Council Recap: Once-Sacred Neighborhood Protections Battered by Austin's Affordability Crisis

Are taller buildings with less parking the answer?

City Council didn’t take any action (and had not planned to) Thursday on a draft proposal to expand entitlements for developers to build housing on the city’s major commercial and transportation corridors. But its public discussion of the issue predictably highlighted longstanding divisions in our community over how Austin should grow.

“These issues that we’re trying to wade through,” Council Member Ann Kitchen reflected at the end of the long day, “I’m positive that we’re all on the same page in what we want. And we need to have conversations where we’re not vilifying each other. I’m not talking about us [Council] – as a community.”

The draft proposal that sparked much debate Thursday focused on two ways to free up development of much-needed housing: loosening compatibility standards for commercial projects near single-family neighborhoods, and reducing minimum parking requirements to allow for more housing and less pavement.

Austin’s current compatibility standards were adopted in the 1980s to prevent new development from disrupting old neighborhoods’ character with oversized buildings. The regulations gradually constrain heights and increase setbacks on commercial (which includes multifamily) properties up to 540 feet from any properties either zoned or used as single-family housing. The goal is to have staggered heights in that zone – the closer to homes, the smaller the buildings.

A 540-foot compatibility zone encompasses a lot of properties on the city’s main corridors, which is where urbanists and NIMBYs alike say the city should focus on increasing housing and density, particularly as we start to see the results of the Project Connect transit system overhaul. Many sites on the corridors are technically eligible for increased height and reduced setbacks as part of the city’s density bonus programs to incentivize affordable housing, such as the vertical mixed-use overlay, changes to which are also in the offing. Compatibility standards trump density bonuses.

Austin’s standards are much more restrictive than those in peer cities. Any 60-foot building (four stories, the most allowed on most properties on most corridors) has to be 300 feet (a little less than a football field) away from the nearest single-family property line, and a 90-foot building (allowed by the VMU overlay) has to be more than 400 feet away. In Portland and Seattle, such compatibility zones don’t surpass 50 feet; Houston, of course, has no such restrictions at all. Even cities more on Austin’s wavelength regarding neighborhood protection, such as Las Vegas, still don’t require more than 300 feet of separation for any height.

“Single-family” in Austin’s Land Development Code includes places where you can build a duplex or an accessory dwelling unit, but no more than that – a triplex or fourplex, even if it’s the same size as the single-family homes around it (e.g., a big old house split into several apartments), is “multifamily” and would trigger compatibility. One speaker pointed this out, prompting the question: “Why are people scared of people who live in triplexes? Why can’t they live as close to the property line as a single-family house?”

While all CMs agreed that the current regulations are choking housing along corridors, CM José “Chito” Vela urged Council not to make arbitrary decisions about how many feet to add or take away from developers. “Our compatibility limits are so strict that we might be able to cut it down … and it may not have any impact. … We need to make sure that when we adjust compatibility along corridors it has an actual impact.”

The draft proposal from Mayor Steve Adler, Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter, and CMs Paige Ellis, Vanessa Fuentes, and Leslie Pool points out that relaxing compatibility would not change the 60- and 90-foot height limits in the LDC for most corridor properties. It proposes raising allowable heights for any multifamily or mixed-use property on a corridor by 5 feet across the board; properties currently capped at 30 feet (the ones closest to the homes triggering compatibility) would be able to build to 35 feet, and so on up to 60 or 90 feet. The proposal compresses the impact zone around triggering homes from 540 feet to 300 feet.

The other half of the draft proposal would significantly reduce parking minimums, allowing properties on “large” corridors with robust transit to provide only 20%-50% of the off-street parking currently required. “Medium” corridors could see smaller reductions, to 50%-75% of current code. Alter said the exact percentage reductions (along with which corridors they apply to) will be hammered out later, so these ranges are a placeholder.

Cindy Reed, a resident of Vela’s District 4 in Northeast Austin, asked members to reconsider whether housing without off-street parking would be accessible to low-income families. “Removing parking completely is impractical, it is not rooted in affordable housing … it’s actually rooted in white privilege.” She said young children have strollers, diapers and such – cumbersome to lug on a bus or train and impossible on a bike. She pointed out that working-class laborers are also more likely to have tools and equipment they need to carry to and from work, while “a lawyer, a tech worker, an accountant, they can throw their laptop in a backpack and bike to work. … We continue to push families out.”

Will Davis, a speaker from District 3 (East and inner Southeast Austin), followed shortly after with the opposite take. His brother (an artist, filmmaker, and UT alum) has been priced out of two apartments and is about to be priced out of a modest garage apartment, Davis told Council. “Minimal to no compatibility regulations and parking regulations” could finally create an environment where housing in his brother’s price range exists, Davis said. “We’re in a full-on crisis at this point and, honestly, I pray most days that we will find relief.”

Greg Anderson of Austin Habitat for Humanity, one of the city’s most uncompromising housing advocates, came armed with data to back up his plea to increase the number of affordable homes as much as possible. Habitat recently teamed up with Austin ISD to sell 30 homes to AISD teachers at a discount, and in the first 48 hours they had 700 inquiries. “That’s just overwhelming,” Anderson told Council. “My guess is each and every one of you really want to try to remain in Austin.” On parking, he said the city is stuck in a one-size-fits-all approach, but cheaper housing options for people who don’t need a parking spot (which costs thousands of dollars to build) would introduce more options for median-income renters.

The environmental argument for maximizing housing capacity rang clear throughout the day, with Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, laying out plain and simple that research has shown sprawl negatively affects the environment on almost every metric (mainly because of carbon emissions from commuters).“I believe to my core this is not a forced choice where we have to be for one and against the other,” Adler said, referring to environmental and housing interests.

As so many of the specifics remain to be determined, Adler urged patience. Others, including Kitchen, called for urgency to make new rules a reality: “This [proposal] is just to initiate changes. It still has to go through the vetting process with lots of opportunity for conversation before it even gets back to us.” That’s unlikely to happen until the fall.

Got something to say on the subject? Send a letter to the editor.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle