Garza says code needs ‘equity overlay’ to address historic development patterns
Tuesday, November 26, 2019 by Ryan Thornton
Reading through the draft Land Development Code over the last several weeks, Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza noted that, for all its pages and nuance, the draft has a blind spot around housing equity.
Realizing there was no single tool to address displacement of the city’s most vulnerable residents, Garza consulted with her office and the Land Development Code rewrite team to brainstorm an idea for such a tool: an “equity overlay” district.
The zone would operate much like other overlays, such as the University Neighborhood Overlay in West Campus or the Downtown Plan Overlay, but would serve the specific purpose of protecting residents in vulnerable, historically segregated areas from the pressures of redevelopment and surging housing costs.
Garza posted to the City Council Message Board Friday with a rough outline of the concept. In order to get more affordable and market-rate housing in the city without over-relying on areas already at risk of or experiencing gentrification, she proposed that the overlay serve three major functions. It should 1) delineate an area where the depth of transition zones should be reduced to prevent displacement; 2) protect existing affordable multifamily properties from redevelopment pressures; and 3) increase on-site affordable housing requirements.
The overlay boundaries will be based on the census tracts identified as vulnerable in “Uprooted,” a study of gentrification patterns commissioned by the city and conducted by researchers at the University of Texas. The area of vulnerability is most concentrated in East Austin, extending from around Braker Lane down to Slaughter Lane.
Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison of East Austin’s District 1 praised the overlay concept on Friday afternoon. “For too long, East Austin has borne the brunt of our city’s rapid growth,” she wrote on the message board. “That’s why I think it’s absolutely imperative that we consider any and every tool in the toolbox that could help us stop displacement and redistribute growth pressures equitably across the entire city.”
Council Member Greg Casar of District 4, home to many of the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods, also posted his support. “We know we need more housing in our city, and we need a stronger focus on anti-gentrification and equity. This gets us both.”
Garza’s office has not yet worked out the specific details. The overlay would, however, need to be adopted with the new code, creating pressure for it to be more or less complete by Dec. 9, when Council is scheduled to take up the code draft ordinance for a first reading.
The Planning Commission released its full list of recommendations on Nov. 18, many of which resonate with the intention of the overlay. While the commission voted in favor of extending transition zones to their full depth in areas already in the late stages of gentrification, it also recommended mapping transition zones in high-opportunity areas with transit service instead of neighborhoods currently experiencing the earlier stages of gentrification.
In neighborhoods susceptible to or undergoing the early or dynamic stages of gentrification, the commission passed a proposal to keep zoning entitlements as they are today, minus the opportunity to participate in an affordable housing bonus program.
“I am grateful that the Planning Commission and staff have recommended reducing transition areas in gentrifying areas, and increasing missing middle capacity in non-gentrifying and high opportunity areas,” Garza said Friday. “This is an important first step in reaching a more equitable proposed code.”
The commission approved several policy recommendations to protect existing multifamily housing and more equitably distribute the city’s desired affordable housing stock into more desirable neighborhoods.
Some of these policies would protect existing affordable multifamily housing from the redevelopment pressure of affordable housing bonus programs, incorporate Neighborhood Conservation Combining Districts into the rewrite to get more affordable housing opportunities in those areas, and establish a “Corridors of Equitable Opportunity” program to get more affordable housing in areas with access to jobs, education and public transportation.
Garza has not taken a public stance on the commission’s specific policies. For now, her office is consulting and collaborating with the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department and the code rewrite team to craft the specific components of the equity overlay.
Although the overlay may ultimately have a similar effect as some of the Planning Commission proposals, those represent an attempt to calibrate zoning policy across the city while the overlay would be a geographically based amendment supplementing the base code.
Map courtesy of the city of Austin.
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