Austin at Large: It’s Good to Try New Things

We could build more decent housing for all Austinites if we rethink what’s “normal”

Austin at Large: It’s Good to Try New Things

I saw on the socials that Community Not Commodity, the folks behind the shrieky anti-CodeNEXT (dead since 2018) yard signs still visible throughout the central­-city Weird Zone, shared and approved of my column from last week, where I wrote that we should, y'know, get over the shrieking ("dial those emotions down a bit"). I hope they realize I meant them, too! Not just the urbanists who over-focus on overcoming NIMBY resistance on moral grounds.

Creating decent housing for all 1 million-and-counting Austinites (and 1.1 million suburbanites) where it's needed is a shared purpose that involves both community and commodity, to be honest. Apocalyptic noise about monster bulldozers under the bed, waiting to bust out and squash the Local Character Fairies and violate CNCers' basic human right to live next to two stories and not three is also late and out of date. We see you. New ideas, please.

Or maybe just action on some existing ideas. One of the signal failures of America's postwar management of its built environment is the stifling of creativity and variety that could be helping us meet our needs if given the chance. Is this value-neutral? No; the modes of bureaucracy and regulation of land use and definitions of such things as "infrastructure" or "public space" or "property rights" are expressions of what, in the abstract, is police power, allowing "normal" people's lifeways to be favored, and creating restrictions, which become inequities, on others. Interrogating those assumptions is healthy.

Who's Gonna Mow That?

For example, why in 2021 is the minimum residential lot size in Austin still 5,750 square feet? That minimum was established in 1946, nearly doubling what was allowed before (earlier in the century, there were no minimums at all). Most commentary takes as given that this was done here, and in other cities, to limit who could afford to live in white neighborhoods. Nobody today has a very good case for a minimum lot size, since we already regulate setbacks and impervious cover and floor-to-area ratios; they can only clap harder to rouse the Local Character Fairies from their hidey­-holes.

This rule required postwar homebuilders in neighborhoods that had already been platted (think North Loop, Crestview, Cherry­wood) to double up existing lots, and decades later it required neighborhood planning teams to adopt special "small lot amnesty" tools to allow existing homes to be rebuilt. When a guy I know figured out about eight years ago how to decouple the lots and build two houses on them, enraged neighbors quickly pushed the city to close this "loophole." Discussion of changing the minimum was punted to the new code we still don't have. In related news, in Decem­ber 2013 the local median home price was $226,000, with a two-month supply available – at the time, a record low. Last month, median price was $482,364, with a two-week supply.

I was reminded to complain about minimum lot sizes by a recent press release about how Austin was the best city in Texas to have a big yard, which many Austinites are happy to ditch as temps rise and water supplies become more precious. (Really, the minimum lot size, at current prices, leads to enormous houses rather than big yards, but we digress.) Even leaving aside individual or collective goals for sustainability, that's a pretty lame payoff for doubling the price of housing. However, this random PR appeal also reminds us of how assumptions about what "normal" people want and need distort these discussions.

Well Outside the Norm

Another guy I know, Andrew Grant Houston ("Ace"), also an urbanist designer and an Austinite until 2016, has through an interesting series of life events now become a viable candidate for mayor of Seattle. He's queer, Black and Hispanic, and only 32, and while in Seattle as in Austin nobody has much of a problem with those things, none of them characterize the norms around which the city has been constructed and maintained throughout its liberal ascendancy. He is very much an outlier in politics there as he would be here.

As such, he's usually described as "the furthest left" of the candidates, which is saying something in Seattle, but his pro-housing "Stay in Seattle Plan" stops far short of expropriating private property, or even banning single-family zoning. In fact, it includes expanding homeownership programs to promote Black and Indigenous wealth creation, even though Ace rents and says he'll never buy a home himself. It includes universal tenant relocation assistance – that is, not means-tested or income-restricted. It includes 2,500 new city-built tiny homes in the next year at $15K a pop, rather than the $350K cost of a subsidized housing unit, located in each Council district as "the true emergent response to our housing crisis."

Aren't these things we could try as well in Austin? Are they really that far left? No, although they're also not all legal, not even in Washington state (still burdened by cranky citizen initiatives from 20 years ago). He also wants to fix Seattle's baby-step inclusionary zoning program for affordable housing, which welds a density bonus to an impact fee, both of which have precedents here. The Emerald City version covers a whopping 6% of the city but still took four years of YIMBY vs. NIMBY trench warfare to create. "I naively did not expect the battle for affordable housing to be nearly as ugly as it was," he writes at his campaign website. Ah, youth.

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