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Council responds to code housing capacity and mapping

Wednesday, October 9, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

The city’s Land Development Code draft promises a major increase in housing capacity across the city, falling just shy of City Council’s housing capacity goals in the 2017 Austin Strategic Housing Blueprint.

In its current form, the code would push the city’s housing capacity up from 145,000 to 397,000 units, steering the city closer to its target of producing 135,000 new housing units by 2027.

Council commended staffers during Tuesday’s work session, noting the prodigious number-crunching feat accomplished in providing the new zoning map. Several Council members, however, objected to some details of the mapping that, in their opinion, represented too much change in parts of their districts.

Far more capacity has been added to District 1 than any other district. Mapped for 101,934 new units, D1 could be set to absorb over a quarter of the city’s new housing in coming years.

Central Austin’s District 9 is taking on much less capacity than D1, but is still about double that of other districts. Council Member Kathie Tovo said her district, which is mapped for just under 70,000 new units, is particularly sensitive to development because of its relatively low amount of vacant land.

“A large amount of the increased capacity is being borne by District 9, and that will be redevelopment, not new development,” she said. “So that’s really the rezoning and transformation of existing structures.”

Tovo objected to the new zoning categories for areas, such as the blocks along Duval Street, that have been considered part of a corridor when they are not at all similar to major corridors like William Cannon Drive. There is a single high-frequency bus along Duval, she said, and now it has been mapped for “missing middle” housing types four lots deep from the street, allowing between four and six units per lot.

At the same time, she added, there are certain Imagine Austin activity centers and corridors outside Central Austin that could stand to share more of the burden of density than is now mapped. “I think that if this is a good path, it’s a good path for all of our districts to take, to increase density.”

Due to the complexity of their zoning restrictions, the majority of the parcels between Guadalupe and Duval streets from 27th Street to 51st Street have been allowed to carry forward their existing Neighborhood Conservation Combining District zoning designations. In the case of the parcels along Duval, said Erica Leak, a planner with Neighborhood Housing and Community Development, staffers consider it a suitable place to help get more missing middle housing into high-opportunity areas.

Council Member Leslie Pool shared Tovo’s concern that some of the mapped transition zones will encourage the destruction of older, market-rate affordable housing. She said the map already shows increased entitlements in some of the areas she considers affordable today.

“I’m concerned we’re going to trigger redevelopment in parts of town where it otherwise might not happen for a while,” she said.

Regarding what she considers potentially flawed applications of the transition zone boundaries and intensities, Pool said she will be communicating with staff to try to resolve those issues.

Leak explained that one reason capacity may be concentrated in Central Austin and certain areas is because that’s often where demand is sufficiently high to benefit developers taking part in an affordable housing density bonus program.

In order to grow capacity to nearly 400,000 units, staff chose to drastically increase opportunities for participation in density bonus programs, hoping to obtain as many affordable units as possible from the city’s growth.

Of the code’s 397,000-unit capacity, 178,000 will only be available through participation in a density bonus program. The revision expands the city’s land area containing an affordability bonus program from 5,600 to 30,600 acres.

Texas doesn’t allow cities to require developers to contribute to affordable housing, Leak said. Austin can’t force developers to provide affordable units, as with inclusionary zoning policies, or pay impact fees that help fund affordable housing. Instead, she said, the city has to entice them with options that are financially appealing but not too demanding.

“If they don’t have a monetary incentive to participate in the voluntary bonus program then they won’t,” she said.

In areas farther out from the urban core, where rents are generally lower, Leak said developers would have less to gain from adding density. “In those cases it’s likely that developers will just develop under base entitlements.”

That holds true, as well, for many properties that have been mapped with a bonus program. The code’s capacity includes 8,841 income-restricted units, about one-eighth of Council’s goal to add 60,000 income-restricted units, each tied to a bonus program. The reality is, Leak said, it’s likely many of those bonus program options will go unused.

Still, Council Member Greg Casar told the Austin Monitor after the meeting that he sees the bonus programs as a huge improvement over the current code, creating opportunities for nearly six times more affordable housing units than today’s code allows.

Council never expected the code to add capacity for much more than 8,000-10,000 units, he said; this is one important building block in the larger effort to maintain affordability in the city.

So far, the city has pulled together a variety of resources to fund around a quarter of its affordable unit goal, leaving over 40,000 units without a funding source.

“To subsidize those units it would cost between $6 billion and $11 billion,” Leak said. “So the code was obviously an important tool to try and reach those goals, but it will take, really, a lot more tools.”

Staff members will continue the conversation in two weeks with a follow-up report on the code and the city’s environmental and transportation goals.

Each district will also be hosting town halls and “office hours” for citizens to discuss and learn about the code. The office hours give citizens a chance to schedule a 30-minute conversation with staff members to ask questions and offer feedback.

District 5 will hold its office hours today from 4-8 p.m. at the Manchaca Road Branch Library at 5500 Manchaca Road.

District 9 will hold its office hours and a town hall meeting simultaneously on Thursday, 7-9 p.m. at City Hall.

Photo by Michael Coté made available through a Creative Commons license.

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