What Land Use Code Do We Need to Build the City We Want?
Planning a way forward after CodeNEXT
In hindsight, last year's shuddering halt to the CodeNEXT land use code rewrite looks less like an act of defeated desperation and more like a gutsy gamble on the part of Mayor Steve Adler and his allies, who have taken their success in the November 2018 elections to signify a renewed and strengthened mandate to Go Big on land use. The presumptive 8-3 Council balance on development issues has already taken shape as Adler et al. have begun, on the Council message board and at Tuesday's work session (April 9) to answer City Manager Spencer Cronk's multiple-choice "policy guidance" questions to gauge Council's energy and appetite for diving back into a process that has already consumed six years of work and millions of dollars in staff time and consulting fees. Those eight votes have signaled their willingness, and eagerness, and to a degree their sense of obligation to go further than the last published draft of CodeNEXT – allowing for more housing capacity and diversity, relaxed "compatibility" standards that limit heights around single-family homes, and reduced on-site parking requirements – and to do this in conjunction with a whole new zoning map.
Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and Council Members Greg Casar, Jimmy Flannigan, and Paige Ellis have all explicitly said they'll vote for what Cronk defined as "Option C" on most of his survey questions; less explicitly, Adler and CMs Natasha Harper-Madison, Pio Renteria, and Ann Kitchen have all signed on to positions crafted by the first four, leaving CMs Leslie Pool, Kathie Tovo, and Alison Alter potentially on the short end of votes that Council has committed to taking by the end of this month to give Cronk and Assistant City Manager Rodney Gonzales – now promoted to lead the portfolio of departments charged with crafting a new code – the policy direction they crave. All have also given Cronk feedback that provides nuance to the Go Big energy; the manager himself noted at the work session that he didn't include a timeline in his memo because "we want to get this right, however long it takes." But it does not look, right now, like City Hall is inclined to constrain the speed of its renewed code-rewrite effort, break the task up into smaller pieces, separate the code from the map, or otherwise take the next steps that would logically follow if CodeNEXT were viewed as a failure for which Council must now atone.
The next three weeks should tell us whether Adler, Cronk and the rest of City Hall have read the room correctly. But public opinion on land use regulatory reform is being shaped by influential actors working on the forward-facing edge of Austin's growth and change – the people who are shaping Austin's future by trying to create, and sustain, the places and the community fabric we say we want. What does the new code need to do to make that work successful? We've asked some key folks to weigh in on what's changed, and what hasn't, since we started this conversation, and how the lessons we've learned can help us moving forward. – Mike Clark-Madison
Who Will Live Here Tomorrow?
If the path toward a more affordable Austin involves myriad agonizing, potentially divisive policy decisions, at least the response demanded from the rapidly changing demographics of the city is clear: build as much housing as possible, in as many varieties as possible, wherever possible. That's according to Ryan Robinson, city of Austin demographer, who told the Chronicle that demographic forecasts should play a "background, foundational" role as city leaders look toward a reimagined land use code.
The demographic forecasts that Robinson's office produces predict what types of people are moving into the city (age, race, income level, with or without children, etc.) and where they are settling. Knowing that information will help Council identify what types of housing would have the greatest impact on affordability in different parts of town – more multifamily buildings in West Austin, perhaps, or more accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in East Austin, maybe.
The key is to do so thoughtfully, because although an idea like universal upzoning may sound like a simple way to address a lack of diverse housing, Robinson warns that such a move could trigger a development boom in the city's hotter markets, resulting in yet more luxury buildings that are unattainable to Austin's low-income residents. "We have to be strategic about where we build housing and with what types of housing we build," Robinson said. "We'll need little granny spaces, maybe spaces for kids who come back from college – just versatility in general. But we have to build it in the right places."
Especially for families, increased density is not the be-all-end-all for increasing affordability. It's also critical, according to Bob Templeton of Templeton Demographics, for the city to restrict the share of one-bedroom or studio apartments in multifamily buildings. Templeton conducted a demographic report for the Austin school district last year, and found that "student yield" – the number of students produced from a housing unit – had declined all throughout the city.
"Both single-family and multi-family student yields within the district have declined in recent years, as new higher-priced products yield fewer school-aged children," reads the report. The three biggest factors that influence student yield, Templeton said, are housing affordability, diversity, and bedroom types within that housing. If City Hall can find policy levers to pull to address those problems, the city could become more accessible to families.
If City Council needs direction on what type of housing is best suited for different parts of the city, Robinson suggests dusting off a copy of Imagine Austin, the city's comprehensive plan approved in 2012 that served as the springboard for CodeNEXT. Robinson stands by the forecasts his office created for that document, noting that the forecasts he made then, based on 2010 census data, are still on track nearly a decade later: "Imagine Austin gives a lot more policy direction than people give it credit for." – Austin Sanders
What It Takes to Build Housing
"We need revision," said Nora Linares-Moeller. "Keeping the code as it is, doesn't help us – there has to be some changes made." Linares-Moeller is executive director of HousingWorks, a research and advocacy organization promoting affordable housing. Like other advocates, she was disappointed at the city's abrupt abandonment of CodeNEXT, although she acknowledges the complexity and political sensitivity of the project. She believes the final draft represented real progress and now hopes that Cronk's quest for precise policy direction will bear fruit. "He's outlined the difficult areas," she said, and she's encouraged as well by the recent passage of CM Greg Casar's "Affordability Unlocked" resolution, which – when codified – should enable nonprofit developers to build more affordable units in more areas of town. "If it moves on a fast track to ordinance," she said, "it will show how quickly the Council can work on particular pieces of affordability."
