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By Carl Webb | Renter in Austin, TX
  • Restore Rundberg’s first year: leadership changes, some neighborhood unrest, and a plan to tackle chronic problems

    Posted Under: Quality of Life in Austin, Crime & Safety in Austin, In My Neighborhood in Austin  |  July 5, 2014 1:10 AM  |  317 views  |  No comments
    Restore Rundberg’s first year: leadership changes, some neighborhood unrest, and a plan to tackle chronic problems

    UT professor’s plan for federal grant money includes police walking beats, outreach to immigrants.

    By Dave Harmon - American-Statesman Staff
    Jan. 10, 2014
    A year after Austin police landed a $1 million federal grant to target crime in North Austin, prostitutes are still trolling for customers near Rundberg Lane and Interstate 35, drug dealers continue to conduct their business, and statistics show reported crime hasn’t changed much in the neighborhoods within the Restore Rundberg initiative.

    And after the top police official and the top researcher left the project midyear — neighborhood leaders say they still don’t know why the researcher was replaced — the new leaders say they know they’ll have to work to gain, or regain, the trust of some in the community.

    But the program’s leaders say that doesn’t mean no progress has been made after the first year of the three-year project aimed at reducing crime and revitalizing a group of neighborhoods where previous police-led initiatives haven’t made more than a temporary impact.

    Police say they have disrupted some of the area’s street crime with a series of operations that sent extra officers to flood crime hot spots, helped the motel owners and managers along Interstate 35 organize to keep criminals out of their rooms and created a blueprint to tackle some of the underlying problems that contribute to crime.

    “We realized pretty quickly that this thing was pretty complex,” said police Cmdr. Don Baker, who took over the project in June after Cmdr. Mark Spangler transferred to another unit.

    Police decided to focus on Rundberg because of its stubborn crime problem and its network of active, engaged neighborhood associations that could increase the chance of success. Previous smaller-scale projects in the area — with names like Operation Cure, Operation Restore Hope and Operation Good Neighbor — haven’t managed to sustain whatever progress was made in reducing crime or cleaning up problem areas.

    With the $1 million grant, Restore Rundberg is more ambitious, designed to last years rather than weeks or months.

    Baker said the first year was devoted to assessing the area’s problems before writing a plan to attack the problems with initiatives that will endure after the grant money is gone. Meanwhile, police spent nearly $61,000 of the grant money last year for overtime to do more traditional operations such as paying overtime so more patrol officers could spend more time in high-crime areas on certain weekends.

    A man loiters in a parking lot next to the Budget Inn near I-35 and Rundberg Lane in April. Police did ... Read More
    The people who live and work in the area give Restore Rundberg mixed reviews after one year. Some, like motel manager Stephanie Rollings, are maintaining patient optimism, despite the slow start. “I hate to say this, but the prostitution has gotten worse in front of our hotel,” she said. “But I’ve also seen more of a police presence in the past year. I really think they’re trying.”
    Others, such as North Austin Civic Association President John Green, are discouraged. “There’s been constant change over the past year with no continuity of leadership,” he said.

    Last month, University of Texas social work professor David Springer unveiled a set of broad recommendations for the final two years of the project, when $850,000 of the $1 million will be spent:
    ·         Begin walking beats and bicycle patrols to create a constant police presence in three main crime hot spots: the Interstate 35-Rundberg Lane area, Sam Rayburn Drive and Northgate Boulevard. Springer said those three areas account for 21 percent of crime in the grant area and about 12 percent of crime citywide.
    ·         Hire a liaison between residents and the Restore Rundberg leadership team.
    ·         Launch a safety and education program aimed at a large immigrant population that often mistrusts police and government.
    Springer also recommended organizing landlords and apartment managers in the hot spots so they can work together to help reduce crime and help residents get social services. It’s similar to a strategy that Austin police already have used at the motels strung along the I-35 access road near Rundberg, where prostitutes and drug dealers often try to rent rooms to do business.

    Last year, motel managers and owners agreed to share information about people they’ve kicked out or turned away so criminals can’t simply walk to the next motel for a room.

    Matt Franklin, manager of the Red Roof Inn, said he and the manager of the Austin Suites next door are comparing notes about problem guests. He said he sees fewer prostitutes working on nearby Powell Lane, but it’s still a battle to keep trespassers off the property, even with security guards on duty at night.

    Franklin said he’s excited about the prospect of police walking the streets near his motel.
    “Once they control those (hot spots), it’s going to run a lot of people out of here,” he said.

    Baker said officers on the walking and bike beats will be evaluated based on the relationships they build with neighbors rather than how many arrests they make. For example, officers will encourage prostitutes to get into drug treatment programs rather than simply arresting them over and over.

    The plan was originally supposed to come from University of Texas sociology professor David Kirk. But after nine months of researching and writing recommendations, Kirk was replaced by Springer, who did his own research and recommendations.

    Kirk’s departure rankled some neighborhood leaders who had come to like and trust him. Green, the North Austin Civic Association president, said the Austin Police Department has refused their request to see Kirk’s recommendations and hasn’t given a reason why Kirk was replaced.
    Replacing Kirk was “a real waste of resources and opportunity,” Green said.

