Q&A with Betsy Spencer on Policy Innovation in Austin

Austin, Texas won a 2014 Robert C. Larson Housing Policy Leadership Award in recognition of initiatives that provide ongoing and sustainable support for affordable and workforce housing. The ULI Terwilliger Center for Housing, which issues the awards, praised the city for a policy arsenal that includes a housing trust fund, bond funding, and financial incentives given when below-market-rate homes are included in new developments.

Austin faces an ambitious task. Betsy Spencer, director of the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office, says that though Austin enjoys strong economic growth, it still faces a shortage of almost 40,000 below-market-rate homes.

How Housing Matters recently spoke with Spencer about Austin’s short- and long-term plans to increase its affordable housing stock. Her comments were edited for length and clarity.

How Housing Matters: Austin really takes a multifaceted approach to addressing the challenges of affordable housing. How did these ideas come to be?

Betsy Spencer: We’ve got a wonderful policy and planning division within our department, and we always are looking for how comparable cities are addressing housing. When I came here five years ago, I was impressed and surprised at the level of involvement from our external partners and stakeholders. We’ve got some very committed, well-educated, well-intended advocates, and they also bring forth a lot of ideas.

We hold regular stakeholder meetings. And our council also has given us a fair amount of what we call “homework assignments” to see what other folks are doing. So we’ve really been able to bring forward good programming and resources in order to achieve the goals that we need to achieve. Collective effort is what has been successful here in Austin.

HHM: How do you share what you’re doing with other communities?

Spencer: Through our website. And the ULI award has also brought attention to our efforts. I was just on a conference call with the city of Portland, Oregon, because they were interested in information about general obligation bond funds for housing development. We do very much want to share with other communities and learn from them because we’re all struggling with the same thing. For example, we’ve spoken with other communities about a “good landlord” program. Other cities already have it, and the program requires landlords to take a training course aimed at improving conditions for tenants, such as by observing zoning laws and avoiding discrimination.

HHM: Whom do you partner with to achieve your affordable housing goals?

Spencer: We have an outstanding housing authority. They’re a quasi-governmental organization under the city umbrella. And we also have some longstanding nonprofits we work with a great deal. For example, there is an advocacy group called HousingWorks Austin. They’ve been a very solid partner. They do a lot of education on affordable housing for the community and the council. The nonprofits actually work together as the Austin Housing Coalition. It’s about 50 members strong, with all different types of nonprofit organizations that are interested in housing, so that’s a very solid external partner.

HHM: What about the collaboration within the city?

Spencer: A couple of years ago, we received a HUD Sustainable Communities Challenge grant, which required us to collaborate within our own organizations better, and that opportunity actually forced us to work together better within the city structure. In the last few years, I’ve seen a lot more collaborating and working together. I have staff from other departments just walk up to me and say they have an idea about housing. And we have a housing/job/transportation working group composed of staff from the housing department, the economic development department, and the transportation department all working together to see if we can create synergy among us for all three areas—affordable housing, jobs, and transportation.

We’ve also got some very solid partnerships within the University of Texas, including faculty members who sit on some of our boards and commissions. One example is the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic at the University of Texas [UT]. They’ve helped us with research on a community land trust and on a rental registration program. We’ve also worked with the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at UT. Their charge is to work with underrepresented communities and neighborhoods. We had a very solid partnership with them on our challenge grant, and that has spilled over into other works.

HHM: In accepting the ULI award last year, you said, “We’ll all be prouder when affordable housing is no longer at the top of our city’s issues.” How long do you think that will take, and what are some of the other things you need to do to get there?

Spencer: That’s a huge question. I wouldn’t say that we’ve put a target on when we’re going to be able to get there. The need for financial resources is tremendous in order to be able to achieve that. One of the things that we’ve really got to tackle here in Austin is social equity. So it’s hard for me to say when I think that we’ll be able to achieve the affordable housing that’s needed because there are a lot of larger equity issues that need to be addressed as well beyond just the capital investment in other areas.

HHM: What is being done today in Austin that is different than years past and really moving the needle on affordable housing?

Spencer: What we do have is a capital planning office within the city, and their charge is to bring all the factors together, such as transportation and public works. Historically, different capital investments have all operated in different departments. Today, we are really strategically looking at our capital investments in a much more holistic way so that, say, the capital investment that goes to create the affordable housing isn’t the actual bricks and mortar of the apartment complex—maybe it’s the street and the infrastructure—and we look to private investment to create the affordable housing. So we are really looking at as many creative ways as we can to incentivize the development of affordable housing. How long that’s going to take us—gosh, I don’t know.


Photo of M Station by Allison Cartwright, Twist Art Photography