would like to find out more on that option,” said Karen Paup, vice chair for the Community Development Commission.

The working group revised previous stipulations that made multi-family income the basis for measuring affordability to allow affordability rates to be measured by the University Cost of Attendance instead. Additionally, group members proposed rates be measured by bedroom rather than a unit as a whole, and proposed a fee of $1 per square foot of rented space that would help offset the cost of more affordable bedrooms, called a fee-in-lieu.

“Do what all stakeholders recommend you do,” said working group representative Stuart Hirsch during their board meeting on Tuesday. “We really want to make a difference in West Campus and make sure once and for all affordable housing goes to those who need it.”

Members voted to increase the fee-in-lieu to $5 per square foot of rented space and add a bonus height provision that would allow housing to be built 24 feet higher than the current level.

Paup and other board members also said they hope to find out whether other area educational institutions, such as Austin Community College, can supply similar figures on which to measure affordability rates. Members said they hope public commentary will provide answers to their questions.

Despite receiving research and figures, board members disagreed with those representing the working group when it came to the definition of affordability. The group presented $700 per bedroom as a medium figure of rent, a number representatives said both developers and renters found satisfactory.

Student Government liberal arts representative John Lawler, who serves as a student member of the working group, said he was surprised his organization was able to agree on a number to submit. Lawler said although $700 per month isn't affordable for most students, it was the lowest sum the group could reach because of developers’ demands and property values.

Some board members said they hoped the group could come up with lower figures.

“I appreciate all the hard work, just my gut reaction is I don’t think any other part of town would consider those rates affordable,” said Karen Langley, commissioner of the Community Development Commission. “If this commission doesn’t make a recommendation we’re going to continue to turn UT into a school for the rich.”