When Did the Single-Family Home Go From Being the American Dream to an Urbanist Nightmare?
One policy wonk's view of how we got here
By Daryl Slusher, Fri., Feb. 7, 2020
Well, Austin is once again locked in one of our emotionally brutal and seemingly endless civic disputes, this one over the Land Development Code (LDC) rewrite. That may sound boring, and it pretty much is, but the result will affect every Austin resident as long as each of us lives, or lives here.
As Austin civic conflicts go, this one has it all. It features traditional face-offs like "neighborhoods and environmentalists vs. developers," but also fairly novel formulations like "developers and environmentalists vs. neighborhoods." Additional battle lines divide younger residents from older ones, and newcomers from Austin old-timers; renters from homeowners; the 10-1 City Council from the old at-large system; urbanists from preservationists and homeowners; and the new Austin left from longstanding central city progressives. Multiple sides stake claim to the banner of racial justice.
Yes, it's a wang-dang-doodle of an Austin dispute, but one we should consider based on what makes sound public policy, with a particular look at history. One fundamental dynamic underlying the LDC proposal is the political rise of Austin's urbanist community – and that community's collision with single-family neighborhoods and homeowners in Austin's central city.
The tenets of urbanism should be familiar to regular Chronicle readers: city living with businesses and other services located within walking distance of residences, even mixed in with residences. Urbanists despise sprawl, support strong mass transit, and want development to be much less oriented around the automobile than has been the post-World War II pattern in the United States.
Apartments and condos are seen as preferable to single-family housing so as to accommodate more people on less land with less sprawl. Additionally, urbanists support a broader range of housing types than just single-family homes or large apartment complexes. This is the "missing middle" housing referenced so often in LDC discussions. The city's Austin Strategic Housing Blueprint defines "missing middle" as including "bungalow courts, side by side duplexes, stacked duplexes, triplex, fourplex, live/work and small multiplexes." Missing middle is seen as a housing solution for service industry workers, teachers, and many others who work in lower-paying jobs and face serious financial obstacles in finding housing within Austin, especially Central Austin.
In the past, urbanism usually included respect for existing single-family neighborhoods – often with a vow to protect those neighborhoods even as nearby areas were transformed according to urbanist principles. An example of an urbanist neighborhood in Austin would be Mueller, the redevelopment of the old airport – although urbanists would generally like Mueller to be more oriented toward mass transit. Hyde Park also has many urbanist features, although it has too many single-family homes for the taste of many of today's Austin urbanists.
In recent years, urbanist thought has shifted against single-family housing. One document referenced often by Austin urbanists is a map showing the city's single-family areas as subject to an "Apartment Ban." A recent Facebook post by a leading Austin urbanist criticized a Brentwood resident who said the top priority of that neighborhood's plan is preserving single-family housing: "Any plan that calls out preserving the least affordable and least sustainable form of living as a top priority is a fail from the start."
These ideas helped shape the "transition zones" in the LDC rewrite passed by Council on Dec. 11 (7 to 4, with Council Members Kathie Tovo, Leslie Pool, Ann Kitchen, and Alison Alter voting against). This calls for large swaths of existing neighborhoods, almost all in the central city, to be upzoned to allow four to six housing units per lot, with eight to 10 possible if developers choose to take advantage of affordable housing bonuses (and can fit that many units on the lot). These zones are generally located on streets next to "corridors," i.e., main streets. (Transition zones are somewhat reduced in newly reduced maps. See "Land Development Code: What's New in Draft Two.")
Simultaneously, the rewrite would eliminate on-site parking requirements for developers in transition zones and raise height limits to range from 30 to 40 feet next to existing homes. (Staff has discussed lowering these slightly). Residents fear, among other things, the impact on their quality of life of imposing, 40-foot multifamily structures suddenly rising next door.
