The Quest for Nine Votes on Land Use Code

June 10: Council proposes revising Austin’s strict compatibility standards to allow more housing to be built on transit corridors.

AMLI 5350 on Burnet Road is a VMU building, meaning in exchange for affordable units the city allowed it to be built taller than it would have otherwise (Photo by John Anderson)

The stage for 2022's chapter of the decadelong effort to fix the city's broken Land Development Code was set at the tail end of 2021. Then, the 14th Court of Appeals in Houston ruled against the city in a case that guaranteed the right of aggrieved property owners to protest the envisioned code overhaul, unless the LDC revisions could secure a nine-vote supermajority on Council, rather than the 7-4 split in the first two votes on the code overhaul (before the court case invalidated them). The push to find consensus ultimately yielded three of the most substantial land use policy reforms Austin has seen from the 10-1 Council – even if they fail to meet the scale of Austin's affordability crisis.

Each of the three policies – an update to the vertical mixed-use bonus program, a relaxation of Austin's stringent compatibility standards, and changes to most commercial zones that would allow residential development – took the better part of 2022 to work their way through the City Hall machine. The "VMU2" update adopted in June allows for taller buildings with less parking, nearer to single-­family homes, along transportation corridors – so long as they include affordable housing. The other two policies were adopted Dec. 1; the relaxed compatibility standards (again, mostly along transportation corridors, so not in West Austin where more housing is most needed) were welcomed by builders, but even after the reform, Austin's compatibility standards, under which a single-family home restricts the height of buildings up to 400 feet away, remain the most stringent in the nation.

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