Tuesday, August 1, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

Commissioners spar on definition of family-friendly housing

With a school district facing cases of severe under-enrollment, it has become clear that the city needs to do more to cater to younger families and especially to provide housing that suits their needs. CodeNEXT, currently being mulled over by the land use commissions, offers a unique opportunity to change direction and ensure that Austin doesn’t turn into a city without a future generation. The only problem is that no one seems able to agree on what makes housing family-friendly.

In the Code Advisory Group’s final report, two of its key recommendations included adding another zoning category to be used near urban schools with family-friendly incentives and modifying the density bonus programs to incorporate family-specific entitlements. Former CAG members Susan Moffat and Steven Zettner presented at the July 25 joint land use committee meeting and shared new data that they described as “sobering.”

In a survey of newly built multifamily projects in different areas of the city, only 46 Austin Independent School District students were found to be living in them. Out of the total 6,895 units in the sample, only 216 were affordable (for households making less than 80 percent of the median family income). Moffat said that she wanted to share the numbers to dispel any misplaced hope that CodeNEXT could magically solve affordable housing on its own.

Consultants have proposed tweaking residential zones to make it easier to build “missing middle” options, like eight-plexes, but scaling them down so that the structures would fit in with the character of the neighborhood. “The concern from a family-friendly housing standpoint is that you’re adding lots of very small units that families can’t use,” Zettner said at the meeting.

Planning Commissioner James Shieh disagreed that it was size that made housing family-friendly. He said it had more to do with the surroundings and what kind of amenities would be available. Planning Commissioner Chito Vela concurred. “The idea that a one-bedroom isn’t family-friendly is just false,” he said. “In my home, my kids have their own bedrooms. I know that generally speaking in upper-middle-class and middle-class homes everybody has their own bedroom, but the reality is that that’s not a global reality.”

Going against the claim that lower-class families should be expected to “make it work” in smaller apartments, Zoning and Platting Commissioner David King said that it was a reflection of the inequities in Austin. He questioned the strategy of catering to developers with the goal of producing as many units as possible. That approach, he said, would produce small apartments, many of which would be unaffordable.

“Are we basically setting a policy where if you’re low-income and you’re going to live in Austin, then it’s going to be in an apartment?” King asked rhetorically.

Zettner said that the reason so many families in Austin are living in one-bedroom apartments is because they don’t have any other choice. He pointed to the example set by northern cities that have more of a mix in their housing supply, where families tend to go for missing middle, multi-bedroom options. “When they have the choice, that’s where they’re going to go,” he said.

Photo by WhisperToMe (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

affordable housing: This general term refers to housing that is affordable to Austinites, with or without subsidy.

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

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