    Baker and Spangler both said they didn’t force Kirk out. Spangler said he invited faculty from the School of Social Work to assist Kirk, not replace him. Kirk, who prepared a 21-page list of recommendations, said he “was never given a clear reason from APD why they wanted to take the research in a different direction, but I assume it was because they wished to pursue a different strategy than the one I recommended.”

    Springer said Kirk’s work wasn’t discarded; it will be added as an appendix to their report to the Department of Justice.

    Springer added that he and his students had to rush to do their work by the end of 2013 and didn’t have much time to connect with the community — something he wants to remedy this year.

    Green said neighbors have been asked for their input at a series of meetings, but he’s seen no indication that Restore Rundberg’s leaders are doing anything with residents’ suggestions. For example, he said, neighbors have asked the police to hire a professional project manager for the past year, but “it just fell on deaf ears.”

    Nick Haigh, the newly elected vice chair of the North Lamar Contact Team, one of the neighborhood groups in the area, said he has “very little interest in the conflicts over the last year” but understands that there’s “a lot of dissatisfaction from folks in the neighborhood, feeling they were being left out of the process.”

    Haigh said he hopes that hiring a community organizer can help improve connections between police, researchers and the community.

    In the end, Baker said, success or failure will come down to what, if any, positive changes Restore Rundberg can make in North Austin. That will be measured through crime data, neighborhood focus groups and surveys.

    “We need to show results,” Baker said.

    Expert reporting:

    Dave Harmon has reported and edited for the Statesman since 1995, covering criminal courts, county government, the Texas-Mexico border and the Legislature before joining the investigative team. He earned a statewide journalism award in the late 1990s for a three-day series about an anti-crime initiative in Northeast Austin.

    Life and crime in Rundberg area:

    ·         Median income is just over $21,000. Rents are mostly in the $400 to $750 per month range, and a third of residents live in poverty.
    ·         Nearly two-thirds of residents speak a language other than English
    ·         9 percent of Austin’s crime happens in the area, which covers just 2 percent of the city’s footprint.
    ·         One of every three prostitution arrests in Austin occurs there.

    Read previous articles about Restore Rundberg with this story online at mystatesman.com

  • Gentrification: A Beginner's Guide by Rob Preliasco

    Posted Under: Quality of Life in Austin, Market Conditions in Austin, In My Neighborhood in Austin  |  February 19, 2014 10:32 PM  |  1,117 views  |  No comments
    Gentrification: A Beginner's Guide

    by Rob Preliasco

    Displaced residents, rising rents, and historic businesses decamping for cheaper areas. Those all go with gentrification, a phenomenon much in evidence in this rapidly changing city, but what is it precisely?

    The simplest definition, according to geography and urban studies professor Eliot Tretter, is the effect on a neighborhood that experiences an influx of new residents who are relatively more affluent than the people already living there.

    Tretter is a professor at the University of Calgary who taught at UT Austin for six years and has researched and written about gentrification in Austin neighborhoods.

    Gentrification is much older than the recent tensions in New York City’s Bushwick, San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood, or East Austin. The word “gentrification” was first used in London in the early 1960s to describe a phenomenon that was displacing working-class residents in downtown London – hence the word’s root in the oh-so-British “gentry,” meaning well-bred and high-class persons.

    A neighborhood is at risk of gentrification when it has the dubious good fortune of suddenly finding itself in a high-value real estate area. For example, East Austin was neglected for years by developers but now that downtown is booming and people want to live nearby, tracts of land just a skip across I-35 are suddenly very attractive.

    Another risk factor is when the homes and other buildings in these areas are old and therefore less valuable than a potential new structure. In this new market, a property owner renting out a bungalow built in 1910 suddenly has an opportunity to make a lot more money if he or she builds a condominium complex there instead.

    These new, more expensive dwellings attract new residents who are wealthier than the neighborhood’s traditional inhabitants.

    “The new residents may not be at all wealthy, but they’re relatively wealthier than the communities they are moving into,” Tretter said.

    As landlords raise rents to take advantage of the new market, and building values and property taxes rise, long-term residents can no longer afford the neighborhood.

    Local Governments Play Their Part

    Government land use policies have their part to play too, Tretter said.

    In Texas, where the lack of an income tax forces property taxes to pick up the slack, it is in a city’s best interest to encourage property values to rise because that creates more of a tax base.

    In addition, neighborhoods that lack strong zoning regulations are at risk of being remade. Tretter pointed to Rainey Street, which used to be a residential neighborhood but without restrictions on land use. Without residential zoning in the neighborhood’s favor, developers were able to completely transform the area.

    A History of Displacement

    What makes gentrification doubly painful for original residents — and is often forgotten — is that it comes on the heels of another wave of displacement: urban renewal. This took place in the 1960s and '70s and was driven by the government rather than the free market.

    “The federal government had a series of acts known as the Housing Acts, the act of 1949 being the most important,” Tretter said. “They allowed local governments, in conjunction with the federal government, to buy up large tracts of ‘blighted slum housing,’ as they called it, and bulldoze it and redevelop it.”

    In Austin, urban planners built parks and modern affordable housing units in place of original homes—including parks on the east side such as Rosewood and Kealing—as well as an expansion of Huston-Tillotson University.

    “A lot of what you see in East Austin is a consequence of an urban renewal program,” Tretter said.

    The process was controversial and neighborhoods nationwide saw anti-urban renewal protests.

