New report details affordable housing segregation in Austin

Data shows subsidized housing concentrated in some districts, absent from others

(iStock/Illustration by Kevin Rebong for The Real Deal)
(iStock/Illustration by Kevin Rebong for The Real Deal)

Affordable housing is not an option in some parts of Austin, where decades-old zoning rules have forced subsidized developments to pack into specific parts of the city, while leaving other districts as affordability deserts.

The latest annual report by HousingWorks Austin on the local market and supply of affordable housing highlights some of the disparities in affordable housing across the city.

“The high cost of housing and short supply of affordable housing in certain parts of the city make it very difficult for many households to have the ability to choose to live in all parts of Austin,” said Nora Linares-Moeller, executive director of HousingWorks, in a press release.

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According to HousingWorks Austin’s market analysis, the housing prices for both renters and homeowners have greatly outpaced income growth in the city. The median home sale price increased 26 percent from $424,900 to $536,311 from 2020 to 2021, and the average monthly rent increased by $359 to $1,658 — a nearly 27 percent jump.

Meanwhile, the median family income in Austin grew by only 12 percent over the same period.

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The report also highlights how Austin’s existing and planned affordable housing stock is starkly segregated between the east and west sides of the city. Most subsidized units — 64 percent — are concentrated in just three council districts: Districts 1, 2, and 3. By contrast, Districts 6, 8, and 10, where rents are well above the city average, have less than 6% of the city’s affordable housing.

Woody Rogers, research manager for HousingWorks Austin, suggested that this disparity is an artifact of historical zoning laws that defined the demographics of the city long ago.

“Districts 1, 2, 3, and 4 are all what we consider the Eastern crescent of Austin, and those places where historically race-based zoning caused disadvantages economically for the black community and the Hispanic community in Austin,” he said. “The reason why [affordable housing] was so focused in the eastern part of the city is because land was cheaper there.”

That early disparity has been perpetuated by the city’s so-called “compatibility rules” which restrict the height of buildings based on their proximity to single-family homes — in effect locking multifamily developments out of the historically affluent neighborhoods west of MoPac Expressway and making affordable housing projects nearly impossible.

The city has recently made efforts to make it easier to develop affordable housing in low-rise areas of Austin. Last week the City Council voted to ease the height restrictions that limited the number of housing units that could be built in some parts of the city.

The city has also provided funding for nonprofits interested in buying and building new affordable projects through Austin’s Community Acquisition Program.
Although the HousingWorks report acknowledges the city’s progress toward greater access to affordable housing, it called on local leaders to make subsidized units more available throughout the city.

“To ensure that any Austin household is able to comfortably afford their home and feel they have a choice in where they can live, the city must be proactive in advancing efforts to increase the supply of affordable and accessible housing for all incomes and in all parts of the city,” Linares-Moeller said.