Wednesday, May 26, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

Council members worry water conservation efforts could make development more expensive

City Council advanced several initiatives at last Thursday’s meeting to make the city’s water supply more sustainable and resistant to drought. Some Council members, however, worried that new policies could increase development costs, thereby exacerbating the city’s affordability crisis. 

“I’m proud that as a city we led the way when it comes to environmental sustainability and green development,” Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison said. “I do often think about those trade-offs, though. Sometimes the additional measures come with additional cost.”

Despite some reservations, Council members unanimously adopted two resolutions outlining the proposed policies – but not before strengthening the language in one of the resolutions related to affordability impacts. The initiatives are part of Water Forward, the city’s 2018 water resource management plan, and mostly pertain to new development.

One resolution initiates Land Development Code revisions, which must go through one last round of engagement with stakeholders before Council officially puts the changes into ordinance. Revisions include:

  • mandatory on-site water reuse systems for new buildings greater than 250,000 square feet
  • additional regulations related to reclaimed water connections, water benchmarking and water balance calculations for new development

The other resolution prods the city’s bureaucracy to speed up the implementation of other Water Forward initiatives, including: 

  • dual plumbing ordinance for new larger commercial and multifamily development
  • more requirements that developments connect to reclaimed water systems
  • landscape transformation ordinances and incentive programs
  • irrigation efficiency and incentive program

The changes in this resolution still have to go through multiple rounds of stakeholder input before being put into ordinance. Many of the initiatives in both resolutions were included in the land code rewrite, which was stymied last year by a judge. 

While Council members lauded the impact the policies would have on the city’s water conservation efforts, some raised concerns about how the policies would affect the cost of development, and therefore housing affordability.

“At the same time we confront this climate crisis, we also know that our city is experiencing an affordability crisis,” Council Member Paige Ellis said. “Evaluating options to mitigate the upfront cost to home builders, that they would only then pass on to the tenants, would add to the affordability of these policies and ensure we don’t lose potential housing options as our population grows.”

Ellis moved to add language to one of the resolutions to ensure the city conducts this cost-benefit analysis and consults stakeholders who “know what it’s like to build this infrastructure” and can speak to the affordability impact the policies may have.

Council Member Kathie Tovo argued against Ellis’ amendments to the resolution. “My concern about your language is that it presupposes that all the impacts to affordability are bad impacts,” Tovo said. “I don’t believe that’s the case.” After Tovo and Ellis negotiated on the wording, the resolution passed unanimously. 

“When we make big changes, transformational changes, there are costs,” Council Member Leslie Pool said. “And then we all kind of glide on the long-term benefits. And that’s just part of how these programs work.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Water Forward

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