Local nonprofit Project Transitions expects to break ground soon on Burnet Place, a 61-unit affordable apartment community reserved for Austinites living with HIV, in the Wooten neighborhood — and the project, permitted under the Affordability Unlocked development bonus program added to Austin’s Land Development Code in 2019, illustrates a number of challenges facing the construction of housing in the region at the moment, particularly for our city’s most vulnerable residents.
Scurry Miller, executive director of Project Transitions Inc., said stable housing is essential for people living with HIV due to the complex treatment regimen required.
“In Austin, the rent for a one-bedroom apartment is 75 percent greater than an entire Supplemental Security Income payment,” he said. “This unaffordable rent level combined with the health issues typical of unmanaged HIV is a sentence to homelessness.”
The approximately one-acre project site at 8007 Burnet Road qualifies for the Affordability Unlocked program by providing its 61 units at rental rates affordable to households earning no more than 50 percent of the region’s Median Family Income, set in 2021 as $34,650 per year for an individual. The property is not zoned for multifamily residential use, so its development as housing is only made possible by the waivers of the Affordability Unlocked program, which also waives the typical parking mandates imposed on these projects by city code outside of accessibility requirements, allowing the community to include only 15 spaces total.
Under the GR-MU-NP, SF-3-NP classification applicable to this property, multi-family residential development is not permitted; however, this site has applied for Affordability Unlocked – a residential affordable housing development bonus program passed by Ordinance No. 20190509-027 – which allows a qualifying development as a permitted use in a commercial base zoning district such as GR or SF-3. A qualifying development is not required to comply with compatibility standards (except side setbacks per zoning district), maximum floor-to-area ratio, minimum site area requirements, or parking requirements other than accessible parking that would normally be required by code. Height bonuses are allocated based on the level of affordability.
— City of Austin, Burnet Place Zoning Report
Even with the removal of typical zoning and compatibility standards under the Affordability Unlocked program, the rapid increase of construction and materials cost in Austin over the last two years has required its developers to identify additional sources of funding and significantly modify the $16.4 million project through a process known as value engineering to ensure this community crosses the finish line. In the case of Burnet Place, Project Transitions was forced to reduce the number of floors in the building from four to three as a cost savings measure.
The building, designed by local studio Michael Hsu Office of Architecture, combines its affordable studio residences with what Project Transitions calls “intensely supportive” services including an on-site clinic and vocational education. It’s the second project developed under the nonprofit’s HIV: Housing is Vital campaign, with the first redeveloping its Roosevelt Gardens apartment community in the Brentwood neighborhood into a 40-unit complex expecting its first move-ins later this summer.
With the organization estimating that approximately 1,500 people with HIV in Austin are currently experiencing either homelessness or unstable housing situations, the combined 101 units being built by Project Transitions can’t fully address this crisis — but in our city’s increasingly challenging development environment, the establishment of these communities should be a point of pride.