    “The history of urban renewal in the U.S. is still being written and debated about,” Tretter said. “A lot of African Americans see the process of gentrification as an outgrowth of urban renewal…but today it’s driven by private developers who are acting as the agent for change [instead of the government.]”

    Urban planners had progress and civic good in mind, but people still lost their homes. Now, the next generation is being displaced by private development rather than a government program.

    Is Change Inevitable?

    Gentrification, and the resulting displacement and cultural erasure that occurs with it, should not be written off as inevitable, Tretter said. Research shows  that unequal societies see many harmful side effects and that people raised in a more mixed-income environment have better social outcomes.

    “It’s worth preserving diversity and income diversity in cities,” he said.

    Some possible solutions, though, are complicated by Texas state laws. Rising property taxes are a big reason why people lose their homes to gentrification but Texas law limits public assistance for tax abatement. In addition, the state’s reliance on property taxes encourages development of inexpensive areas.

    “That overburdens the lower and middle class rather than wealthier homeowners,” Tretter said.

    He said the best way to mitigate gentrification and preserve neighborhoods is through affordable housing projects in gentrifying neighborhoods. These can be new buildings dedicated to low-income residents or a few units in each new building set aside for the same.

    “Gentrification is not inevitable, it can be redressed. It’s a social process driven by social forces.”

  • Commission recommendations on Urban Farms ordinance

    Posted Under: Quality of Life in Austin, Property Q&A in Austin, Investment Properties in Austin  |  October 14, 2013 9:19 PM  |  1,494 views  |  No comments

    To:  Mayor and City Council

    From:  Richard Hatfield, Planning Commissioner   

    Minority Report    

    Re: Planning Commission recommendations on Urban Farms ordinance C20‐2013‐005 

    The Planning Commission held a public hearing on this item on 9/24/2013 and voted to recommend the revised ordinance to the City Council.  The vote on this item was 6 to 1.  I was the only opposing vote on this proposed ordinance change.  While the Planning Commission dutifully considered the issues that rose in the Public Hearing, I believe that some factors related to this proposed ordinance change were not considered and that the city wide perspective of the impact of this ordinance change was not fully represented in the public hearing.  Therefore I am respectfully requesting that this proposed ordinance change be sent back to the Planning Commission for reconsideration or an independent task force to look at the issues.  The reasons for this request are: 

    1.  Inadequacy of the public stakeholder process that resulted in the recommendations from the Sustainable Food Policy Board. 

      It appears from the testimony at the public hearing that the directly impacted neighborhoods surrounding the four urban farms were asked for input at the beginning of the process, but there seems to have been a lack of follow up with these stakeholders to ensure that they continued to be involved with the process and that their concerns were addressed in crafting the Board’s position.  This has resulted in a recommendation from the Sustainable Food Policy Board that is heavily slanted to reflect the desires of four of the existing thirty urban farms needs rather than achieving a balance between the desires of approximately 30 of the existing urban farmers and the concerns of the surrounding neighborhoods. We need an ordinance that is not just to legitimize four urban farms, but that also reflects the potential impact of the proliferation of all farms in a city of over 800,000 and that is expected to continue to growth in the years ahead. 

      A second major issue with the process is that while the staff focused on the four urban farm owners and sustainable food advocates input, the process lacked city wide outreach to ensure that all neighborhoods were aware of this proposed ordinance change and how it would impact their areas.  This lack of city wide engagement is clearly seen in the Austin American Statesman editorial concerning this proposed ordinance, which was the first city wide media attention given to this issue. 

    2.  Public Health and Safety issues were not adequately vetted in the process 

      One of the major issues with this proposed ordinance change is the processing of animals and the slaughtering of these animals on the sites of Urban Farms, and the composting of the resulting animal parts from the processing. While only one existing farm has been slaughtering and composting animal parts, the failure of that composing process resulted in offensive odors that then brought this issue to the attention of the city.  Continuing to allow this processing of chickens and now, rabbits and fish presents serious health and safety issues.  Unfortunately the stakeholder process did not have adequate representation from our Public Health Department. The lack of early input into the crafting of this ordinance by the health department is a concern.  In particular the provision to allow animal parts composting to be allowed in areas prone to flooding raises a legal liability issues for the city that were not considered in the deliberation of this proposed ordinance change. 

    3.  Particular concerns about the recommended ordinance

    The ordinance that was approved by the planning commission did contain several positive changes.  However the following issues I believe need further discussion so that we may achieve a balanced ordinance that ensures the continued viability of urban farms and protects our neighborhoods and ensure the integrity of our zoning processes. 

      *  The inclusion of  “Urban Farms with Facilities for Gatherings” as a conditional use, while better than as a permitted use, still puts neighborhoods in the position of having to be “on call” to respond to future request for these conditional use permits.  Many of the speakers at the Planning Commission public hearing noted that urban farms cannot financially survive by selling their produce alone, that they need additional revenue to survive.  But at what point does “urban farm” become a cooking school, wedding and reception hall, fundraiser events or other types of “gathering” that is then the primary business of that site?  Such commercial uses, if they are the primary means to stay financially solvent, then this business use of the property is no longer an “accessory” use to these residential properties.  At what point then should the ability to hold these “gathering” be handled by an appropriate zoning change rather than permitting them as a “conditional use”? 

