Public Notice: CodeNextYear?

Reports, editorial, public all say CodeNOT

Public Notice: CodeNextYear?

It's been another very bumpy week on the long and winding road to a comprehensive rewrite of the city's land development code, the process known as CodeNEXT. Two different reports came out on Friday – one from the nonprofit Housing Works of Aus­tin, the other from the city's own minority outreach program – both expressing concerns that, essentially, the proposed code's focus on increased density comes at the expense of affordability. Then on Sunday, the Austin American-Statesman's lead editorial called for "shelving CodeNext until next year," in order to remove "unrealistic deadlines" and "give the council the best shot at restoring public trust." And in between, on Saturday and Tues­day, at two public hearings before the city's joint land use commissions, the general citizenry took their turn, battering the poor draft code from all sides like a piñata – or a piñata store in old East Austin.

So at press time, what we are euphemistically calling the CodeNEXT "final draft" appears instead adrift, with no one willing to either support it, or put it out of its misery.

The Housing Works findings, sent as a letter to the Planning Com­mis­sion plus City Council and staff, focuses primarily on the Affordable Housing Bonus Program, and while acknowledging that there's only so much a zoning code can do to address "our crisis in affordability," notes several areas of "concern": primarily that the new AHBP will produce "far less [affordable] units along the transit corridors" than could the existing Vertical Mixed Use program it replaces; that all upzonings in the new code should be accompanied by "requirements for affordable housing or other community benefits"; and that the mapping should "Use the Centers proposed in Imagine Austin and apply the AHBP to those areas where we want the market to go rather than applying so heavily to where market demand exists."

In the same vein, the city Communications and Public Information Office issued its final CodeNEXT Community Engagement Report on Friday – and if the Housing Works letter reported "optimism, though perhaps faded," this one was less rosy. The report by consultants Group Solutions RJW came out of a Council directive to reach out to "under-represented groups" such as "low-income, and renter communities, as well as people with disabilities." RJW contacted 32 community groups vetted by Council and staff, and interviewed representatives of 17 groups, including the African American Resource Advisory Com­mis­sion, Asian American Resource Center, Austin Revital­ization Authority, Austin Tenants' Council, Community Action Network, Go! Austin/¡Vamos! Austin, Interfaith Action of Central Texas, NAACP, La Raza Round­table, Restore Rundberg, and others, and: "Surprising to the interviewers was how similar the comments and concerns were across groups and organizations."

The responses are grouped into "common themes" that "represent the views of most, if not all, of the organizations that participated in conversations." Those themes include Affordability, Housing, Mobility, the Process, and Trade-offs, but the most telling, and vehement, is "Density and Gentrification: The increased density allowed in CodeNEXT will not increase affordable housing but will harm and displace existing residents by increasing property taxes, changing the character of neighborhoods and driving up the cost of housing."

The loud-and-clear message, if this report is to be believed, at least, is that minority communities do not in any way believe the supply-side argument that increasing density in east and central neighborhoods is a benefit. Cited comments in this section are unanimously negative, and include: "Density does not increase affordable housing. Just look around. Look at the new dense housing units. The rents and mortgages are not affordable. People are displaced, then a few affordable units are set aside. The new residents don't look like the residents who were displaced." Also: "Density is the latest tactic to force Black and Hispanic people from their land."

Among the other common themes are "Housing – Single-family homes provide neighborhoods their special identity and stability. Single-family homes are the preferred housing choice, although there is a need for every type of housing, particularly affordable options." ("Reasons cited ... included maintaining existing neighborhood character, addressing the needs of families ... providing ownership options, and supporting the American dream of home ownership." And finally, "The Process: The most vulnerable have not been talked to and don't know what is happening; the proposed code weakens neighborhoods and encourages gentrification; a result of CodeNEXT will be to promote growth at the expense of current residents, community values and culture; and, too many questions and outstanding issues remain to adopt CodeNEXT without addressing these questions and issues first."

Strangely, neither report was noted with a press release by the CodeNEXT team; I suspect they'll get more notice in days to come.

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

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