Ironically, many urbanist principles are consistent with those espoused in a series of Austin planning efforts dating back to the 1970s – efforts whose strongest supporters were concentrated in single-family central city neighborhoods that, they believe, are part of the very soul and spirit of Austin. Today, many Austin urbanists argue these same neighborhoods are the center of NIMBYism and the major cause of sprawl. That's even though the folks living in central-city neighborhoods, by definition, did not participate in sprawl when choosing their housing. Many thought they were, rather, participating in the American Dream of homeownership, though most also realize that dream has gotten a lot harder for younger generations to attain.
A Semi-Brief Note About the Author
To those who've been reading the Chronicle for a while – you are not having a flashback. For everyone else: I wrote about local government and politics in these pages from 1989 to 1995, back in the ancient era before electronic publishing. I left in 1994 to run for mayor, was narrowly defeated, came back, and then left again in 1995 to run for and win a seat on the at-large City Council, where I served from 1996 to 2005.
After opting not to seek a fourth term, in 2007 I took a newly created job at Austin Water as assistant director of environmental affairs and conservation. My hiring was somewhat controversial at the time, but I pressed through – overseeing the utility's water conservation, land conservation, climate and other environmental efforts as a member of its executive team. I retired from Austin Water and the city of Austin on Dec. 31.
I loved my years at Austin Water. It was challenging, I worked with a lot of really wonderful and dedicated people, and I got paid for doing things I believed in. That's hard to beat. But the hardest thing for me was not being able to participate in, or publicly comment on, local politics.
There is a really good city rule that executives (assistant directors and up) cannot be involved in local politics. You don't want them to be weighing in or taking sides in campaigns or on local issues, and I knew that was the case when I took the job. Still, those who remember me from earlier years might be able to muster some scintilla of understanding of just how hard that was for me. But I did it, and it was worth it.
With my retirement, I am no longer silenced. And I always planned to try to get back into local and regional journalism – although not quite this fast. Still, you may be wondering: "Daryl, why on Earth would you want to begin your retirement years by writing about Austin's Land Development Code? Why aren't you traveling or just lounging around?"
Those are really good questions. I will not rule out seeking psychological help later, but right now, here's my thinking. I planned to take at least three months, maybe six, before getting back into journalism – during which time I would relax, travel, and look into starting my own micropublication.
As I followed the LDC rewrite, however, I gradually changed my mind on this timing. I mean, this is a huge, complicated, consequential deal. Despite a relatively high level of participation, I don't believe enough folks are aware of the gravity of the issues at stake. I hope to provide some additional insight.
I also began to worry that if I came back to journalism after the LDC passed, I would rightly get asked – or ask myself – "Where were you a few months ago?" So I called the Chronicle and asked if they would be open to me writing on the LDC. They said yes, and here we are.
I realize that my wading into this issue might be controversial and could anger some folks. I am willing to take that chance. At worst, if I make a lot of people really mad, then that would be a good time for me to travel. If anything, I would like to help find common ground, but mainly I just want to report and inform about the LDC.
I also checked with the city's ethics attorneys before publishing anything, to make sure I do not violate any rules. As I already knew, I cannot disclose any confidential information and I have to disclose if I write on anything over which I had significant authority. I will go beyond that: I did not work on the LDC except peripherally, through the separate and different Water Forward plan, which has a few elements that will ultimately go into the LDC. Those are very different and separate from the zoning, land use, and community relations issues discussed here.
Also in the interest of disclosure, I want to note that I do not live in a proposed transition zone. I live in and own, along with my wife Adela Mancias, a single-family home between Ben White and Stassney, in an area being rezoned to allow duplexes.
As veteran Chronicle readers might recall, I did not try to hide my viewpoint in my earlier writing. At the same time, I did not hide facts or opinions that might work against my viewpoint. I also tried to be as entertaining as possible in hopes of drawing in more readers and making the material easier to absorb. I will try to do all that here, too, although I have to warn readers that it is very difficult to make the Land Development Code entertaining.
