Investigative Summary:

Over the past five years, voters have given the green the light to the City of Austin to use $600 million for affordable housing. The money you approved in 2018 is largely out the door, so what did the city do with it? And how will they use the money you voted for last year? KXAN investigates as experts say while that money will help, it is billions short of getting the city to its affordable housing goals.

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  • AUSTIN (KXAN) — Neither Rebecca nor Edward Henderson II were thrilled to serve as “wingman” during their friends’ first date, but as the matching last names indicate, the date quickly turned into a double. The rest was history.

			The Henderson girls inside their unit at the Lauren Creek Apartments. Their family is one that qualified for affordable housing at the Foundation Communities location on North Lamar (KXAN photo/Grace Reader)

    The Henderson girls inside their unit at the Lauren Creek Apartments. Their family is one that qualified for affordable housing at the Foundation Communities location on North Lamar (KXAN photo/Grace Reader)

    The pair now has three daughters, who love going to the park, watching anime and collecting Hot Wheels, which hang on the wall of their family’s apartment in rows.

    But the family didn’t always have a wall to hang their keepsakes on, or, for months at time, a place to live in Austin at all.

    Just before the pandemic started, the Hendersons were given an ultimatum: Move or buy the property they were living on. The latter wasn’t an option — they didn’t have the money — which left the family of five with nowhere to go.

    The family would bounce around, trying to find somewhere they could afford to live in Austin for most of the pandemic. They started at a church shelter, then moved out of town and commuted to Austin for work, then lived and worked in a hotel.

    “At the end they told us ‘hey, new change, you can’t live and work here,'” Rebecca said.

    That’s when Rebecca found herself on the other end of the line with Foundation Communities, a local nonprofit that builds and operates affordable communities with wrap around services.

Inside the Henderson's apartment at Laurel Creek (KXAN Photo/Grace Reader)

    Inside the Henderson’s apartment at Laurel Creek (KXAN Photo/Grace Reader)

    The family qualified for the nonprofit’s Laurel Creek Apartments on North Lamar. Finally, this family of five had a home they could afford in Austin and one that provides resources.

    “We were so relieved. It had been just back to back to back. It was good to not be running anymore,” Rebecca said. “This is definitely a wonderful place to be while we’re building back up.”

    Foundation Communities opened its Laurel Creek complex with the help of Housing Trust Fund dollars roughly a year and a half ago with just under 100 deeply affordable units — for people in the lowest income bracket — of which 18 are dedicated to people exiting homelessness. The nonprofit plans to expand by more than 100 units at an adjacent lot starting in 2025.

    What has the city spent your money on?

    Last year, voters approved an affordable housing bond worth nearly the same as all the city’s previous housing bonds combined — $350 million.

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A map of all of the city's bond-funded developments. (Courtesy Housing Works Austin)

    A map of all of the city’s bond-funded developments. Get a closer look at the map here (Courtesy Housing Works Austin)

    Voters previously approved affordable housing bonds in 2006 ($55 million), 2013 ($65 million) and 2018 ($250 million).

    In 2018, the City of Austin predetermined designations for bond money prior to voters heading to the polls. Of that, $100 million was set aside for land acquisition, $94 million for rental housing development assistance (RHDA), $28 million for ownership housing development assistance (OHDA) and $28 million for home repair.

    According to the city, there’s just over $34 million left over from that 2018 bond, of which $10 million will be used for additional RHDA and $20 million on one additional acquisition. It anticipates the money will be gone by the end of Fiscal Year 2023.

    Foundation Communities said it has units for families like the Hendersons because of affordable housing bonds.

