Council Considers How Fast to Move on Land Development Code Reform

Sometimes the tortoise loses

City Council has a busy two weeks ahead. Today, Dec. 1, marks the second-to-last scheduled meeting of 2022 and the agenda is packed with important items.

Two are amendments to the Land Devel­op­ment Code that will enact modest reforms to the city's compatibility standards – the rules controlling how tall buildings can be within 400 feet of single-family housing – and allow residential construction in most commercial zones. Both code amendments were initiated via Council resolution; last month staff asked Council to postpone votes on the amendments so they could be improved.

Both sets of code amendments are likely to be approved. The new compatibility rules, however, fell under scrutiny that resulted in reforms that staff concluded will be overly complicated and have minimal impact. Rather than simply loosen the rules, which are among the most restrictive in the nation, uniformly citywide, Council complicated the issue by assigning different rules for different types of transportation corridors. The amendments will also introduce a new bonus program, which will further relax compatibility in exchange for affordable housing.

Along and west of MoPac, which is overwhelmingly single-family, is where Austin is making the slowest progress on building affordable housing. In 2021, just seven income-­restricted units were built in the three western Council districts (6, 8, 10), all in District 10, which stretches from the North Lamar Central Market to the city limits. Few of the large corridors where compatibility would be most relaxed are in West Austin, however – one of the reasons staff questioned how valuable these reforms will be.

Mayor Steve Adler reflected on the current state of affairs at Council's Nov. 29 work session. "We've spent huge amounts of time and money" on efforts to reform the LDC, Adler said. "Quite frankly, we haven't really delivered in a way I hoped we would. ... Anything we do that has [a nine-vote supermajority] is going to be something that doesn't go far enough for a lot of people and goes too far for a lot of people." That nine-vote threshold is what's needed to override a valid petition by aggrieved property owners under state law.

While Adler seems frustrated yet resigned to slow, incremental progress on housing policy, Council Member Leslie Pool sees that approach as being the only way to win sustainable progress on politically and legally fraught issues. The complexity of crafting LDC changes capable of reaching community consensus requires "an iterative and cautious approach," Pool said, so that "should there be any missteps, we are able to pull back and adjust."

Consensus-building on land use policy in Austin requires accommodating people who don't want that policy to change. At the work session, the four Eastside CMs shared degrees of exasperation about this. Retiring CM Pio Renteria, who has been confronting gentrification for decades, hoped future Councils could make faster, bolder progress on housing policy, "because once we start losing people and forcing them out of town, they're not coming back."

Just-reelected CM Natasha Harper-Madison offered a frank assessment of Austin land use politics. "We will never come to a consensus about how to allocate who gets to do what in a city where the haves always win, period," she said – those "haves" being the homeowners whose desires have been prioritized over those of renters and would-be homeowners in the LDC debate. When the Council discusses land use, Harper-Madison said, "I don't believe we're telling the truth to one another all the time ... The only people who are losing are our constituents."

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Land Development Code, Leslie Pool, Steve Adler

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