So what is my viewpoint on the LDC? There is definitely some truth to the framing of this dispute as being between urbanists and preservationists. I probably fall more in the preservationist camp, but I also agree with some fundamental urbanist principles – like disliking sprawl and supporting urban density and serious mass transit on its own right of way. I believe that it does not have to be one or the other.
Back in the old days, I was known as a pretty anti-developer guy – although there's more to it than that. Along with many other Austinites, I was indeed resistant to a lot of development in and around the city, and I was pretty vocal about it. I particularly didn't like intense development in the Barton Springs Zone and the drinking water supply watersheds. I also fought to protect East Austin neighborhoods, including helping to prevent the former Ben's Long Branch Bar-B-Q (where Franklin is now) and the historic Victory Grill on East 11th Street from being torn down.
All that work was trying to maintain what so many of us loved about Austin even as the city grew. That spirit was consistent with the Austin Tomorrow Plan of 1979, which called for a "compact city" with designated growth areas – some to the east and west (though nowhere near today's boundaries), more stretching farther north and south – and for lighter development over the Edwards Aquifer and near the Highland Lakes, our drinking water supply.
Critically, in Texas the plan did not have the force of law and was often not followed. When I later ran for office, I promised to try to return Austin to the principles of Austin Tomorrow, and worked hard to keep that promise. I voted numerous times for higher density along key urban corridors, sometimes while angry crowds glared at me or jeered. My staff helped steer developers of small-lot infill subdivisions through the LDC and the city approval process. I supported affordable housing where many neighbors were opposed.
Our Council oversaw the creation, with significant participation from surrounding neighborhoods, of the successful plan for Mueller and hired a firm to carry it out. I even helped forge settlements with developers who had grandfathered entitlements over the aquifer, settlements that I think have stood the test of time.
For decades I have supported rail in Austin, and between Austin and San Antonio. While serving on Council and the Capital Metro board, I helped put a major rail package before voters in 2000, which narrowly failed – the biggest disappointment of my Council years. We followed up with commuter rail on tracks Capital Metro owned. Voters approved that, and it is still the only rail transit Austin has. The idea was to follow fairly quickly with more rail, but it didn't work out like that. I still think Austin needs a strong rail system.
I'm not saying all this to open old wounds or reengage old arguments. I'm just saying it to emphasize that I'm not a knee-jerk anti-development person, as I suspect some might characterize me once they read this article; call me paranoid.
As you might imagine, I am a bit more sympathetic to Council members now than in my old days at the Chronicle, particularly when they take unpopular votes that they believe are in the best interest of the city. I respect their willingness to endure animosity. I also admit that I sympathize with the Council's apparent irritation with some of our local activists.
OK, enough about me; let's talk about the LDC rewrite.
The Houses We Live In: Urbanists Turn on Single-Family Homeowners
The rewrite has reignited some longstanding animosity toward Austin developers, with opponents asserting the proposed LDC benefits them more than anyone else. This negativity irks Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, who recently reminded her colleagues that developers built the homes we all live in. Meanwhile, Council Member Greg Casar opined that Austin remains "trapped in the 1990s" with a mentality of being either pro- or anti-development.
Really? The Nineties? Animosity toward developers goes back way before the 1990s – actually way before Casar was born. But yes, most of us live in houses or apartments built by developers, whose work does not always have to damage neighborhoods or the environment. So, as a compromise, how about we also acknowledge that virtually all developers want to make as big a profit as they can – not necessarily a criticism – and let's stipulate that developers probably do not have the highest per capita rate of altruism among groups of folks in Austin.
So what benefits do developers get from a new code? First, the plan is for an easier-to-use LDC that will allow them to move through the approval process much more quickly. Second, they get increased entitlements all over town, including at least two residential units on thousands of lots where currently only one is allowed. In transition zones, developers could get much more than that on any single-family lot they manage to purchase: entitlements for four to six housing units even without using the city's affordable housing incentives.
