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Human Rights Commission ponders CodeNEXT

Friday, April 28, 2017 by Jack Craver

The city’s Human Rights Commission is taking a look at CodeNEXT in an attempt to understand the implications of the controversial overhaul of Austin’s land development code on vulnerable populations.

On Monday, the commission, which last year urged City Council to recognize gentrification as a “human rights issue,” heard from voices in support of increasing density as a way to lower the cost of housing, facilitate more effective public transit and reduce sprawl.

Dave Sullivan, vice chair of the CodeNEXT Advisory Group, described how the proposed changes were aimed at reducing the complexity and therefore the costs of building in Austin.

He acknowledged, however, that there were likely members of the commission who were suspicious of policies geared towards helping business interests. “So you want to speed up the gentrification of East Austin?” he recalled commission Chair Sareta Davis saying to him at an earlier meeting.

While acknowledging anxiety about gentrification, Sullivan said that CodeNEXT aimed to encourage housing in some places where the current code prohibits it. He cited East 7th Street as a potential place where properties currently occupied by businesses could be turned into opportunities for housing.

Sullivan also noted that the new code would allow for duplexes on smaller lots and allow more families to add an accessory dwelling unit on their property. Accessory dwelling units, which have been a source of controversy in the past, create cheaper housing options than are often available in a neighborhood and can produce income for homeowners who are struggling to pay ever-rising property taxes.

Nevertheless, Sullivan conceded that zoning changes alone would not make Austin affordable for those of low or modest incomes. Efforts aimed at making it so are further limited by state law, which bars cities from requiring that a certain number of units in a development be low-priced, although the city is allowed to extract commitments from developers on affordable housing through incentives programs, such as density bonuses.

While Sullivan described CodeNEXT as a productive step towards a more compact, connected city, the speakers who followed him from AURA, an organization that advocates for New Urbanist principles, decried the new code as largely enshrining what they view as the unaffordable and environmentally destructive status quo.

The proposed changes, said Stephanie Trinh, will not do much to create additional market-rate housing, meaning that Austin will remain a “landlords’ market.” They also continue to mandate parking requirements, which Trinh argued drives up the cost of housing and prevents public transit from becoming a viable alternative to driving. The current paradigm, she said, not only forces the poor to live outside of the urban core, but it imposes lengthy, expensive commutes on them.

Finally, said Trinh, it remains unclear whether CodeNEXT will create more subsidized housing or a “stay in place” program aimed at preventing the displacement of long-time residents in gentrifying neighborhoods.

“If the maps aren’t changing then we’re not integrating Austin,” she said. “We have that problem, we’ve had it as long as Austin’s existed and we’re not taking the opportunity now to really change it.”

Trinh urged the commission to take renters into account, as well as homeowners, when thinking about gentrification.

“We forget that 80 percent of the bottom 20 percent are renters,” she said. “I would guess that most people of color in Austin are renters. And most Austinites are renters.”

In an interview with the Austin Monitor the following day, Sullivan, who considers himself an urbanist, pushed back on the bleak picture of CodeNEXT painted by AURA. It does allow more density, he said, noting that under current regulations a duplex cannot be built on a lot smaller than 7,000 square feet, a minimum that the proposed code would reduce to 5,000 square feet.

In addition, Sullivan stressed the political reality: “Whatever we do we need six votes on the City Council.”

Indeed, some neighborhood advocates have already begun to raise objections to the increased density that CodeNEXT allows in some parts of the city. Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo has expressed concerns about the potential the proposed maps creates for more multifamily developments in Old West Austin, Bouldin Creek and Travis Heights.

The questions from commissioners also displayed the pushback that density proponents face as they argue that fewer building restrictions will help those in need. As displayed by a debate over a recent report that claimed CodeNEXT to be a tool of institutionalized racism, many in Austin are unconvinced of the promises of New Urbanism.

Commissioner Marshall Bennett asked if there were examples of other cities that have rewritten rules and been able to make housing more affordable. The AURA activists did not offer an example, but argued that restricting housing in the city ensured that housing would be expensive.

“If you told Toyota they could only make 10,000 cars,” said Josiah Stevenson, “they would make 10,000 Lexuses.”

Bennett said he was unconvinced that that was a fitting analogy, adding that he did not have the same faith in the free market.

Commissioner Garry Brown similarly said that he understood the goal to reduce parking requirements, but said it was too soon to do so because of the lack of adequate alternatives to public transit.

“(The Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority) needs to get a lot better,” he said.

In addition, Brown suggested that the commission hear the perspective of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, AURA’s frequent adversary on matters of development.

“I get it,” said Brown, acknowledging the conflict between the two groups. “But we need to hear from them.”

Curious about how we got here? Check out the Austin Monitor’s CodeNEXT Timeline.

Photo by Matthew Rutledge made available through a Creative Commons license.

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