The cost of high-rent West Campus is more than money

Ryan Nill

On Nov. 1, Austin City Council will vote on a proposal to expand affordability measures in West Campus. Instead of tracking the number of affordable apartments, the city will count the number of affordable bedrooms per building. Currently the city defines an affordable apartment as one that costs approximately $525-$1,000 per month in rent. Under the current system, 20 percent of the units in any new building constructed in West Campus must be leased for rent within that price range. If developers pay the city a fee of 50 cents per rentable square foot, which they frequently do, they can offer 10 percent fewer affordable units. The money enters a trust fund that affordable housing providers can use to assist in development. If the upcoming proposal is passed and apartment owners switch to the new counting rules, the number of affordable beds will approximately double (not literally, but the number recorded by the city will double). Under the new proposal, the 50-cent fee for developers seeking to reduce the number of affordable units they offer will increase to $1.

If there is no increase in affordable housing in West Campus, the current situation, in which high-rent apartments mean drastically fewer minority students live in the neighborhood, will persist. Since 2004, 23 apartment complexes have paid $1.1 million in 50-cent fees to evade offering 480 affordable beds. In 2008, College Houses, a student housing cooperative, built the Super Co-op (a complex located at MLK and Nueces) using $837,500 of the money amassed from the 50-cent fees and created 86 new affordable beds. No other affordable housing providers have been able to take advantage of the remaining $220,000, because no other housing providers have been able to come up with a feasible development plan. Considering the 400 lost beds,
these rules are arguably in need of improvement.

Alan Robinson, general administrator of College Houses, said that the original rules were successful in increasing the amount of housing available and moderating prices. Robinson said that changing the terms from apartment units to bedrooms makes sense for students and that the $1 fee would not discourage development. As for affordability, Robinson said, “I think we can do better than rooms costing $1,000.”

If the rules pass, all future developments will have to follow them. But current properties have the option to stick with leasing affordable units instead of switching to the new affordable bedroom rules. Mike McHone, vice chair of University Area Partners — West Campus’ neighborhood association — said that the new rules have “advantages that are compelling enough that they should enter into the new programs.” To switch, owners will negotiate how long they will have to offer affordable bedrooms before they are allowed to lease them at market rates.

According to McHone, two companies own a large majority of new developments in West Campus: San Miguel Management and American Campus Communities. Mark Ezell, vice president of San Miguel, said that fulfilling the current rules is “challenging.” Researching students’ incomes to verify that they qualify for affordable rental rates has been complicated — the formula fails to take into account parents’ incomes. Only students with incomes between $35,000-$37,000 per year could pay the $1,000 rents. The developers could not identify enough students to fill all their affordable units. Units went vacant at a rate of about 15 percent. Ezell said that  they will be able to fill those rooms under the new rules. He notes that bedrooms can be split, so two people paying $280 each for one bedroom will offer true affordability.

Building managers in Austin for American Campus Communities have been instructed not to speak on the record. Their corporate office did not comment in time for publication.

With so little time left, students who want to make a difference must pressure apartment owners to switch to the new rules, assuming they are enacted on Nov. 1. Karen Paup, vice chair of the city of Austin’s Community Development Commission, would have preferred to require developers to provide affordable housing, rather than allow them to pay the fee instead. She said that even the new, higher fee is too low and that $5 per square foot would be more appropriate. Developers claim that nobody will build under such restrictions.  But considering that the ratio of lost to gained affordable units is 5-to-1, $5 seems closer to the optimal number than $1.

These rules will help, but they won’t produce the neighborhood students want. If students are going to get a diverse neighborhood, time, effort and original thought will be required to address the problems.

Nill is an ecology, evolution and behavior senior from San Antonio.