Earlier I mentioned a Facebook post that ridiculed preserving single-family housing as "a fail from the start." That comment was from Planning Commissioner Greg Anderson, who added that those participating in Brentwood's neighborhood plan process were "typically older, whiter, single-family homeowners."
As one of those older white people living in a single-family house, I will try to explain how so many of us ended up like that without anticipating that one day, we would enrage cadres of younger white people like Anderson. A lot of us older whites are aware that the American Dream has gotten a lot harder for younger generations to attain, and support a variety of ways to help address that issue – both on the local and national level. For example, older white people in Central Austin have repeatedly voted by large margins for affordable housing bonds – although that alone will not solve the problem.
There are good reasons that people, not just white people, like to live in single-family homes. They have privacy. They have yards, which are really good to have when raising kids. As people age, they hope to be able to pay off their houses, retire without a house payment, and age in place. Those homes are the No. 1 way that most families pass on wealth to younger generations, who can move in or pursue other options – most all of which will increase their comfort or add to their financial well-being.
In Central Austin, there are a couple of other factors. Single-family homeowners there, especially in neighborhoods like Hyde Park and others, didn't join the sprawl. They didn't gentrify the Eastside. They helped build or maintain healthy neighborhoods that allowed Austin to avoid the level of central city urban decay that happened across America. They went about their lives, only to learn recently that they are now part of the problem.
Yes, houses in the central core cost more than many can afford, especially many members of Austin's minority communities, but we don't know the individual stories of each person who owns one. People of all races like single-family homes. The wealth gap, including a gap in homeownership, between whites and Blacks or Latinx is unconscionably wide. Still, many African American and Latinx Austinites, and many others, both live in single-family homes and aspire to homeownership, especially families with children.
This can be seen in the traditional neighborhoods in East Austin, even as gentrification wracks them; thousands of families with generations-long roots take what money they can get for their homes and buy new homes in Pflugerville, Manor, or wherever they can afford them. Hopefully more ways can be found to help them stay, but many won't want to live in four- or eightplexes in predominantly white neighborhoods, even if those somehow turn out to be affordable. Will Anderson also direct his wrath at them?
Council members have joined in the antagonistic rhetoric. Natasha Harper-Madison chastised Hyde Park residents for racist deed restrictions dating back more than a century, ignoring that such deed restrictions existed all over the city and the nation. And Delia Garza had a surprising response to a resident who sent her videos and slideshows identifying existing affordable housing in a central neighborhood. The mayor pro tem replied: "I'm always so impressed by the level of advocacy from constituents in other districts and the time they can commit to taking photos of their neighborhoods and producing videos. Many of my constituents can't commit the time to a similar level of advocacy because they are busy working several jobs and still struggling to get food on the table for their families, while also struggling to pay all their bills to keep their lights on and to stay in Austin. I'm certain many of them would love to live in a neighborhood like yours."
No Seat at the Table?
One way that an older person such as myself can contribute to a community conversation is by providing a little history – especially when it appears that history is not being adequately considered in crafting a critically important policy. That includes the history of minority representation in Austin government and politics. In one op-ed piece, CMs Garza, Casar, Pio Renteria, and Jimmy Flannigan wrote: "The current broken land use code was created and amended under the at-large system, where many communities were denied a seat at the table in our city planning." Then 10-1 allowed "underrepresented communities to finally have a seat at the table."
As a former member of an at-large Council, I view the claim that "underrepresented communities" were "denied a seat at the table" as a bit of a stretch. I assume that the four Council members were referring primarily to Austin's African American and Hispanic communities. Beloved and respected members of those communities for decades have literally had seats at the Council dais, as elected members or as city executives. The late Gus Garcia, with whom I proudly served, was elected mayor. How can the mayor not have a seat at the table? Who wants to take the side of the argument that he didn't?
All of these folks undoubtedly faced struggles to accomplish what they did, beyond anything white people faced. And I do not presume to speak for any of them or how they might feel about the LDC or anything else. I will argue, however, that they were "at the table."
