Affordability, Aging in Place and Community

KUT in Austin recently reported that Councilmember Bill Spelman floated a trial balloon regarding affordable housing in Austin, “Tiny Apartments Could Be Big Answer to Austin’s Housing Crunch”.  The Hyde Park Neighborhood Plan Contact Team has invited him to its meeting on April 28, to discuss the City of Austin’s infill tool, Secondary Apartment, as it pertains to affordable housing in Hyde Park.

Also invited to participate in this discussion is architect Michael Gatto, the executive director of the Austin Community Design and Development Center.  He will share information about Austin’s Alley Flat Initiative.  “Alley Flats” are small, detached residential units that may be accessed from Austin’s extensive network of underutilized alleyways.  The long term objective of the initiative is to create an adaptive and self-perpetuating delivery system for sustainable and affordable housing.

The Contact Team is planning to explore the ramifications of applying these ideas throughout Hyde Park.  It is no secret that Austin has the highest housing prices for an urban area in Texas (according to the Coldwell Banker Home Listing Report for 2013) and that Travis County has the highest rental rates in the state.  As one of the most desirable addresses in Austin and Travis County, it’s easy to see why the goal of affordable housing in Hyde Park is almost impossible to attain.

However, housing affordability can dramatically affect people’s lives, especially those of us who already live here and are (or soon will be) retired.  While the demographics of Hyde Park show that a majority of residents are now under the age of 35, a Brookings Institution analysis of 2010 census data showed that between 2000 and 2010 the Austin-Round Rock metro area had the fastest growing ‘pre-senior’ population (ages 55-64) in the nation and ranked second in senior (ages 65 and above) population growth over the same time period.  This statistic led Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell to create a task force to address the ways Austin can respond to the growing and changing needs of seniors.  In his 2012 State of the City address, Mayor Leffingwell said “The rapid growth of our older population demonstrates that Austin is a very desirable place to age, and this population has quickly become one of our community’s most important issues.”

The mayor’s statement is especially apt for neighborhoods like Hyde Park. According to the AARP document, Beyond 50.05: A Report to the Nation on Livable Communities Creating Environments for Successful Aging, “A livable community is one that has affordable and appropriate housing, supportive community features and services, and adequate mobility options, which together facilitate personal independence and the engagement of residents in civic and social life.”  That sounds like Hyde Park, except for the affordable part.

The majority of us want to continue to live in our own homes for as long as possible.  However, rising property taxes and utility costs make this difficult on a fixed income.  As pointed out in my article in the January 2014 issue of the Pecan Press, “Infill and Super Duplexes: A New Proposal”, adding a small rental unit to a residential lot can make that residence affordable for the owner, while also providing an affordable place to live for a new resident.  A one-bedroom apartment that brings in the average rental income in Austin is equivalent to having over $400,000 in the bond market at current rates.  Moreover, apartment income will likely keep pace with inflation.

Unfortunately, many lots in Hyde Park are prohibited from adding a garage apartment, secondary apartment or alley flat due to the minimum size restrictions (7000 sq. ft. for most building lots) in the zoning code.  Again, as discussed in my Pecan Press article, the City of Austin now has a portfolio of infill tools that encourages neighborhoods like Hyde Park to adopt more liberal zoning regulations.  The infill tool, Secondary Apartment, in the City’s Infill Tools and Design Booklet specifically permits secondary apartments on small lots (5750 sq. ft.).

The upcoming Contact Team meeting on April 28 to discuss this topic should prove to be informative and thought-provoking.  As usual, it will take place at Trinity United Methodist Church at 7:00 p.m.  All who are interested in this and other Contact Team issues are encouraged to attend.  In accord with the new bylaws, attendance at a meeting ensures voting privileges for the next nine months.