Linares-Moeller and her fellow housing advocates emphasize that code revisions need to enable all types of housing, at all levels of affordability – in the whole city. "Service people, working people, work in every part of the city," she said. "They should be able to live nearby – and also not cause more traffic issues by having to travel across town." Advocates say a range of zoning obstacles – restrictive housing categories, compatibility standards, mandatory parking minimums – make it difficult to develop either affordable or market-rate housing throughout the city.
Mark Rogers, executive director of the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation – a nonprofit that builds affordable housing – cited three priorities for the eventual code revision (which he emphasized "haven't changed" from the beginning of the CodeNEXT journey). "First, everybody agrees we need a simplified code – something easier to deal with, less layered with myriad amendments accumulated over 30 years. Second, we need some way to address population growth, 100 people moving to Austin every day. The word 'density' raises the hair on the back of the necks of some people, but it just means 'accommodating more people.' We can't hold housing costs down – or even maintain current costs – without building more housing. We can create city centers with mixed-use, and housing of all types – apartments, single family, fourplexes, townhouses – and the code should help do that everywhere."
Finally, Rogers distinguishes "capital A" affordability (direct construction of subsidized affordable units) and "small a" affordability (market-rate housing that includes levels of affordability with or without subsidy). Because state law forbids "inclusionary zoning" that's used in other states to require affordable units in every project, the city needs to refine its "density bonus" programs within the new code to incentivize affordability in return for additional entitlements (Casar's resolution does this, but there are other options as well). Rogers also suggested that currently successful programs – e.g., "Vertical-Mixed-Use" and the University Neighborhood Overlay – should be extended citywide (as was done with ADUs) and not assigned individually to neighborhoods, developments, or corridors. "It needn't be opt-in, opt-out," he said.
Going farther across the housing continuum, "We just need to drive deep affordability," said Ann Howard, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition. Howard (who will step down in two months to campaign full time for Travis County commissioner) said that the people she works to house need code changes that incentivize housing at well below market rates, for residents at less than 50% or even 30% of Austin's median family income (as opposed to the 60% MFI for rental/80% for ownership threshold that defines "affordable" in most code contexts). Code revision alone is not a solution for her clients – but to the extent the code can be simplified or permitting accelerated to enable less expensive housing, it would help.
Howard's encouraged by the recent Council passage of "Pay for Success" – a social investment model that (when joined by other public partners) could help underwrite the kind of supportive housing, with wraparound services, that addresses otherwise intractable homelessness. The land code alone can't solve these problems, Howard said, "but the right kind of development can help connect these services to housing."
After the years of work community advocates spent providing input, "It was definitely a bummer" when the code revision process was paused, said Housing Coalition Chair Nicole Joslin. Like her peers, she emphasized the need to get the process moving again as quickly as possible. Citing last year's passage of the $250 million Proposition A affordable housing bond, she said, "We need to make sure we have a code that leverages those investments as much as we can."
Joslin said the code – via bonus programs or simpler, less arbitrary regulation – should make it easier to build all types of housing, at all affordability levels, citywide. "We need to find ways to spread land costs across more households," she said, "making sure that can happen in more spots in the city. ... We're really looking forward for something to happen as soon as it can." – Michael King
Getting Density and Mobility Right
Some of the most engaged stakeholders who sought to push CodeNEXT forward are downright excited to restart the process now. According to Planning Commissioner Conor Kenny, there's "a lot of appetite" to return to the conversation – especially as the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, which hopes to update the city's 1995 Austin Metropolitan Area Transportation Plan, moves closer to adoption (potentially today, Thursday, April 11, at Council).
Kenny, along with former CodeNEXT Advisory Group member Dave Sullivan and transportation engineer Danielle Skidmore, agree that transportation and land use are closely linked, and that to achieve the city's (and Capital Metro's) lofty public transit goals, Austin needs to densify. Skidmore believes the "most important thing we can do is create a code that supports transit-supportive density." Because investing in a robust transportation system is "phenomenally expensive," said Skidmore, "ridership has to be high enough to support frequent service." (Without that ridership, Kenny says, public transportation is "fiscally doomed.") To achieve this, Skidmore says, Austin has to find a way to build more housing along and near major corridors, and "not just on the street itself."
Kenny is confident that increasing the density of Austin's housing stock doesn't have to be a cause for panic. "We can accomplish density with no change to height, but a change to the number of units," he says, referring to "missing middle" housing – in between single-family homes and large apartment complexes in scale, such as a four- or sixplex that's cheaper to build, spreads land cost among more residents, and can fill the gaps between "luxury" market-rate housing and "affordable" units with subsidies. This option, said Kenny, would allow for more units closer to transit while maintaining neighborhood character.