			Edward Henderson II and Rebecca Henderson sit outside of their unit at the Laurel Creek Apartments. The couple and their three kids qualified for affordable housing in the complex which was built using 2018 affordable housing bond dollars (KXAN photo/Grace Reader)

    Edward Henderson II and Rebecca Henderson sit outside of their unit at the Laurel Creek Apartments. The couple and their three kids qualified for affordable housing in the complex which was built using 2018 affordable housing bond dollars (KXAN photo/Grace Reader)

    “Without the bonds, Foundation Communities would not be able to build a new property or sometimes two properties a year. Maybe we would build one every five years,” said Walter Moreau, executive director of Foundation Communities. “I would say 3,000 of our residents right now, half of our portfolio, wouldn’t exist without our housing bonds.”

    According to Austin finance records, the city paid Foundation Communities just under $6.5 million in general obligation bonds for housing development assistance using 2018 bond dollars. Dozens of other organizations also got funding under that category, including:

    The largest chunk of funding from the 2018 bond went to purchasing land. With the $100 million set aside for land acquisition, the city said it’s been able to buy nearly 60 acres of undeveloped land and three hotels, which will eventually turn into permanent supportive housing.

A vacant property the City of Austin purchased with the 2018 affordable housing bond. The property is in south Austin. (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

    A vacant property the City of Austin purchased with the 2018 affordable housing bond (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

    “Land is only getting more expensive. This is going to be the cheapest it’s going to be for quite some time,” Austin City Council Member Ryan Alter said. “And so we are going to be very thankful, 2, 5, 10 years down the road that we have this land available down the road to develop.”

    The Candlewood Suites saga

    Of the most publicly-battled properties purchased with bond money, the former Candlewood Suites hotel — which will become Pecan Gardens — lands at the top of list. That project has received sharp criticism from some living nearby and even Williamson County officials, who filed a lawsuit last year.

    The former hotel sits in far northwest Austin, just north of the Anderson Mill neighborhood, and is within Williamson County limits.

    • A warning sign outside of the former hotel
    • Former Candlewood Suites hotel property

    County Judge Bill Gravell has long claimed the city didn’t notify the county of the long-term project and that former city leadership disregarded his concerns about what would happen with the hotel moving forward.

    “I am grateful the new mayor, Kirk Watson, and I have had the opportunity to visit about this and I think in the days ahead we’ll see a plan that’s forged together that both sides perhaps will be happy with,” Gravell said.

    Purchased in 2021, the property is intended to become nearly 80 permanent supportive housing units for older adults with the help of Family Eldercare, a group that focuses on providing wrap-around services for seniors. The city spent a little more than $9 million on the remodel.

    In March, Pecan Gardens received its pre-construction approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a City of Austin Homeless Strategy Division spokesperson said.

    “Construction on this project will begin upon the approval of pending permit applications, with completion approximately six months after initiation of renovations,” the city said.

    Austin set affordable housing goals. It’s falling well short

    When asked about Austin’s Strategic Housing Blueprint and what needed to change for the city to achieve the goals laid out within it, one of Austin’s newest city council members responded, “everything.”

    “It is very discouraging to look at that blueprint and see red arrows across the board. We are just way off track,” said Alter, who represents District 5.

    Created by council in 2017, the Strategic Housing Blueprint lays out specific housing goals for Austin, including a breakdown of metrics like district, affordability level (using median family income) and access to transit corridors.

    The ultimate goal was to reach 135,000 overall housing units by 2027, including construction of 60,000 units that people making 80% median family income (MFI) or below could afford.

    HousingWorks Austin — a nonprofit formed by housing advocates after the 2006 bond was passed that does research, education and advocacy on affordable housing — produces a scorecard looking at Austin’s Strategic Housing Blueprint every year.

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    You can find the full 2021 Strategic Housing Blueprint Scorecard here:

    The nonprofit is still working on its 2022 scorecard, but the previous four show the city is overwhelmingly behind on its goals set in 2017.

    According to HousingWorks, the city only created 1,619 affordable units in all of 2021 that are accessible to people making 80% MFI or below, falling well short of what the city would need to produce annually (6,000 units) to hit its goal of 60,000 units.

    A breakdown of specific districts shows in 2021, fewer than 10 affordable homes were built in four of the 10 districts, including Alter’s. Only District 4 made significant ground in 2021, building more than 400 affordable units.