One thing they all did, beginning with Berl Handcox and John Treviño Jr. – Council's first African American and Mexican American members, elected in 1971 and 1975, respectively – was press to diversify the city workforce at all levels. They were successful at that, and their efforts resulted in people from underrepresented communities taking seats at all kinds of tables. For example, when Spencer Cronk took over as city manager in February 2018, he was the first white man to hold the job in more than 30 years. That diversity was one of the most rewarding and inspiring aspects of working for the city.
Then there are the many minority and East Austin community leaders who advocated tirelessly and effectively for the good of the whole city – many who have passed on, and others who continue their hard work and advocacy. These are, and were, very substantial people. Their success can be seen in the community facilities built in East Austin over the decades of the at-large system, including Conley-Guerrero Senior Activity Center; the Carver Museum, Cultural Center, and Library; Lorraine "Grandma" Camacho Activity Center; Roy G. Guerrero Metropolitan Park and Onion Creek Metropolitan Park (begun under the at-large system and finished under 10-1); and many other parks, affordable housing developments, health clinics, and recreation centers. If those communities did not have a seat at the table, then how did so many of these projects happen?
And, since the four Council members specified "city planning," let's note that the chair of the Austin Tomorrow task force was East Austin native Mike Guerrero. Renteria himself was chair of the Community Development Commission for many years, which made recommendations to Council for the allocation of social service funds that were often accepted intact. Did Renteria not have a seat at the table when he held that position?
Council Majority's Lonely Place
While Garza, Casar, Renteria, and Harper-Madison – and sometimes even Flannigan and Mayor Steve Adler – invoke racial equity as a core reason they support the LDC rewrite, the majority is actually in something of a lonely place when it comes to support from Austin's minority communities – especially from those who have been toiling in the trenches for years. That dynamic was apparent at the December 7 LDC public hearing.
Early that morning, a group of citizens led by Planning Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido played a video produced for the occasion, featuring interviews of representatives from a variety of minority groups, all of whom were against the LDC rewrite. Llanes Pulido stepped to the mic afterward and tied it together. Among other points, she disputed whether Council could get meaningful affordable housing through the rewrite: "You will never be able to produce any units as affordably as the ones you have right now." Llanes Pulido also called for more time: "Slow this down, give us 180 days. You have an incredibly resourceful community who can help you find solutions." She concluded: "Equity does not mean degrading public process, people, and the environment, who have a good quality of life. It means increasing protections for people who haven't had it."
Soon thereafter Maya Pilgrim rose, representing Communities of Color United. Pilgrim maintained, "This process has not been at all equitable. Nor has it effectively engaged those under threat of being pushed out of their homes, with few options left to them in Austin." She added, "Upzoning and density do not equal affordability," and criticized "this ridiculous fast-tracking."
Later came a bevy of speakers from the Austin Justice Coalition and Planning Our Communities, the latter group launched specifically to increase minority participation in the LDC rewrite and other planning efforts. Both groups are often aligned with Garza, Casar, Renteria, and Harper-Madison – all of whom attended POC's kickoff press conference in September. Still, most of the POC and AJC speakers stopped short of outright support for the LDC rewrite as currently drafted. Most, if not all, voiced support for Garza's proposed Equity Overlay – intended to lessen the impact of transition zones on communities at risk of gentrification, a concern also invoked by staff. Most of the AJC and POC speakers also opposed more density being added to "neighborhoods of color" and called for building more affordable housing in West Austin.
Later came Ana Aguirre, a Southeast Austin neighborhood leader, explaining that she was speaking for neighbors who don't speak English, because the LDC materials are all in English. Though not receiving LDC information, Aguirre noted, those homeowners are getting multiple cold calls from people wanting to buy their properties. They don't want to sell, said Aguirre; they tell her, "This is our home, we were hoping to get old here."
Then, in what had to wound the progressives on Council, Aguirre said the LDC added a new burden to what these Spanish speakers are already enduring from Trump administration policies. "What is being done ... is not something that is being done for those families, it is something that is being done to those families," she added.
