Public Notice: How Many Angels Fit in a Zone?

Coming up with some truly mental capacity numbers

Public Notice: How Many Angels Fit in a Zone?

Back in the Middle Ages, before social media ate up all their free time, theologians liked to argue about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. These days we don't believe in angels, and theologians have more worldly topics to debate, but we have statisticians, and politicians, and when you get the two together, they can spin out truly remarkable theoretical debates that would put the old-time theologians to shame.

Housing capacity has become City Council's favorite political football in the debate over the Land Development Code rewrite, completely divorced from reality and subject to being inflated or deflated at will, to back up whatever argument Council and staff want to make. The basic concept is simple: We want to make sure there's enough capacity – enough vacant or underused properties – for all the housing we want to see built. But of course, you only want to count properties where there's a realistic chance of something getting built. But that requires someone's judgment of what's realistic ... and that's where things start getting goofy, and numbers start flying everywhere.

[NB: I must apologize to city staff and consultants for the following paragraph, in which I misunderstood and misreported a key point about the housing capacity numbers presented at the Feb. 4 Council work session: The projection presumes that no units will be added to any already-developed lots in single family zones, but (here’s the key bit) it does include 11,374 units of increased capacity from new development in the transition zones – which appears to reflect about 10% of the full capacity of those lots. So, while I’d argue that that underscores how arbitrary these capacity figures are, I must admit that all of the parts highlighted in bold in this next paragraph are flat wrong.]

The most ludicrous example of statistical malpractice was highlighted at Tuesday's Council work session as staff and consultants reconfirmed: All calculations they use for housing capacity assume that no existing housing will be redeveloped. Let me repeat that: As Council members squabble over whether the housing capacity should be three times the housing blueprint goals or more than that, the numbers they are using assume that all of these transition area upzonings that are angering the affected homeowners will have zero effect and will not create a single unit of new housing. Here that is one more time, because the logic is so totally nonsensical that you may not really believe it: Council is asking staff to rezone huge swaths of the central single-­family housing, specifically to facilitate and encourage redevelopment into multiplexes, and then to measure the number of new units this will result in. And staff's response is: OK, but our methodology is to assume that not a single one of those houses will be redeveloped, so, after doing some high-level mathematical calculations that only our experts would understand, the answer is: zero. You're welcome. (Mayor Adler, who's not nearly as dumb as he pretends to be at moments like this, hopped on the crazy train Tuesday, hailing staff's calculation as constituting mathematical proof that the rezonings may not have the dire effects many residents fear.)

I could not make this shit up. This is the way your city is being "planned."


The LDC second draft is moving ahead at breakneck speed, with work sessions this week, and voting to start Tuesday. That meeting starts at 10:30am, with a public hearing; see www.austintexas.gov/department/city-council for details, www.austintexas.gov/atxn to watch it live, and "Land Development Code: What's New in Draft Two" for lots more info.

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

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