    The scorecard also shows the most deeply affordable units are lagging behind the most, for people at 30% MFI.

    “The city is behind in the lowest housing that’s needed,” said Nora Linares-Moeller, executive director of HousingWorks Austin. “It requires the most subsidy so it’s very, very hard to kind of put that unit on the ground.”

    Where’s the 2022 bond money going?

    Unlike in 2018, the city didn’t designate where the money will go ahead of the 2022 election, which it said will allow more freedom. Still, the director of Austin’s Housing and Planning Department — which is soon to be split into two offices — said the money will largely be used the same way.

    “I don’t know that there’s going to be any big changes along those lines,” director Rosie Truelove said. “I am concerned that our dollars are going to continue to not stretch as far and that’s just what we’re seeing with construction costs and the per unit subsidy that we’re getting asked for.”

    A more concrete plan is expected to go before city council next month, Truelove said.

    HousingWorks Austin asked the former council and mayor to advocate for the 2022 affordable housing bond because allocation of 2018 funding was nearly done. The director said without the newest bond “everything would be basically at a standstill.”

    More than 70% of voters voted yes to approve the 2022 bond.

    Solving the affordability crisis could cost ‘billions’

    Roughly 600 affordable housing units would need to be created within Alter’s district every year until 2027 to reach the goals set forward by the Strategic Housing Blueprint for District 5. Alter thinks it can be done.

    “We can’t build that number through subsidized housing,” he added. “We just don’t have those funds and so the only way we’re going to get there is by changing the market forces and really steering people to build affordable housing up and down the affordability ladder. The only way we get there is through meaningful changes in our land use code.”

    “There’s no way that one department or that the City of Austin can fund entirely the gap for affordable housing.”

    Rosie Truelove, Housing and Planning

    Incentivizing private developers to build more affordable housing through changes to city zoning and permitting procedures was perhaps the most widely-discussed platform policy on the city campaign trail in 2022. But the city has faced challenges changing its Land Development Code, or LDC, previously.

    Just a few years ago, a Travis County judge ruled in favor of nearly 20 property owners who sued the City of Austin over its council-voted changes to the LDC, which sets the rules for what can be built on certain plots of land. The LDC has still not undergone a comprehensive rewrite in more than three decades.

    “At its fundamental core, we need developers to look at a piece of land and say, ‘I am not just going to build some really expensive home that no one can afford. Instead, it is more attractive for me to build more naturally-occurring affordable housing,'” he said. Alter is the vice-chair for the housing and planning committee.

    Where housing advocates, Alter and the City of Austin also agree: the amount of money Austin voters approved in affordable housing bonds has helped chip away at the problem, but it’s far from enough to solve it.

    Truelove said when the Strategic Housing Blueprint was created, the city estimated it would cost $11 billion to achieve the goals laid out within it. That price tag has gone up, she said. It’s something the director of Foundation Communities also expressed concern about.

    “That money (the 2022 affordable housing bond dollars) will be invested in new projects over the next three, four, five years and it will go quickly,” Moreau said. “Then we’re probably going to need to go back to the voters again. So we’re not to the level of investment yet in affordable housing at a scale that probably we need to be.”

    This story was produced as part of the inaugural KXAN Investigative Reporting Fellowship. KXAN City Reporter Grace Reader was one of two journalists selected to take part in the six-month training program in 2023. The following KXAN staff members contributed to that training or the development of this report: Data Reporter Christopher Adams, Senior Investigative Producer David Barer, Investigative Photojournalist Richie Bowes, News Director Haley Cihock, Graphic Artist Wendy Gonzalez, Graphic Artist Aileen Hernandez, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Investigative Producer Dalton Huey, Investigative Photojournalist Chris Nelson, Social Media Manager Jaclyn Ramkissoon, Digital Special Projects Developer Robert Sims, Digital Director Kate Winkle and Photojournalist Ed Zavala.