      *  The allowance of “Urban Gardens” on single family zoned property without an actual housing unit on site is not then an “accessory use”.  Again this should not be allowed except by an appropriate zoning change that would be required for a purely commercial use of the property. 

    *  Various provisions of the ordinance are good in concept but cannot be adequately enforced by the city in any proactive way.  Such enforcement will only come as complaint driven after the fact and will therefore not prevents negative impacts on surrounding neighbors.  The ordinance needs the means to ensure that the stipulations are adhered to and are enforceable. 

      *  Only one existing farm has in the past processed animals on site that I know of that composts the remaining body parts.  While if you raise chickens in your back yard and process them yourself, that is a reasonable use.  However the slaughtering, processing and composting of animal parts on any scale beyond personal consumption should be defined as a commercial use.  Again such an operation should not be allowed on residentially zoned property and should be handled as a zoning change.  

      *  If urban farms are to provide sales opportunities at their sites, adequate parking should be available on site to handle the customer traffic, Further if “gatherings” are permitted in any fashion the adequate parking for these gathering should be provided.  Again when a use on a residential zoned property has to accommodate the traffic and parking needs of commercial activity, then adequate onsite parking should be provided. 

    Urban Farms are an important part of providing Austin with fresh and healthy produce.  They historically have been welcomed in our neighborhoods and have contributed to feeding our city and educating our community about healthy foods.  And while the Urban Farm ordinance does need to be updated, the current draft ordinance needs further study to ensure the continued viability of these farms and the preservation of the quality of life we have in our neighborhoods.  Please take the time to review this ordinance, and send it back to the Planning Commission or an independent task force for additional review. 

    Sincerely,  Richard Hatfield   Planning Commission 

  • Report on Rental Registration in Austin

    Posted Under: Quality of Life in Austin, Crime & Safety in Austin, Property Q&A in Austin  |  September 9, 2013 12:40 AM  |  2,191 views  |  No comments
    The University of Texas School of Law’s Entrepreneurship & Community Development Clinic is pleased to release the attached report, An Analysis of Rental Property Registration in Austin, along with a shorter document summarizing our main findings. These documents are excerpted from a longer report we expect to release later this month analyzing Austin’s policies for addressing problem properties and national best practices, which we prepared for Green Doors. We appreciate your help distributing these reports to other interested parties.

    Thank you for your interest in this issue. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any feedback or questions about the report.

    Heather K. Way, Director, Entrepreneurship & Community Development Clinic
     Stephanie Trinh, UT Law Student
    Melissa Wyatt, UT Law Graduate
    University of Texas School of Law
    512-232-1210 (w)  512-632-1695 (c)

    JULY 2013    


    What is Rental Registration?
    Rental     registration     is     an     efficient     and     evidence‐backed     tool     for     identifying     and    
    remedying     dangerous     code     violations     in     rental     properties.     Rental     registration    
    programs     require     multifamily     rental     properties     (and     sometimes     single‐family,    
    depending     on     the     program)     to     register     with     the     city     by     submitting     a     simple     form    
    identifying    basic    information    about    the    property,    such    as    how    to    reach    the    landlord    
    in     the     event     of     an     emergency.     Usually     a     small     annual     fee     ($10     to     $25     per     unit     is    
    typical)     is     required     as     part     of     the     registration.     The     city     then     inspects     each    
    property—typically     once     every     three     to     five     years—according     to     an     inspection    
    checklist,    checking    for    major    code    violations    and    life    threatening    conditions.
    Rental    registration    programs    give    city    code    inspectors     the    authority     to    inspect     the    
    exterior    and    interior    spaces    of    rental    units    on    a    rotating    basis    without    having    to    go    
    through    the    time‐consuming    process    of    obtaining    a    court    warrant.    Most    cities    utilize    
    inspections    that    focus    on    the    exterior    of    the    property    and    only    a    small    percentage    of    
    the    interior    units.    Rental    properties    that    fail    the    initial    inspection    are    subject    to    re‐
    inspections,    and    landlords    can    eventually    have    their    registration    revoked    if    they    fail    
    to    make    their    properties    safe    for    tenants.    
    A     large     and     growing     number     of     cities     around     the     U.S.     are     adopting     rental    
    registration     ordinances,     recognizing     the     critical     role     these     ordinances     play     in    
    identifying,    deterring,    and    remedying    code    violations.    Cities    with    rental    registration    
    include    at    least    20    Texas    cities    such    as    Houston,    Dallas,    Fort    Worth,    and    Arlington,    
    and    many    U.S.    cities    such    as    Seattle,    Sacramento,    Philadelphia,    Boston,    Raleigh,    Los    
    Angeles,    and    Minneapolis.    

