West Campus’ housing affordability crisis is taking a toll on UT students

Austin
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AUSTIN (KXAN) — West Campus’ skyline is becoming a collection of densely built hotel-like apartment complexes. 

“Every single one [apartment complex] that goes up is nicer than the last, and they go up every single year now,” said Leah Davis, a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin.

Waterloo Tower, developed by Austin-based Lincoln Ventures, is a new apartment complex coming to West Campus. It will be decked out with a rooftop bar overlooking downtown Austin, saunas and spin and yoga studios, like many other complexes on campus.

“They marketed their building as having really good amenities such as a Peloton studio and a yoga studio and a pool deck on the top floor, which was definitely a pull factor,” Davis said.

However, Waterloo’s top-notch amenities are not what make the building unique. 

What sets Waterloo apart is its height. At 300 feet tall, it’s the tallest apartment complex in West Campus and nearly as tall as UT Tower.

An artist’s rendering of the outside of Waterloo. (Courtesy: Lincoln Ventures)

Lincoln Ventures is legally able to build that high in West Campus because of an amendment made to the University Neighborhood Overlay (UNO) in 2019. 

Background on UNO

UNO is a bonus program designed to increase housing density and encourage the development of affordable housing in West Campus. UNO does this by allowing developers to build more units than allowed by a site’s base zoning if a certain number of those units are S.M.A.R.T. Housing (Safe, Mixed-Income, Accessible, Reasonably Priced, Transit-Oriented — and compliant with Austin Energy Green Building standards). 

Mike McHone, a UT alumnus who lived in West Campus as a student, is one of the drafters of UNO.

“The whole goal [of UNO] is to create affordability and to bring the student body back to the university so that they can participate in the university’s full range of activities and not be stuck somewhere where they can’t get back and forth to campus,” McHone said. 

UT freshman Nic Miller recently moved from South Austin to West Campus to be within walking distance from his classes. 

“I was having some car troubles and I wanted to be on campus where everything would be easier to get around,” Miller said. 

Since its original passage in 2004, UNO has been amended numerous times. In 2019, Austin City Council voted to allow an additional 125 feet of building height in Inner West Campus and 25 feet in Outer West Campus and Guadalupe, as long as developers adhered to the following requirements:

  • 10% of units/bedrooms set aside for S.M.A.R.T. Housing, specifically for people earning 60% of Austin’s Median Family Income (MFI) for 40 years
  • 10% of units/bedrooms set aside for S.M.A.R.T. Housing, specifically for people earning 50% of Austin’s MFI for 40 years
  • An additional 10% set aside for S.M.A.R.T. Housing, specifically for people earning 50% of Austin’s MFI OR pay a one-time fee to the housing trust fund

UT senior Makenna Moser qualifies for S.M.A.R.T. Housing. She receives financial aid from the university, but said the S.M.A.R.T. Housing program makes living at The Standard at Austin, a recently-built apartment complex on West 23rd Street, much more feasible. 

“It’s $300 to $400 off the normal rate … so that’s really helpful, especially because with financial aid, they [UT] don’t give you a whole lot of money,” Moser said. 

Of her friends, Moser says she’s the only one who receives financial aid from the university. Thanks to the S.M.A.R.T. Housing program, she’s living with her friends at a complex she previously wouldn’t have been able to afford. 

“Everybody wanted to live at the Standard this year because it was just opening, so I called and asked them if they had S.M.A.R.T. Housing,” Moser said.

It wasn’t until Moser was in her junior year of college that she discovered the S.M.A.R.T. Housing program. Before learning of it, the most affordable apartment complex she could find was Axis West Campus, located on the outer edge of the neighborhood. 

“I think it’s hard to find affordable housing in West campus without S.M.A.R.T. Housing, Moser said. “Unless you’re living … on the very edge of West Campus … that was the most reasonable rate that I’d seen for your own bedroom and bathroom.”

According to Moser, many students have no choice but to live in double occupancy rooms to keep their rent down. 

“I’d say a lot of people are having to do double occupancy … even well into being an upperclassman, just because housing just isn’t affordable,” Moser said. 

David Kanne, the CEO of Lincoln Ventures, agrees that S.M.A.R.T Housing is an effective solution to West Campus’ affordability crisis. 

“I think it’s the most effective, affordable housing stock of all development in the city of Austin,” Kanne said.

In exchange for building 300 feet high, the city required Waterloo to allocate 20% of its units to S.M.A.R.T. Housing, and all of those units were pre-leased by October of this year.

Where UNO falls short

However, questions remain about UNO’s ability to increase housing affordability in West Campus. 

Brooke Hackel, a former employee at the Standard, believes that due to lax eligibility requirements, S.M.A.R.T. Housing does not always go to the people who need it most. 

According to Hackel, besides receiving financial aid from UT, students are eligible for S.M.A.R.T. Housing if they earn less than $39,000 a year. 

“It seems as though a lot of people who use S.M.A.R.T. Housing and get that discounted rate would be able to pay the extra $200 or $300 to still live in the building,” Hackel said. 

Additionally, we found differences in how development companies apply S.M.A.R.T. Housing rates.

The Standard applies current S.M.A.R.T. Housing rates to the following year. For example, S.M.A.R.T. Housing rates released in June/July of 2021 are applied to the 2022-2023 leasing season. This means that the Standard’s S.M.A.R.T. Housing units for 2022-2023 cannot exceed $928 per month.

Lincoln Ventures, comparatively, is applying S.M.A.R.T. Housing rates projected for June/July of 2022 to the 2022-2023 leasing season. Since many students have already signed their leases, Lincoln Ventures predicted these rates, which tend to increase every year since they are based on Austin’s increasing MFI.

Kanne explained that Lincoln Ventures applied the projected S.M.A.R.T. Housing rates to prevent raising rent prices on students down the road.

“Typically what you want to do is overestimate because it’s always easier to come down than it is to go up,” Kanne said.

Last year, Kanne told the Austin Business Journal Waterloo would offer two S.M.A.R.T. Housing options, one priced at $684 and one at $915, when it opens its doors for the first time in 2022-2023. However, the units have already been pre-leased at $784 and $1,050, respectively. 

Kanne said Waterloo Tower’s S.M.A.R.T Housing pre-lease agreements make clear the rates are susceptible to change. He did not provide a copy of a lease agreement to KXAN.

Lincoln Ventures declined to comment when asked why it chooses to predict S.M.A.R.T Housing rates. The city of Austin did not respond when asked whether that is a normal practice. 

McHone believes that although UNO has its faults, it has done a lot of good for the community, including adding over 25,000 bedrooms to West Campus. 

The University of Texas is also working to increase housing affordability. The school recently bought Dobie Twenty21 in hopes of providing an additional on-campus living option for students and sent out a survey to learn more about students’ housing issues. 

Last week, the Austin City Council and Mayor Steve Adler met to discuss the city’s affordable housing issues and invited the City of Austin’s College Student Commission to participate. The group, which is composed of representatives from UT Austin, St. Edward’s University, Huston-Tillotson University, Concordia University Texas, and Austin Community College, plans to finalize a list of affordable housing recommendations to pass along to city leaders, giving students a voice in the discussion.

But while the city and UT are trying to make housing more affordable for students, there are some things they simply cannot control.

At present, the median home price in Austin is $536,000, according to the latest data from the Austin Board of Realtors. On average, rent is about $1,500 a month, and those numbers are only expected to continue to go up as the city continues to grow.

“You know, I think the reality is living in Austin is expensive,” said J.B. Bird, UT’s Director of Media Relations. “You have to weigh the value of your education against all these expenses and find the best option you can.”

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