Austin at Large: Does Austin Need SF Zoning?
Or is this status quo protection already obsolete in the City That Never Shrinks?
If you've been following my thinking-out-loud about housing in this space, you already know most of my priors here. Providing decent housing where it's needed for all Central Texans, including the new ones, is a moral calling for us all and should be the No. 1 focus of our local leaders as we enter our third decade of near-unceasing boom. Other things that matter – reimagining more equitable and effective public safety, becoming more resilient to the global climate emergency, devising a path forward for our local schools, improving public health across the board post-pandemic – will all depend on getting housing right.
Currently, there is not any kind of real plan for creating that decent housing where it's needed. In Austin, we have goals and benchmarks and metrics within the city's Strategic Housing Blueprint (that we are abjectly failing to attain), but the "strategic" part of the enterprise has never been well-thought-out in any event. Who is to produce these 135,000 units distributed by price point and council district (if the blueprint's topline goal is still the right number)? If the capacity to build that housing doesn't exist, what are we doing as a city to create it?
You may remember that much of this was going to be solved by The Code. More than a decade after a Land Development Code Revision was proposed as the most important action the city could take to implement its Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, and then to achieve the blueprint goals, we still don't have one, and probably won't have one until 2023 and a new mayor. So we can stop pretending that getting The Code right is the only way toward, or more important than, getting housing right.
Accessories Make the 'Fit
One way to stop pretending would be to ask ourselves the question in my headline. What number of housing units could be created if we not just allowed but encouraged each property owner in Austin to build an additional dwelling unit on their property? And if we did that, then what value are we maintaining with separate and restrictive sets of rules and entitlements for the different things we call "SF," for "single family," zoning?
Urban advocates had been trying to make this a real housing strategy for years, with the most progress in 2015 in loosening the city's restrictions on additional dwelling units or ADUs. That topic was back before the Council Housing and Planning Committee this week, with city staff reviewing the still-baroque set of overlapping site standards that dictate whether an individual homeowner is allowed to build an ADU and of what size. We need not belabor the specifics here except to say the answer to "Will the city help me add a much-needed housing unit to my property?" is very often no. The staff did point out that the LDC Revision, if it ever gets unstuck from the legal limbo where it now sits in a Houston appeals court, and then makes it through a narrowly divided Council in an election year, would simplify this question somewhat by making ADUs of up to 1,100 square feet permitted in any "residential house-scale" or "R" zoning, which renames but generally does not redefine our current SF categories. They would not require an additional paved parking space, and they could be located anywhere on a lot, including attached to the main house or even internal to that structure (e.g., a "mother-in-law suite").
Ruining Your Neighborhood
When Council considered the ADU ordinance it approved in 2015, it was met by the most hideous shrieking by the most unsympathetic NIMBYs that Austin was going to do away with single-family zoning and ruin everyone's neighborhood, and the ordinance, while still liberalizing the existing rules on ADUs a great deal, was dialed back substantially from the ambitions of its proponents. That meant leaving in place a bunch of dumb provisions that mostly apply in wealthier Westside neighborhoods that allow ADUs when their occupants are seniors, or guests, or servants, and that may not even be legally enforceable.
As part of the salve applied to NIMBYs' fear-filled fee-fees, much was made of the opportunity for ADUs to allow lower- and moderate-income Austinites to stay in their homes as their neighborhoods gentrified and their taxes became unbearable, by creating a rental income stream; Council adopted a further resolution in 2020 asking staff to look into how to make this vision more attainable. Staff's response was that the cost of ADU construction was too high for many homeowners at risk of displacement to consider, but that eliminating current provisions restricting attached and internal ADUs could reduce that cost barrier. In the magic world of LDC arcana these would still be different from "duplexes," which are much less popular and more prone to NIMBY resistance than are "garage apartments" or "granny flats."
The sad framing of these discussions takes as a given that the existing LDC reflects norms about how Austin wants to live that we've all agreed to, and that can only be deviated from cautiously and case by case. Yet most of these rules against ADUs, and duplexes, didn't even exist until the 1980s; you can see "nonconforming" examples all over older Austin neighborhoods of what people want to build now. Throughout Austin's decades as the City That Never Shrinks, growing faster than anywhere else, we have made it increasingly harder to build housing in our neighborhoods for what now, as we look at our skyrocketing housing costs and increasing numbers experiencing homelessness and disastrous commute times and deterioriating air quality, seem like not very good reasons. If housing is our No. 1 job for the next decade, we should not tolerate that.