    Austin’s Current Complaint Process is Inadequate to Identify Properties with Dangerous Code Violations

    The     main     argument     put     forth     by     opponents     of     rental     registration     is     that     it     is    
    unnecessary—that     the     City     of     Austin     already     knows     which     properties     are    
    dangerous.    This    argument    is    incorrect.    Multiple    studies    have    established    that    a    large    
    portion     of     dangerous     code     violations     are     in     fact     unreported     and     undetected     by    
    officials    in    the    absence    of    a    registration    program. For    example:    
     Before    Seattle    adopted    its     new    mandatory     registration     program,    a     study     found    
    that    78    percent    of    the    buildings    had    unreported    code    violations,    including    many    
    with    the    most    serious    violations.1
     A     study     in     Memphis     likewise     found     large     underreporting     of     serious     code    
    violations.2    The    city’s    complaint‐based    policies    identified    only    about    20    percent    
    of     code     violations.     In     one     particular     neighborhood,     at     least     half     of     the     35    2
    multifamily    properties    (1,200    units)    had    serious    code    violations,    yet    the    city    had    
    recorded    code    violations     for    only    8    of     the    units.     In     the    same    neighborhood,     the    
    study    identified    19    properties    that    had    not    come    to    the    attention    of    code    officials    
    and    yet    were    in    dangerous    enough    condition    that    they    needed    to    be    condemned.    
     In    a    San    Francisco    survey,    62    percent    of    tenants    surveyed    in    Chinatown    said    they    
    had     multiple     code     issues     in     their     apartments,     yet,     only     28     percent     had    
    complained     to     their     landlord     about     the     code     issues,     and     only     11     percent     had    
    reported    the    code    issues    to    a    government    agency    or    a    community    organization.    3
    Fear of retaliation was a major factor in the under reporting.      

    Tenants Lack the Technical Expertise Needed to Identify and Report Many Types of Dangerous Code Violations

    Code    complaints    by    tenants    are    typically    based    on    environmental    issues    rather    than    
    dangerous     structural     and     electrical     issues.     Dangerous     structural     issues     such     as    
    deteriorating     structural     support     for     porches     or     stairwells     often     go     undetected    
    without    a    professional    inspection.    When    problems    are    finally    identified,    it    can    be    too    
    late,    with    the    lives    of    tenants    on    the    line.    For    example,    Houston’s    rental    registration    
    program    was    adopted    in    response    to    two    children    dying    from    a    brick    stairwell    that    
    collapsed     on     them     in     2008—a     stairwell     that     had     not     inspected     for     structural    
    problems    in    over    20    years.4    In    2001,    two    men    in    Austin    died    at    a    rental    property    as    a    
    result    of    a    faulty    heater.    A    code    inspection    conducted    after    the    deaths    found    that    the    
    rental     units     did     not     have     any     smoke     alarms     and     that     the     heating     system     was    
    ManyTenants are Afraid to Report Code Violations for Fear of Retaliation

    Even    when    tenants    are    aware    of    code    violations    and    the    process    for    reporting    them,    
    many    avoid    reporting    violations    for    fear    of    retaliation    by    their    landlords.    This    fear    is    
    heightened    in    communities    with    large    concentrations    of    immigrant    tenants,    such    as    
    in     Austin,     where     one     out     of     five     apartment     units     are     occupied     by     foreign‐born    
    households,    with    many    living    in    substandard    rental    buildings.    A    focus    group    of    local    
    immigrants    by    Travis    County    found    that    many    had    landlords    who    failed    to    address    
    safety    hazards    or    public    health    concerns.    Reports    of    abusive    landlord    practices    were    
    also     common,     including     threats     of     deportation.5     Tenant     retaliation     cases     are    
    extremely     difficult     to     prove     in     court,     especially     by     tenants     on     month‐to‐month    
    leases.     Even    when     retaliation     can     be     proven,    legal     resources     for    enforcing     tenants    
    rights     are     extremely     limited.     The     impact     of     Austin’s     anonymous     code     reporting    
    system     is     limited—it     does     nothing     to     help     tenants     who     need     to     report     code    
    violations    in    the    interior    of    the    unit.    

    Rental Registration Programs Identify Code Violations Before They Become
    Hazardous and Too Expensive to Repair

    Rental     registration     programs    give     cities     the    ability     to    identify    and    address     serious    
    code    problems    early    on,    before     they     threaten     the    lives    of     tenants    and    become    cost    
    prohibitive     for     the     landlord     to     repair.6     Once     code     violations     gain     the     attention     of    
    code     officials,     the     conditions     at     the     property     are     often     quite     deteriorated     and    3
    dangerous,    making    it    much    more     costly     and     challenging     to     repair     the     property     so    
    that    it    is    safe    for    tenants.
    RentalRegistrationis a Low‐Cost andCost‐EffectiveProgram
    Another     argument     put     forth     by     rental     registration     opponents     is     that     rental    
    registration    programs    are    costly.    To    the    contrary,    with    fees    of    less    than    $.83    to    $2.08    
    a     month     per     unit     (typical     annual     fees     adopted     by     cities     for     multifamily     property    
    registration    range    from    $10    to    $25    a    unit),    the    financial    impact    of    rental    registration    
    fees    on    owners    and    tenants    is    very    minimal.    Using    very    conservative    estimates,    we    
    have    concluded    that    the    employment    of    6    inspectors    would    be    more    than    sufficient    
    to     run     a     successful     and     comprehensive     registration     program     in     Austin,     with    
    inspections     every     3     years     of     Austin’s     2,400     multifamily     properties     and     134,000    
    multifamily    units.    The    City    of    Houston,    for    example,    employs    just    4    code    inspectors    
    for    its    mandatory    inspection    program;    the    program    is    almost    done    with    its    first    five‐
    year    cycle    of    inspecting    Houston’s    5,000    multifamily    properties.    

