Some more thought about the affordable housing conference.
It seems to me there are two affordable housing problems, related but distinct. First, the problem that some people can’t afford the basic costs of rent in Austin. An apartment has costs: taxes, construction, maintenance, land, etc. These add up to a breakeven rent that’s higher than some people can afford to pay. Reducing those costs (e.g. finding cheaper ways to maintain a house) can make the breakeven rent more affordable, but there will always be some people who can’t pay, even without any landlord making a profit.
Second, there’s the abundance problem: when there are more people who want to live here than there is housing, they bid up the rents. Rent no longer reflects costs, but demand.
The only ways to address the affordability problem are redistributive. The city doesn’t assess taxes on apartments run by nonprofits (raising taxes slightly on everybody else), who pass the savings on to renters. Or the city mandates developers lower prices on certain apartments, redistributing potential profits from the developer to the renter. But trying to fix scarcity problems by redistribution is like trying to fit a carpet too big for a room one corner at atime. The more market weight you give to the needy just pushes demand up on other units, driving more marginally-able-to-pay residents into unable-to-pay status. The only way to deal with the scarcity problem is to get more units built.
Austin has major scarcity/abundance issues. Sky-high downtown rents reflect demand and scarcity, not just construction costs or tax costs. At the housing + transit conference, I saw a lot of people using the language of redistributive solutions: Tax-incremented financing, density bonus, finding federal and foundation matching funds, etc. But the only person talking scarcity and abundance was the developer, not the politicians or staffers.