Point Austin: The Mayor’s Tightrope

Tip-toeing our way toward a consensus on housing supply

Point Austin

Last week's City Council meeting featured a briefing on the city's Strategic Housing Plan, currently in draft form and returning to the dais next week, for potential adoption as an amendment to the Imagine Austin Compre­hen­sive Plan. Although it will include benchmarks and metrics for annual review, the Plan's force is largely aspirational, as a matrix for reviewing statistical progress and a goad for city staff and Council to pursue programs in support of its overall goal of addressing city affordability by increasing housing supply, at all economic levels.

How much housing do we need? The Plan arrives at a goal of 135,000 units over 10 years, using a bit of mathematical sleight of hand. It uses the 2015 City of Austin number of 398,000 units, and amplifies that number by the anticipated 34% population increase for the metropolitan area, to get to that 135,000 total. That sidesteps the somewhat lesser growth expectation within city limits of 20% (in theory delivering a within-city number more achievable). But more importantly, as a couple of council members were quick to point out, the Plan acknowledges that even if we do add 135,000 units, that's a number that would enable us only to "keep pace with population growth."

In other words, if we get there, we would arrive exactly where we are now: with a still-constricted housing supply, and not having made a dent in rising costs. To address the latter, pick a number; the guesses from the dais started at 170,000 units.

It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that we can build like crazy and still never build nearly enough. The entire public discussion has begun to remind me of Jeff Goldblum's music-critic monologue in Between the Lines: "Whither rock & roll? ... It can't stay at my house – there's not enough room."

A Bargain for You

Meanwhile, in anticipation of CodeNEXT and its mapping rollout scheduled for next month, Mayor Steve Adler has been making the rounds reassuring various audiences that "it's just a draft," "it will be wrong," and that we all need to pull together over the next year's revisions in order to get the thing right. As a corollary, he's been promoting the "Austin Bargain" first mentioned in his January State of the City address: an unwritten and very unofficial agreement that we will "protect our neighborhoods" while delivering "the increased housing supply we need to make Austin more affordable." The first will be achieved by not "forcing density into the middle of [single-family] neighborhoods"; the second, by code-enabling "the housing supply we need by focusing along our major corridors."

I sympathize with the mayor, who is trying to walk a rhetorical and political tightrope toward a public consensus about changing Austin.

All the while, the Great Bargainer is hoping he can bring to the table uncertainly identified parties who have thus far mostly been talking past each other. Occasionally, he has personified the opposed forces as the Real Estate Council of Austin, on the one hand, and the Austin Neighborhoods Council on the other, and said both groups appear willing to accept the bargain of increased density focused along major corridors and "major activity centers" like Downtown, the Mueller neighborhood, and the Domain. More recently, he has optimistically suggested that the housing density needed to eventually plateau or reduce costs can be achieved within 3-5% of city land tracts – and that the CodeNEXT mapping will demonstrate that possibility.

I sympathize with the mayor, who is attempting to walk a rhetorical and political tightrope toward a public consensus about changing Austin that seems, well, as unlikely as building those 170,000 units in 10 years. Urbanist groups like AURA – not a direct party to the mayor's grand bargain – insist not only that the "corridors" will likely prove inadequate to the task of absorbing all that needed housing, but that it doesn't really make sense to use "corridors" as a way to avoid addressing Austin's heritage of racial and economic segregation-by-zoning. In a better-planned and better city, all types and ranges of housing would exist citywide in every Council district, ZIP code, and census tract, along with the multi-modal transit to sustain it all.

Row Your Boat

That sounds more like a Grand Austin Bargain to me, although I recognize that it represents an even unlikelier consensus than the one the mayor is quixotically attempting to catalyze. Cities don't erase their geographies or their histories by force of official will, and municipal politics – witness the weekly zoning battles roiling almost every "neighborhood" – are very much a process of trying to craft compromises that please virtually nobody. It's a herky-jerky business – a couple of steps forward, a step or two back – and ambitious city projects like Imagine Austin and the Strategic Housing Plan seem like so many well-intentioned boats, beating on against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Nevertheless, for the present, refining CodeNEXT and its planning offspring appears to be our best immediate hope of making any forward progress at all. It would seem churlish not to stick in our collective oars alongside the mayor, and start pulling.

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Steve Adler, CodeNEXT, Real Estate Council of Austin, AURA

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