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What policies would create the most housing in CodeNEXT?

Friday, February 9, 2018 by Jack Craver

As the city of Austin has learned over and over again in recent years, allowing something to be built doesn’t mean that it will be.

Hence, density bonuses that offer developers the opportunity to build bigger buildings in exchange for on-site affordable units don’t necessarily lead to additional income-restricted housing. Similarly, most single-family homeowners who are allowed to build accessory dwelling units on their land don’t exercise that right.

For that reason, explained CodeNEXT consultant John Fregonese at a recent meeting of the Planning Commission, for the city to achieve its goal of creating 130,000 new housing units by 2025, it must provide a code that would allow far more units.

The current code allows a little over 140,000 more units to be built. The second draft of CodeNEXT would allow 190,000. The third draft, which will be released on Monday, will only allow capacity for slightly more – 200,000.

Similarly, the city’s current density bonuses would only create a maximum of 1,500 units restricted to those of lower income levels. Draft two would increase the affordable unit capacity to 5,000. The figures have not yet been made public for the third draft. Again, however, the “capacity” might be much greater than what is actually built.

In cities where he has worked as a planning consultant, said Fregonese, who is based in Portland, Oregon, the housing capacity is typically about “two or three times” greater than the amount of a housing a city can realistically expect to build.

Chair Stephen Oliver concurred, comparing the capacity to fuel in an airplane: You don’t want to only fill the tank up with enough for the flight. “You want some extra fuel,” he said.

At the meeting, Fregonese presented 20 different policy “levers” that he had reviewed with a working group of six members of the commission. While it is relatively easy to see the impact that each lever will have on housing capacity, it’s nearly impossible to know how those policies will play out on the ground.

One lever that every member of the working group had expressed support for was allowing every property that is currently zoned for commercial use to become mixed use. Doing that would increase the city’s housing capacity by roughly 46,000 units.

One idea that five of the six working group members liked was allowing ADUs on nearly every single-family lot in the city, or increasing the percentage of eligible lots from 43 percent to 94 percent. That would increase capacity by about 10,500 units.

The idea of upzoning every parcel within one-eighth of a mile of an Imagine Austin corridor was unanimously endorsed by the working group and would increase capacity by about 11,600. Less popular, however, was putting in place the same policy for every major corridor, which would boost capacity by nearly 40,000.

Two levers were aimed at preserving existing housing by not adding entitlements to parcels with older houses, the idea being that new entitlements might encourage their development into more expensive housing. If that were done for any apartment buildings constructed before 1985, the city’s overall housing capacity would drop by about 3,500. However, five of the six members of the working group liked the idea because they believe it will preserve lower-cost housing.

One idea that appeared to gain the most traction was putting in place a density bonus but mandating that the “bonus” density must consist only of residential, rather than commercial, space. Doing that would boost the overall housing capacity by nearly 90,000. Assuming that capacity is reached (a big assumption), roughly 14,000 of those units would be income-restricted.

Bound by a hard 9 p.m. deadline set by Oliver, the commission did not engage in much discussion or debate over the different levers.

Fregonese told the Austin Monitor that he is optimistic the ensuing debate over CodeNEXT will be “a lot more sensible” now that commissioners are able to more precisely compare the potential housing effects of different zoning policies.

But again, a policy that allows a lot more housing may not necessarily create more of it.

Following the publication of this article, Lauren Avioli, who is a senior planner in the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department contacted the Monitor. She clarified that the density bonus would be for parcels that currently cannot build residential uses. These parcels would be allowed to build residential units under CodeNEXT, but only if they participated in the Affordable Housing Bonus Program. A property’s total number of proposed residential units would be considered the “bonus” density.

Photo by Garreth Wilcock made available through a Creative Commons license.

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