Public Notice: More and Cheaper Housing

Demographer’s report offers new perspectives

Public Notice

City Demographer Ryan Robinson delivered a letter on Tuesday to City Council, and to city Planning and Housing staff, saying that he's examined the city's currently pending Draft Austin Strategic Housing Plan "from a demographic perspective," and offering "an objective assessment." He concludes that "the SHP is extremely well-done and presents a thoughtful approach to mitigating affordability issues," but then goes on to undermine a big chunk of its core message, at least as many have seen it – as a lens through which to evaluate the ongoing CodeNEXT Land Develop­ment Code rewrite.

Robinson's headline finding is that the SHP overestimates the growth of housing needed in the city by about two-thirds, and projects "a level of population growth that would be demographically improbable to achieve." Doing the math, that means the much bandied-about figure of 135,000 "future housing units needed" over the next 10 years should actually be more like 81,000, or about the number that are already being built annually.

Of course, that just keeps up with the projected population growth, and does nothing to ease the current squeeze. So what if we could indeed arrange to build those 54,000 "extra" units, increasing supply to the point where prices start to drop? That's the rosy outlook promised by supply-siders and real estate interests, but there are two fatal flaws to it, as Robinson and many others have pointed out before.

The most basic is the market itself, which always operates to equilibrium. If vacancy rates start to rise, financing dries up, and nothing gets built in that market segment until vacancy rates drop, and prices start to rise again. That's Econ 101, but the more insidious problem is this: The free market categorically cannot build deeply affordable housing in Austin without considerable subsidy of some sort. The dirt's too expensive; construction costs are too high; the revenue's not there – it just doesn't add up financially. So no amount of market-rate new construction will create any truly affordable housing without public intervention into the equation in some way. But meanwhile, the existing stock of "market-rate affordable" housing – "Class C" units, in real estate parlance, that are not the "highest and best use" of the dirt they sit on – is being torn down at a frightening rate, and isn't even being counted. (By the way, all the same conditions apply to commercial space as well as residential: The forces driving clubs and performance spaces out of Downtown and the Eastside are the same ones driving renters out of Central Austin.)

In conclusion, Robinson offers a short list of strategies he thinks could work, "as a demographer." These include improvements in the development review process, and "a truly high-capacity regional transit system." But what he identifies in the Land Develop­ment Code is an LDC that "supports and enables the creation of a wide diversity of housing types and unit densities," that "promotes the preservation of core, anchor single family neighborhoods but [lets] homeowners … create infill stock like Accessory Dwelling Units," and notably, prioritizes "the preservation of organic, market-rate affordable housing over the creation of new housing stock."

We shall begin to get a better idea next week how well the CodeNEXT LDC rewrite might fill those needs, when the long-awaited Code mapping is revealed, showing just what zoning will apply to what tracts everywhere in the city. The mapping will be released April 18, but the first public reveal and explication is scheduled for 6pm, Wed., April 19, at Austin City Hall, 301 W. Second. Meanwhile, check out Robinson's SHP assessment.

Austin PARD has released the 2017 summer pool schedule, for some 46 neighborhood pools, wading pools, municipal pools, and splash pads. For the most part, the season runs June 2-Aug. 19, but three pools will be closed entirely this summer: Govalle, Shipe, and Givens have been identified as being in critical condition, and are in varying stages of repair, redesign, or replacement. See details on those plans, and the full schedule, at

And tonight, Thu., April 13, the city hosts a "community conversation about a pilot program to install public toilets downtown" to help "bikers, runners, homeless individuals, and late night crowds." 4:30-6:30pm, Town Lake Center, 721 Barton Springs Rd. Or, text "restroom" to 512/643-5627, to answer a questionnaire on the subject.

The Austin Community College Campus Carry Implementation Task Force is hosting forums to discuss the upcoming implementation at ACC of the campus carry law passed in the last Lege session and get input from the ACC community. A presentation of the draft recommendations will be shared at the final forum on April 28. See more info, and live-streams of the meetings, at Tue., April 18, Riverside Campus, G-8100, 6-7:30pm. Fri., April 28, Highland Campus, Social Staircase, 1-2:30pm.

Tickets for the Austin Humane Society's 13th annual AHS Car Raffle are still on sale. Win a 2016 Mazda Miata MX-5 Sport Convertible, again donated by Roger Beasley Mazda. Raffle tickets are $20 or three for $50, at or at the shelter at 124 W. Anderson. Only 5,000 tickets will be sold; a winner will be drawn April 29.

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Ryan Robinson, CodeNEXT

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