Public Notice: Density vs. Affordability

If we can't have both, which is the priority?

Public Notice

Last week's City Council meeting avoided the extreme acrimony of the previous one, but, as I predicted last week, the sharpest policy divide was highlighted in the relatively obscure issue known as small lot amnesty. At issue is whether existing legal plots of land across the city can be "disaggregated" – split into constituent smaller-than-standard lots, so that existing housing can be removed, and redeveloped as two or more smaller properties. This was recently ruled to be legal as an unintended consequence of an ordinance allowing the development of existing undersized lots which would otherwise be too small to build on. City staff recommends closing this loophole as bad policy and bad law, but the density-at-all-costs lobby has latched on to it as an unexpected windfall: multiple tiny houses springing up where now there is one sprawling ranch house.

The problem is getting from here to there, because everyone agrees – when pushed to admit it – that it is categorically impossible for market forces to build housing in the central city that is affordable by any definition of that word. The only housing in the city that's remotely affordable is the older housing stock – houses and apartments – that are rapidly being torn down to build newer, more expensive units. Yet this is the path a faction of city leadership wants to pursue and accelerate – to "build our way out of" the affordability crisis. (If you tell someone who actually works in affordable housing that that is the city's strategy, they will laugh in your face. I had that literal experience recently with a group from out of town.)

Mayor Steve Adler acknowledged this specifically in his State of the City address on Tuesday, noting that three quarters of Aus­tin's existing affordable housing lies in this stock, and that "We are losing those units – to redevelopment and demolition – every day. To call these 'housing units' ignores that these are homes to about 200,000 of our fellow Austinites. And if we do not aggressively preserve our existing affordable housing stock while building new affordable housing, then we are effectively saying goodbye to a population the size of Amarillo."

But Greg Casar, for one, seems to have given up hope for existing neighborhoods and existing housing stock: For him the choice isn't between "one older home being replaced by two and those newer homes being more expensive than the older home," but between "one older home being torn down and being replaced by one really big new expensive home, or being replaced by two newer homes that are going to be more expensive because they are newer."

Ora Houston summed up the other side of the argument: "But does everybody understand that just because you add more housing stock does not mean that people can afford to live there? I mean, that's what gentrification is about, is that the people who can afford to live there are not the people who are being kicked out of their neighborhood because of the high cost of living. ... You keep saying the more housing stock we get, the rates at some point will come down and we don't see that happening, and in none of the cities that y'all bring to us has that ever happened. I've asked this over the last year, tell me a city where we've increased the housing stock and the prices have come down. Not in Portland, not in Seattle. In none of those cities has that happened. And I don't know that in my lifetime that it will happen."

In the end, the motion to close the loophole passed on first reading by the narrowest of margins – 6-5, with Casar and Delia Garza joining the three generally anti-regulation Republicans in opposition. But this fight is just in the early rounds. Not only does this item have to come back for second and third readings, but there are plenty of other big issues in the pipeline that will keep this conundrum on Council's front burner for the foreseeable future.

Help the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter celebrate 51 years of loving Texas at the I Heart Texas Gala on Saturday, Feb. 20, 5:30pm at the Oasis on Lake Travis, 6550 Comanche Trail, for an iconic Texas sunset, to mix and mingle, and raise funds for the conservation priorities of the Lone Star Chapter. Tickets start at $135, and range up to the oddly specific $25,759.95. See www.sierraclub.org/texas/blog/2016/01/i for more info.

Austin author Richard Zelade will be signing his latest books, Austin in the Jazz Age, Austin Murder & Mayhem, and Guy Town by Gaslight, this Sunday, Feb. 21, 2-6pm, at the South Austin Popular Culture Center, 1516-B S. Lamar. Zelade is a multidisciplinary historian who studies Texas geology, weather, geography, flora, fauna, and ethnic folkways, including the medicinal and food uses of native plants. See www.southpop.org for more info, or to become a SouthPop member.

The Paris Climate Agreement, an Austin Perspec­tive: Join Mayor Steve Adler, Rainforest Partnership's Niyanta Spelman, and Texas Interfaith's Yaira Robinson for a panel discussion on the Paris Climate Agreement, Austin's role in the global fight to curb climate change, and what you can do to support our planet. Wed., Feb. 24, 6pm at the Google Fiber Space, 201 Colorado. More info at either www.rainforestpartnership.org or www.austineconetwork.com.

Capital Metro is looking for community feedback on its year-long transit study, Connections 2025, designed to develop "short-, mid-, and long-range recommendations to create a more efficient, effective transit system with a clear direction for future development." They're holding open houses this week across town and online. Learn more about the project and share feedback about what Capital Metro should prioritize, at www.connections2025.org.

Austin B-cycle needs you for SXSW 2016! In past years, Austin B-cycle has broken records for ridership during SXSW, and to do it again, they need volunteers to answer questions and run bikes between stations Downtown. One four-hour shift earns you half of an annual Local365 Austin B-cycle membership, two shifts and it's free! See details at www.austinbcycle.com.

Send gossip, dirt, innuendo, rumors, and other useful grist to nbarbaro@austinchronicle.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

City Council, housing

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