    Austin Has a Large Number of Rental Properties with Dangerous Code Violations

    Opponents     to     rental     registration     also     argue     that     there     are     only     a     “few     bad     actors    
    who     rent     dilapidated,     unsafe     structures.”     (Austin     Board     of     Realtors,    
    www.abor.com/CFA/).     To     the     contrary,     according     to     a     report     from     the     City     of    
    Austin,     a     “sizeable     number     of     multi‐family     housing     complexes     [are]     substandard,    
    aging,    and     overcrowded.”     7    A     quick    windshield     survey     of     the    Rundberg    area    alone    
    identifies     many     multifamily     properties     with     dangerous     conditions.     In     2012     alone,    
    under     Austin’s     weaker     code     complaint     system,     the     City     identified     multiple     code    
    violations    at    more     than     100    multifamily     properties.     The     problem    is    likely     to    grow    
    even    larger,    since    more    than    60    percent    of    Austin’s    apartment    units    (83,000+    units)    
    are    located    in    Class    C    and    Class    D    properties,    many    with    serious    maintenance    issues.    
    A     rental     registration     program     would     make     a     big     impact     by     improving     the     living    
    conditions    for    a    multitude    of    Austin’s    renters.    

    Rental Registration Deters CodeViolations and MakesP roperties Safer

    In    addition     to    giving    cities     the    means     of     systematically    identifying    code     violations,    
    rental     registration     programs     have     also     been     proven     to     increase     safe     living    
    conditions     by     deterring    landlords     from     engaging    in     deferred    maintenance     and    lax    
    property     management.     For     example,     a     study     of     North     Carolina     cities     with     rental    
    registration     ordinances     found     that     the     ordinances     resulted     in     landlords     bringing    
    their    properties    into    code    compliance    more    rapidly,    a    decrease    in    residential     fires,    
    and     a     reduction     in     code     complaints.8     For     example,     Greensboro’s     housing     code    
    complaints     fell     61     percent     in     a     three‐year     period     after     the     City     adopted     a     rental    
    registration    program.    An    audit    of    Los    Angeles’s    rental    registration    program    likewise    
    found     that     the     program     resulted     in     safer     living     conditions.     Rental     registration    
    programs     also     provide     certain     landlords     with     the     economic     incentive     to     avoid    
    engaging     in     the     well‐known     phenomenon     of     “milking”     properties,    whereby     some    
    landlords,    through    economic    motivations,    reduce    maintenance    and    repairs    of    rental    4
    properties     to     a     minimal     level—just     enough     to     keep     the     building    operational     and    

    Rental Registration Programs Provide Critical Emergency Contact Information

    Rental     registration     programs     provide     cities    with    important     contact    information     to    
    reach     owners     or     property     managers     when     there     is     an     emergency,     code     issues,     or    
    other    problems    with    a    rental    property.    Identifying    an    individual    who    is    responsible    
    for    the    property    can    be    especially    challenging     for    small    rental    properties    given     the    
    large     number     of     these     properties     that     are     owned     by     out‐of‐state     investors     or    
    investment    companies.    

    Rental Registration Programs Can be Easily Structured to Have a Minimal Impact on Compliant Property Owners

    Properties    that    pass    the    initial    inspection    and    have    no    history    of    code    violations    can    
    be     inspected     less     frequently     and     subject     to     lower     registration     fees.     Meanwhile,    
    properties    with    repeated    violations    can    be    subject    to    more    frequent    inspections    and    
    higher     fees.     A     registration     program     can     also     be     structured     to     exempt     newer    
    properties     that     are     less     likely     to     have     code     issues,     and     to     also     address     known    
    problem     properties     first     by     focusing     the     first     round     of     inspections     on     rental    
    properties    with    two    or    more    notices    of    violation.    Rental    registration    programs    also    
    limit     the     impact     on     compliant     property     owners     by     narrowly     structuring     the    
    inspections     to     focus     only     on     a     subset     of     building     codes     related     to     the     health     and    
    safety    of     tenants    and    not    cosmetic    issues.    For    example,    code    inspectors    in    Seattle’s    
    program    inspect    only    for    certain    major    safety    issues,    such    as    ensuring    that    the    unit    
    does     not     have     defective     locks,     leaking     plumbing,     dangerous     electrical     systems, defective    roofs,    or    dangerous    structural    conditions.

    Tenants’Privacy isProtected

    Rental    registration    programs    protect    tenants’    privacy    by    providing    tenants    with    
    advanced    notice    of    inspections,    imposing    strict    rules    limiting    inspections    to    a    subset    
    of    dangerous    building    conditions,    and    barring    collection    of    tenants’    personal    
    information.    Meanwhile,    tenants    report    that    they    support    cities    conducting    routine    
    code    enforcement    inspections    of    their    units.9

    Rental Registration HelpsTenants Retain Access to their Housing—and Housing that is Safer

    Another    argument    raised    against    rental    registration    is    that    it    will    result    in    the    
    displacement    of    low‐income    tenants.    Other    cities    that    have    enacted    similar    
    ordinances    have    not    experienced    increased    displacement.    A    code    department’s    goal    
    is    to    work    with    landlords    to    bring    their    units    up    to    safe    standards,    not    to    close    them.    
    In    contrast,    complaint based    systems    have    been    proven    to    result    in    displacement.    
    For    example,    in    the    Woodridge    and    Las    Palmas    apartment    cases    in    Austin,    code    
    conditions    were    identified    only    after    they    had    become    so    dangerous    that    they    placed    
    tenants    in    imminent    danger    of    losing    their    lives,    resulting    in    the    properties    having    to    
    be    shut    down    and    the    displacement    of    hundreds    of    tenants. 5

