Our plan to tackle affordable housing in Austin, TX

Photo by Carlos Delgado on Unsplash

Attend just one city council meeting at the City of Austin, and you will quickly realize that affordable housing is at the heart of many problems the city is trying to solve. Austin’s population has nearly doubled in size in the last 20 years, and this increase has naturally led to a sharp rise in housing prices. Residents who move here from larger, denser cities may consider the housing prices reasonable compared to where they came from. But for some who have lived in Austin their whole lives, the prices are no longer affordable.

Whether it’s access to jobs, good schools, quality healthcare, healthy food, public transportation — the goods and services a city offers depend on the ability to actually live in the city. It has become a somewhat existential problem for the City of Austin and its residents: either folks will find affordable housing and benefit from the great things the city has to offer, or prices will be too expensive to live in the city at all.

And this is already happening. According to a study in 2015, Austin has the third highest level of economic segregation compared to other metropolitan areas in the United States. Many long-term Austin residents are being forced to follow the naturally affordable housing options, moving from the city to surrounding towns and suburbs. Not only do they lose their homes and communities, they lose out on all the great services that a booming city like Austin can provide.

Shot of Austin street at night​
Photo by Cosmic Timetraveler on Unsplash

The City of Austin is aware of the problem, and as a result they put together the Austin Strategic Housing Blueprint. The plan calls for an addition of 60,000 affordable units over the next 10 years. And while a lot of hard and important work has gone into strategic planning and resource allocation, those of us in the civic tech community have been looking for a way to contribute to a solution as well.

So we’re taking on the challenge, with some help from Code for America. Code for America is a nonprofit that aims to improve government services by focusing on user-centered design and technological innovation. This year, Code for America has awarded its Community Fellowship to myself and Rohan Mathur. Together with two fantastic government partners and a smart city consortium, we believe we have the team to reimagine how affordable housing could work in our city.

As we see it, there are two main levers we can use to tackle the issue affordable housing:

  1. Improve access to affordable housing resources and inventory
  2. Create more affordable housing

Our Fellowship will focus on solutions for the first lever, at least to begin with. This project presupposes that there is a problem when it comes to accessibility. As we’ve learned from interviews with caseworkers and voucher holders, it is really hard to find affordable housing in Austin — not just because there isn’t enough of it, but because the resources available are incomplete, irrelevant, or difficult to use.

There’s a lot more we could say about it, but we’ll leave that to a future blog post where we’ll cover what affordable housing accessibility looks like today, and what we imagine it might look like in the future. We’re really excited about the Code for America fellowship and the partnerships we’ve formed, and we look forward to writing more about our experience and our progress in the coming weeks.

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