The YIMBYs Come to Town, and City Council Joins Them

Yes in Austin’s Backyard

The city is in the midst of a push to make it easier to build tiny homes, duplexes, and triplexes (photo by John Anderson)

Politics around housing in Austin have undeniably shifted over the past year – away from policies that restrict new housing units and toward more liberal approaches that allow the market to produce more supply.

And this week brought a new signifier of that shift: the large presence of Austin’s City Council at YIMBYtown 2024, the annual gathering of pro-housing advocates, wonks, and elected officials from across the nation that was held Feb. 26-27 on the University of Texas campus. Yes in My Backyard is not just a movement to push for more housing in cities across the United States – it is a movement founded expressly to push back against the Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) ideology that has dominated housing policy in American cities for generations.

It’s noteworthy that seven Council members and the mayor decided to participate – CMs Natasha Harper-Madison, Vanessa Fuentes, Chito Vela, Ryan Alter, Leslie Pool, Paige Ellis, Zo Qadri, and Mayor Kirk Watson (along with staffers from various Council offices). It’s difficult to imagine many Council members – let alone a majority of them – attending a YIMBYtown conference even five years ago when the 2018 Council class was heralded as the most pro-housing ever, but neighborhood and homeowners associations still had outsized influence on land use policy.

Watson kicked off the conference with what attendees described as a rousing speech in which he fully embraced YIMBYism as a policy framework. In his speech, the mayor emphasized the importance he placed on reforming Austin’s historically exclusionary housing rules to help future generations afford to live in the city, citing his two young granddaughters as his personal inspiration. Watson’s embrace of the YIMBY crowd marks a significant shift from his 2022 campaign, in which the presence of an anti-CodeNEXT sign in his yard caused some voters to question his stated commitment to transforming Austin’s housing policy. His remarks (which included a thinly veiled swipe at his most prominent opponent, former CM Kathie Tovo) could also signal the direction of his soon-to-be-launched reelection campaign.

“It’s really important to understand the margins are so tight on small-scale projects. It’s good if that developer can even finish and get it over the line.”   – Vivid Development’s Jen Weaver

Later in the day, attendees told us, CM Leslie Pool talked about her transformation from one of the most conservative Council votes on housing to a leading champion of reform. Pool rose to power locally through reciprocal support of and from Austin’s powerful, exclusive North Austin neighborhoods, but she has said watching the local and national economy change through the COVID-19 pandemic motivated her pivot on housing. It was also informed by young people in her circle. Her push for tiny homes, for example, was inspired in part by her senior policy adviser’s experience building one for her daughter to live in while she attends college in Austin.

The conference also presented an opportunity for the Chronicle to better understand what’s going on with redevelopment applications filed under the HOME ordinance. According to the Development Services Department, property owners have filed nine applications for redevelopment under HOME since the city began accepting applications Feb. 5. Three of the applications are for three-unit developments, three are for duplexes, and three are for adding additional square footage to single-family homes. After sitting in panels on “missing middle” housing policy (focused on attainability of housing for the middle class) and talking to home builders who specialize in that kind of development, the small number of applications is not very surprising.

A panel at the YIMBYtown 2024 Conference (photo by Austin Sanders)

Scott Turner, owner of Riverside Homes, has built housing in Austin for more than 20 years. As he told us, the HOME rules are new. Developers and city staff are both still learning how to apply them to various sites around town. Another factor is the constraints imposed on two- or three-unit redevelopment by the city’s impervious cover limits. Current design standards for these types of projects do now allow more than 45% of a site to be covered in concrete, but as Turner said during a panel on missing middle policy success stories, that limits feasibility of three-unit projects. “Impervious cover has been too big a battle for Austin,” Turner said. “But we’re going to have to, because you cannot house a city of our size without impervious cover reform.” (Increasing IC limits was proposed as part of HOME phase 2, which Council is expected to take up in the coming months, but City Hall sources say there is growing trepidation about taking on that fight, so the push for more IC allowance may be postponed again.)

But builders also have to face the reality of a possible lawsuit against the city, which could reverse HOME policies and leave projects in limbo. This is exactly what happened with developers who filed applications under the city’s Vertical Mixed Use program update, which was later struck down in court. HOME opponents have not yet filed such a suit, but they all but promised to do so if the ordinance passed. The developers we talked to said many small builders may not want to take on the financial risk.

It’s possible for companies developing VMU-sized projects – which typically include hundreds of units – to absorb the costs associated with the delays a lawsuit would impose. It would be much harder for infill developers working on small, three-unit projects to do that – let alone regular property owners interested in maximizing the value of their land by building an additional one or two homes.

Jen Weaver, president of Vivid Development, explained the financial tightrope walk that infill developers must walk. “The small-scale developer has more freedom, because they’re working with fewer investors ... you get more passion projects and a greater degree of trying to fit what the community is asking for,” Weaver said at a panel on how to support small developers. “But it’s really important to understand the margins are so tight on small-scale projects. It’s good if that developer can even finish and get it over the line.”

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