March 31, 2017
As home prices and rental rates in Austin continue to climb, so too does the volume and frequency of demands for new city programs and funding to address affordability.
But what about the city’s existing programs designed to impact affordability for Austin residents? How are these programs performing? Are they effective?
No one really knows according to a recent report by the Office of the City Auditor. That’s a big problem for the people these programs are designed to help as well as Austin taxpayers and people in our industry who are increasingly being asked to contribute more toward the city’s affordability efforts.
At the request of the Austin City Council, the City Auditor recently conducted an inventory of all city programs and initiatives aimed at making Austin more affordable. The 85 programs and initiatives identified extended beyond housing, though housing is recognized as among the top three biggest expenses for Austin families across all council districts.
Among the biggest problems the Auditor found is that “the City has historically lacked an organizational vision or strategy on how to address affordability. Also, the City has not defined ‘affordability,’ and there is currently no Citywide criteria or goals to guide departments working in this area.”
This lack of vision and strategy makes it extremely difficult to define success or even monitor progress over time. The problem is compounded by inconsistent, incomplete and inaccessible data reporting across city programs that make it difficult to assess the city’s return on investment or compare the effectiveness of different programs.
This lack of accountability is unacceptable, especially at a time when city leaders are looking to add multiple new affordability programs and increase public funding.
We as a community must decide what we mean when we talk about affordability. How do we define affordability and what specifically are our affordability goals? What metrics can we use to measure our progress and determine the most effective use of our limited tax dollars?
Earlier this year, RECA supported Council Member Ellen Troxclair’s five-part Affordable Action Plan, which among other things set concrete goals for adding new housing units annually and significantly speeding Austin’s notoriously slow permitting process.
Building more housing is critical to addressing Austin’s biggest underlying affordability challenge, but the private market alone cannot solve the problem.
City programs and funding are certainly needed to address a wide range of affordability issues. But the City must be held accountable to ensure that our money is being spent wisely and having an impact.
We applaud the Austin City Council for asking the right questions. Now they must follow through and find ways to fix the city’s accountability problem. Unlike affordability, that problem has at least now been clearly defined.