    For More Information,Contact:    

    Heather    K.    Way,    Director    
    Entrepreneurship    and    Community    Development    Clinic    
    University    of    Texas    School    of    Law    


    1    JANE    E.PROTHMAN,    HOUSING:HEALTH    AND    CODE    ENFORCEMENT,    degree    project    for    Masters    of    
    Public    Administration    at    Univ.    of    Wash.    (2010)    (citing    MCLERREN    AND    POWERS,REPORT    ON    THE    
    HOUSING    CODE    ENFORCEMENT    DEMONSTRATION    PROGRAM    (Housing    Zoning    Enforcement    
    Division,    Seattle,    Wash,    1989)).    

    2    PHYLLIS    BETTS,BEST    PRACTICE    NUMBER    TEN:BROKEN    WINDOWS—STRATEGIES    TO    STRENGTHEN HOUSING    CODE    ENFORCEMENT    AND    APPROACHES    TO    COMMUNITY‐BASED    CRIME    PREVENTION    IN MEMPHIS    (Memphis    Shelby    Crime    Commission,    Apr.    2001)    (finding    that    while    multifamily    
    units    account    for    one    third    of    all    housing    units    in    the    Binghamton    community,    only    10%    of    
    the    code    violations    in    the    city    system    were    from    multifamily    units,    despite    visual    survey    
    showing    that    at    least    half    of    the    multifamily    units    had    substantial    code    violations).

    4    Matt    Stiles,    Houston hiresfirmto investigate fatalstairway collapse,    HOUSTON    CHRON.    (July    
    24,    2008),    www.chron.com/news/houston‐texas/article/Houston‐hires‐firm‐to‐

    70,    available at

    6    SILVANA    HACKETT,    ET    AL,    RENTAL    LICENSING    TO    ACHIEVE    COMPLIANCE    (Center    for    Urban    and    
    Regional    Affairs,    Univ.    of    Minn.,    2012),    available at

    FUNCTION    (Mar.    23,    2010),    at    15.    

    8    CAROL HICKEY, ENSURING HOUSING QUALITY:PROACTIVE MINIMUM HOUSING CODE INSPECTIONS OF RENTAL PROPERTIES IN NORTH CAROLINA CITIES, Paper submitted for M asters of Public Admin.at UNC Chapel Hill (Apr. 8, 2008), available www.ghc.illkd.com/wp‐

  • How Do Austin Property Taxes Compare Statewide?

    Posted Under: Quality of Life in Austin, Property Q&A in Austin, Home Ownership in Austin  |  September 9, 2013 12:39 AM  |  2,212 views  |  No comments
    By Joy Diaz, KUT News

    Of the six largest cities in Texas, Austin is the one with the lowest property tax rate. But does that tell the whole story?
        * Austinites pay a little more than 50 cents in taxes for every $100 of property valuation.
        * People in Houston pay about 64 cents.
        * People in Dallas pay almost 80 cents.

    But taxes are just one part of the equation. Home values are a huge driver. When you account for that sole factor Austin becomes the Texas city with the second highest tax payment, according to PolitiFact Texas.

    As part of ongoing talks over Austin’s city budget, the city is considering a tax increase – from the current 50.29 cents to 51.14. And some people are asking why that’s the case in a city as successful as Austin.

    Listen to KUT News’ report on the city budget in the player above. You can read an overview of the city budget online. The Austin City Council takes up budget deliberations Tuesday and Wednesday. Final adoption of the budget is set to begin September 9.


    Posted Under: Quality of Life in Austin, Crime & Safety in Austin, Property Q&A in Austin  |  July 23, 2013 6:40 PM  |  2,510 views  |  1 comment
    Building and Standards Commission to hold Special Meeting on July 30, 2013

    On Tuesday, July 30, 2013, the City of Austin Building and Standards Commission will hold a special community meeting at 6:30 PM at City Hall, Council Chambers, to review the two resolutions the Austin City Council has proposed that would call for health and safety inspections of apartment complexes.

    Resolution: 20130606-049

    Resolution: 20130606-050

    An agenda has been posted and the community is invited to share their ideas and feedback at this meeting or online at SpeakUp Austin.  

    When: Tuesday, July 30, 2013 at 6:30 p.m.

    Where: City Hall, Council Chambers, 301 west 2nd street, Austin, Texas


    The City of Austin is figuring out how to ensure safe, livable housing conditions across Austin. When an apartment is reported to be unsafe, the City’s Code Compliance Department inspects the property and issues a violation notice for any hazards discovered. The property owner is required to bring the property up to safe standards in a set amount of time. This can be a long process and only addresses problems after they occur. The City is looking at ways to address sub-standard or even dangerous living conditions earlier.

