Rules That Block Apartments Near Single-Family Homes Should Change, City Staff Says

Compatibility restricts homes near amenities

Mueller neighborhood housing (Provided by city of Austin)

Austin’s rules limiting dense housing near single-family homes are among the most restrictive in the nation, but next year, that could change.

In a Sept. 5 memo, city staff shared the results of a comprehensive analysis looking at how, throughout the city, “compatibility restrictions” limit potential housing capacity – i.e., the maximum amount of housing that could be built but isn’t because of compatibility regulations.

Austin’s compatibility rules have also prevented development of thousands of housing units within a quarter mile of amenities like schools, grocery stores, and parks (Data via city of Austin)

The analysis found that compatibility rules, like height limitations and setback requirements, imposed on multifamily properties within 540 feet (about two blocks) of a “triggering property” have blocked up to 135,000 housing units across the city.

Most of the capacity loss is within the 100 foot range of a triggering property, where height restrictions are most severe, so staff has recommended reducing the compatibility trigger distance to 75 feet. More capacity could be unlocked by providing on-site affordable housing, through a yet-to-be-created bonus program.

Staff found that compatibility rules have a more pronounced effect in “high density” residential areas (think corridors like South Lamar) than in “high opportunity areas” (generally, West Austin), where strict watershed regulations prevent denser housing developments. By looking at two of Austin’s citywide affordability bonus programs (Vertical Mixed Use and Residential in Commercial), staff estimated that compatibility restrictions have prevented development of about 9,000 income-restricted housing units.

Current compatibility rules also have a massive effect on a key part of the city’s housing and climate goals – building more housing near transit. The study found that 82% of citywide capacity loss was within a quarter mile of a transit stop – that equates to about 58,900 housing units that could be built within walking distance to transit under less restrictive compatibility rules.

Council could vote to do that next spring when they are scheduled to review and adopt an ordinance amending compatibility rules citywide.

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