In Travis County, public-sector entities (local, state and federal) own more than 6,000 pieces of property. While many of these properties are being used to provide important public services, these taxpayer-owned assets also offer an opportunity to create housing the Austin metro area desperately needs. These properties, if developed appropriately and returned to the tax rolls, can also produce revenue that can bolster local government budgets without continuing to drive up tax rates.
The unsuccessful bond campaign in November 2015 for a new civil courthouse in Downtown Austin cast a spotlight on how valuable these publicly owned land assets can be; opponents of the courthouse proposal, including RECA, felt the $20 million downtown block could and should be used to produce market-driven development that could help meet Austin’s critical housing shortage and pump millions of dollars of tax revenue to local governments. Since then, jurisdictions including Travis County, Austin ISD and the City of Austin have begun to take steps to make some of their land assets available to the development community.
While these efforts are admirable, they may not go far enough. Rather than select individual pieces of property for subsidized affordable-housing pilot projects (or, for that matter, other uses), local public landowners should assertively move forward on evaluating all their land assets, identifying properties all over the city that could be used for housing, and develop coordinated strategies for making them available to the development community.