Tomás Ramírez moistens a reed, puts in his teeth, gulps down the last of his coffee and begins to play. The sound that comes from his alto saxophone is a mournful riff.
“I just sort of make things up when people ask me to play,” Ramírez says. The 75-year-old has played on Carole King albums and with the Latin pop band Beto and the Fairlanes. Last year, the Austin Jazz Society inducted Ramírez into its Hall of Fame. And four months ago, he got his own apartment.
“It’s mine,” Ramírez says, gesturing around the 430-square-foot studio apartment in South Austin that he says he rents for free. He spent the last couple of years staying with friends, couch surfing his way around Austin. But after suffering two strokes, he needed a safe place to live and play his music.
Ramírez now lives in Zilker Studios, a recently completed apartment building on South Lamar Boulevard. The building houses roughly 100 people, many of whom have lived on the streets.
Zilker Studios opened its doors in May. Walter Moreau, the head of the nonprofit that owns the building, estimates that construction wouldn’t have even been finished until the end of the year if not for a city program he and others say make it easier to build affordable housing.
Affordability Unlocked lets developers bypass certain building rules as long as they promise to rent or sell at least half of what they build to people earning low incomes. When it was adopted by City Council members in 2019, the program was seen as a way to increase the building of low-income housing as a salve to Austin’s ever-rising housing costs.
And it appears to be working. According to a recent report by the Urban Institute, Affordability Unlocked has helped developers build affordable housing at a faster pace than any other city program. Builders and affordable housing advocates have called it a “game-changer” in a city that is hard to afford for teachers, first responders and service workers.
But what makes Affordability Unlocked popular among some is precisely what makes others question its validity: the ability to bypass steps in the process, particularly those that open these developments to public debate.
Like many municipalities in the country, Austin has hundreds of pages of rules that dictate how land can be used. The city’s controversial land development code not only determines whether someone can build a house or an apartment building, but it also controls how tall a building can be and how many people can live there.
If a property owner wants to build something other than what is allowed, they typically need to go in front of a government body and ask permission. Cities are required by state law to alert neighbors to any requested changes and to hold a hearing where members of the public can weigh in.
More often than not, residents protest new development, even if it promises to housesome of the city’s lowest-income residents. In Austin, developers who build large, affordable apartment complexes estimate this process can add six to eight months (and sometimes more) to a building timeline.
“That’s time and money,” said Megan Lasch, who owns O-SDA Industries, a real estate firm that works on affordable housing projects in Texas.
So in 2019, City Council members set about making this easier by estabilishing the Affordability Unlocked program. It allows developers to build without rules that restrict height, density and parking, and allows them to bypass some of the public process. In return, these builders have to rent or sell at least half of the homes they build to people earning less than the city’s median income.
“I know many of us have gone through lots of painful affordable housing zoning cases,” then-Austin Council Member Greg Casar said before the vote in 2019. “My hope is that … we will see way, way fewer of those and just help people that are trying to do the right thing by housing low-income people, by helping people stay in this city. That we will just get out of their way.”
His hope appears to have materialized.
On a recent weekday morning, Lasch donned a yellow hard hat atop her wavy black hair. Workers walked past her focused on the job at hand: finishing the framing of a five-story apartment complex in Northwest Austin.
Lasch said these homes would have taken longer to build without Affordability Unlocked. She would have had to go in front of city officials to ask for permission to build less parking and to put the building closer to the property lines.
In the spring, when Lasch anticipates construction will finish, more than half of the 116 apartments will be rented to people earning less than $49,000 a year. Depending on their exact incomes, tenants will pay anywhere from $650 to $1,300 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. (This is based on the federal government’s definition of “affordable,” which is that people should pay no more than 30% of their income toward housing.)
Income-restricted apartments like these are being built as renters and homebuyers shake off several years of incredible price rises. Between 2020 and 2022, the average rent in the Austin area rose 32%, peaking at $1,687 a month last summer. Prices have begun to fall. But they remain far above pre-pandemic numbers.
That’s why, supporters argue, Austin needs programs like Affordability Unlocked.
According to an analysis of city data by KUT, developers using Affordability Unlocked have built or are set to finish roughly 6,100 homes that will be rented or sold to people making less than the median income. (In 2023, that number is $85,600 for someone living alone.)
About a third of these homes will be set aside for people earning half of the median income; for a family of four, that equates to less than $58,400 a year.
Builders using Affordability Unlocked are constructing affordable housing at a faster rate than developers using other affordable housing programs. For example, developers working with Affordability Unlocked are building just over 1,500 homes a year for low- and middle-income residents. In the decade before the city adopted the program, developers using other city incentive programs built about 900 affordable homes a year.