Sullivan, who says his urbanist allies are "very optimistic" about the latest rewrite effort, also hopes to see more missing-middle housing enabled by Austin's code, as City Manager Spencer Cronk suggested in one of his policy questions to Council. He thinks such housing could – and should – be permitted without requiring expensive and time-consuming commercial site plans (as "multifamily" projects do now) and within setbacks that keep its scale more in line with single-family homes. The former Planning Commission chair also hopes to see mixed-use zoning become the default along corridors, to maximize what can be built along well-traveled streets while also helping to preserve existing – and less expensive – apartment stock. "Making all commercial zoning mixed-use gives us an option to build one or another ... I want the new code to increase the supply of housing and slow down displacement, which means creating [more] new build opportunities while preserving existing" housing.
On March 29, the American Institute of Architects–Austin drafted a three-page letter to Adler, Cronk, and Council expressing the chapter's excitement to move forward, its commitment to remaining a key stakeholder, and five recommendations. Two of these were specific to the new code itself: more detailed district-scale planning in areas "large enough to contribute meaningful housing inventory, but small enough to retain a sense of identity," dialed down from Imagine Austin's scope but updated from now-aging neighborhood plans; and more robust testing of development regulations other than zoning that can shape the built environment. The other three AIA recommendations refer to the process, including better public engagement, comprehensive reform, and a call for Council to provide "specific policy direction on priorities." Skidmore, Sullivan, and Kenny already feel like the process – under Cronk's guidance – will go more smoothly. "What's different now is, by the end of April, we'll have all the big questions answered," said Sullivan.
However, Kenny says one thing is certain: the city Planning and Zoning Department is unable to do the small-area planning advocated by AIA-Austin in a "decent" amount of time. A May 11, 2018, memo confirmed P&Z can complete only one or two such plans per year, which meant it could take 50 years to put a new code into practice throughout the city. Because of this very real limitation, Kenny believes the best way forward is to apply some type of simple geographic formula to some areas of the city – such as the corridors defined in Imagine Austin and refined in the ASMP – and reserve detailed mapping for those areas of the city that most require it. Mapping, he said, "needs to be done, but let's be realistic about our limitations." – Sarah Marloff
A Middle Ground for Neighborhoods
After the polarization and bruised feelings left by CodeNEXT, neighborhood organizations are making pointed vows of unification this time around. "We want a seat at the table," says Pat King, head of the Austin Neighborhoods Council. "And we want to be able to work with everyone, including RECA [the Real Estate Council of Austin] and the Chamber [of Commerce], to come up with something we can all live with." (For its part, RECA last week sent a letter to its nearly 2,000 members advocating for a complete from-square-one rewrite of city code, which is not the same thing that Cronk and Council are considering.) The "war" over CodeNEXT, as King describes it, pitted the "community versus the city – we all lost focus unfortunately and we don't want to do that this time."
Sarah Cook, Hyde Park Neighborhood Association co-president, echoes that point. "I think that there were extreme voices on both sides of the conversation, but I believe there is solid and workable middle ground and room for consensus."
ANC's priorities for a new code include better parking requirements, increased affordable housing stock, and ensuring that density is both compatible with the neighborhood and used as an incentive for developers to deliver community benefits. "I'm not against density but we have to deal with displacement issues first," says King, who adds ANC also hopes the next CodeNEXT doesn't include upzoning transit corridors to a half-mile away, a seeming encroachment on homes. "Do we really want transportation going right by your backyard fence?" The group plans to compile its recommendations and present at today's Council meeting (Thursday, April 11).
Cook hopes that Adler and Council can see Hyde Park as an example of thoughtful zoning and – borrowing Harper-Madison's phrase – "gentle density," forming a blueprint that can be implemented more widely. (She's invited nearly everyone at City Hall for a walking tour of the neighborhood.) "We want to help spread what makes Hyde Park such a great neighborhood across the city," she says. Pointing to the neighborhood's existing diversity of housing stock (including ADUs, duplexes, condos, and small apartment buildings as well as single-family), Cook says there's still room for increased density in Hyde Park. HPNA also wants to continue to ensure off-street parking (because homes should have a "conversation" with the roads) and hopes to continue improving the neighborhood's walkability and rideability.
In less affluent but rapidly gentrifying East Austin, for the Rosewood Neighborhood Contact Team, ensuring limited overzoning is a priority. "We want to make sure the zoning looks like the actual use of the building – being overzoned for the past decades has had a huge impact on East Austin residents," says Jane Rivera, the Rosewood team's chair. Her group hopes that when there's a redevelopment that increases the size of a building, potential impacts on the neighborhood – specifically in terms of flooding – are better taken into account in a new code that she would prefer to not be crafted in "one fell swoop" but rather in a piece-by-piece process.
Both King and Cook express frustration that many concerned voices weren't heard the first time around; they hope the new round doesn't repeat the same mistake. "Many who participated in the planning sessions felt that their thoughts weren't incorporated into the draft," says Cook. "So what we hope is that this new process really does come and talk to residents and take them into account." – Mary Tuma