    Resolution No. 20130606-049: a resolution directing the City Manager to initiate code amendments to create enhanced penalties and a rental registration program applicable to owners of residential rental property that repeatedly violate public health and safety ordinances; and supporting the Building and Standards Commission's and City prosecutor's consideration of repeat offenses when considering penalties for public health and safety violations. (SPONSOR: Council Member William Spelman, Co-sponsor: Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole)

    Resolution No. 20130606-050: a resolution directing the City Manager to develop a one-year pilot registration program for residential rental properties located in certain neighborhoods and to explore the feasibility of a code amendment for enhanced fines after the first conviction of a city code violation related to property maintenance. (SPONSOR: Council Member Kathie Tovo, Co-sponsor: Council Member Mike Martinez)


    The Austin City Council has proposed two approaches for creating a program that would call for regular health and safety inspections of apartment complexes. We want to hear your ideas on the proposed apartment inspections and registration.

  • Under One Roof, Part Four: The Politics

    Posted Under: Quality of Life in Austin, Home Buying in Austin, Financing in Austin  |  June 9, 2013 10:48 PM  |  2,684 views  |  1 comment
    For many, Election Night 2012 was a great night.

    At the Driskill Hotel, Travis County Democrats toasted President Obama’s victory. But Walter Moreau with Foundation Communities, one of Austin’s largest affordable-housing providers, wasn’t celebrating.

    “All the other bonds passed, so it’s hard to say why …” Moreau began.

    Austin voters had been asked to approve seven bond propositions, totaling $385 million. Voters ended up approving most of the package. Except for Prop 15, which was nearly $80 million in bonds for affordable housing.

    “That’s really home repair for seniors, that’s housing for folks that are homeless, that’s programs for veterans and disabled and people that are really vulnerable in our community that need help,” Moreau said.

    Fast forward about five months. David Butts, a veteran Austin politico, has had a hand in helping elect every current member of the Austin City Council. He also helped head up the campaign for Prop 15.

    He’s had plenty of time to dissect what went wrong: He starts with the ballot language itself, which said nothing about affordable housing.

    “It was extremely abbreviated, by even comparison to the others,” Butts said.
    Another problem was a lack of resources -- cash -- poured into the campaign. “Our own polling showed it losing,” he said. “And that was conveyed to people, but the money that was necessary to communicate to voters didn’t come until very late.” (Click here for a map showing how Prop 15 lost.)

    But the Prop 15 campaign failed in an even more basic way, Butts says: communicating affordable housing’s benefits to voters, or, maybe even more fundamentally, what affordable housing is.

    “There’s a lot of connotations in people’s minds about, ‘What does that mean?’” Butts said. “Now, some people think it means Soviet-style architecture, or something like ‘We’ll have thousands of people living right next door to you in these gigantic complexes.’ Well, that’s not what we’re doing.”

    Regardless of the reason for Prop 15’s defeat, it blew a hole in Austin’s affordable-housing plans. And the scramble for funding in the wake of its defeat also raised a question: Is the city leaving money on the table?

    Let’s say you’re a developer, looking to build more densely than zoning allows on a piece of land downtown.

    For years, you’ve had two options: You can apply for central urban redevelopment, or CURE, zoning. That’s a category for projects that supposedly rise to a special standard.  But it doesn’t require developers to include affordable housing.

    Your other option is to apply for that extra density under the Downtown Density Bonus Program. But you’d be required to include affordable housing. (Here's a list of city zoning types.)

    To date, downtown developers have used CURE zoning every time. The Downtown Density Bonus Program hasn’t been used once.

    “That’s just not right,” said City Council member Laura Morrison. She has lead the push to phase out CURE zoning.

    “The loss of the bonds -- it puts a laser focus on this responsibility, that we do everything we can to make sure that we’re leveraging and ensuring as much affordability in this town as we can,” Morrison said. “That’s our job as council.”
    Elizabeth Mueller, who was on the affordable housing task force that created the downtown density bonus program, sees it as “a matter of political will.”

    Mueller says the zoning debate may obscure a more fundamental issue: Most of the time, the most affordable housing is the stuff that’s already built.  

    She points to the city’s rezoning of East Riverside as an example. (She co-authored an award-winning report studying East Riverside.) It’s great in theory: in line with the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, it even includes some affordable housing.
    “And that will also increase the tax base for the city, so the city has an interest in that because they’ll get more property tax revenue,” she said. “And developers will also get more return on their investments there. So those two things are aligned.”

    But there’s a downside. “Those things then, also, are raising the value of properties in ways that can raise rents, other things that make it harder then to serve those goals of maintaining them as affordable to existing residents,” Mueller said.

    The council recently passed a resolution from Morrison incorporating some of Mueller’s ideas, such as offering incentives to keep older, existing buildings affordable.
    “We’re losing more and more on the ground,” Morrison said. “Because old buildings that provide affordable housing get knocked down, and existing buildings that might provide affordable housing are just getting more expensive.”

    Preserving existing affordable units could increase housing options. Other ideas include creating a homestead preservation district. There, property taxes from new developments would offset taxes for longtime residents in danger of being pushed out. Another idea is to use the city-owned land more aggressively: Open more city land to developers and require them to build at deep affordability levels.

    Any of these initiatives could reduce reliance on future bond funding for affordable housing. But Moreau of Foundation Communities says it will still require voter-approved cash.

    “I think we can do a lot through the land development code, through zoning, through density bonuses, through other policy-oriented things,” he said. “But we also are going to have to come up with capital funding, especially to serve the lowest-income folks. Otherwise, they’ll  be priced out of Austin, and I think that hurts us a community.”
    To that end, a group of affordable-housing advocates is calling for another go at a bond election. The City Council could vote later this summer to put a question on the November ballot.

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