Later, veteran East Austin activist Daniel Llanes called for delay for more discussion and offered a long list of alternative approaches. Other prominent opponents in minority communities include neighborhood leaders Patricia King and Seth Fowler, Susana Almanza of PODER, and Nelson Linder, head of the local NAACP chapter. Almanza and Linder both called for delay until policies to mitigate displacement are put in place. Meanwhile, although the Council majority touts transition zones as a path to integration and racial justice, few, if any, voices have emerged from minority communities to advocate for transition zones.
A Short History of Austin Sprawl
Local urbanists routinely attribute sprawl to the NIMBY attitudes of central city neighborhoods; it's not clear the Council majority understands that history either, so here we go. A trigger warning: This section may contain negative information about Austin developers.
As mentioned, the 1979 Austin Tomorrow Plan, the result of extensive citizen input, aimed to prevent, or at least limit, sprawl by increasing central city density and establishing growth corridors. So what happened?
Single-family subdivisions as well as apartment complexes did spring up in the Tomorrow Plan growth corridors. Many developers and speculators, however, ignored the plan's call for sparser building elsewhere; they instead bought property in far-flung areas and then convinced or cajoled a string of Councils to provide city utility services through municipal utility districts. This produced a lot more sprawl than any NIMBYs were ever able to accomplish. While these efforts met various levels of resistance on different Councils, the overall pattern was inexorable expansion outward, including major incursions into the Barton Springs Zone and heavy pressures on the Highland Lakes.
One catalyst for sprawl was explored by Gary Cartwright in a 1984 Texas Monthly article about the high-dollar enclave of Rob Roy, near both Lake Austin and Barton Creek. In 1979, writes Cartwright, Rob Roy was "on the verge of collapse" and partners Gary Bradley and John Wooley were "hoping for a miracle." Then, "rumors swept Austin that busing [for desegregation] was imminent in the Austin school district." After that, Wooley told the Monthly, "it was like we had just opened a new Baskin Robbins across from the playground."
In the late 1990s, the city designated its Desired Development Zone and Drinking Water Protection Zone – which I championed – to restore the principles of Austin Tomorrow after years of it not being honored. I realize some equity activists today characterize the DDZ as simply designating East Austin to take the brunt of growth. In reality, as can be found easily through Google, the western boundary was the beginning of drinking water supply watersheds, running roughly along MoPac just north of the river and significantly west of MoPac in the northwest. South of the river, the western boundary was the Barton Springs Zone; at the time, the springs itself was still part of the drinking water supply. We also considered protecting the springs a generational responsibility.
The DDZ followed the Save Our Springs Ordinance – a citizen initiative overwhelmingly approved by Austin voters in 1992 – which established stricter regulations on development in the watersheds that contribute to the springs. The SOS Ordinance, the DDZ and DWPZ, and accompanying efforts did succeed for a time in steering some significant growth off of the aquifer, particularly into Downtown. Hundreds of plans and projects, however, were grandfathered by state law – passed at the behest of Austin developers – from having to comply with SOS. Also, only around one-third of the Barton Springs Zone is within Austin's jurisdiction, and growth sprawled into the areas beyond it, into western Travis and Hays counties.
Meanwhile, the multitudes kept pouring into Central Texas, and in the years since, development has been unceasing both in the core city and outlying areas. As the Council majority correctly points out, that growth is accompanied by a serious lack of affordable housing, but the story is much more complicated than they may realize. Sure, there were central city neighbors who fought against growth, but thousands of Austin residents throughout the years supported efforts to build a compact city. Those situations varied from zoning case to zoning case and neighborhood to neighborhood. The reality though is that the biggest purveyors of sprawl were developers, speculators, their allies on Council, and a state government that weakened Austin's powers to manage its growth – all of which produced the sprawl we now deplore.
The Shape of Water: MUDs and Austin's Sprawl
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