With HOME, Council Cuts Lot Size Requirements for First Time in 80 Years

Smaller lots, more apartments, towers near transit

Two small additional homes added to backyards adjacent to an alley in North Austin (Photo by Maggie Q. Thompson)

For the first time in nearly 80 years, City Council has reduced the amount of land needed to build one home in Austin – and by a significant amount.

The new minimum lot size in Austin will be 1,800 square feet per single-family home, less than a third the size of the current minimum (5,750 square feet), which was established in 1946. Prior to that, beginning in 1931, Austin’s minimum lot size was set at 3,000 square feet.

One result of nearly a century of large lots is sizable backyards and lawns throughout the city, but another is that Austin’s central neighborhoods – desirable places to live because they are often close to jobs, retail, and transportation infrastructure that supports less car dependency – have simply filled up. To accommodate Austin’s explosive population growth, the city has expanded outward. Known as urban sprawl, this phenomenon causes environmental harm due to increased reliance on car use – and car infrastructure.

“My position is not ‘no change’; my position is responsible change that strengthens our community.” – Council Member Alison Alter

Reversing this trend has been one of Council’s primary motivations for cutting lot size requirements, as Council Member Paige Ellis explained Friday, May 17, just before she and her colleagues approved the policy change.

“If we really want to fight sprawl and fight climate change,” Ellis said, “it’s going to take code amendments to do that.”

Proponents of reducing lot size requirements – along with other changes included in Council’s Home Options for Mobility and Equity (HOME) package of reforms, introduced by Mayor Pro Tem Leslie Pool last summer – also hope that the new land use rules will help control, or even reduce, housing costs.

Research in multiple cities has shown that increasing housing supply can reduce housing costs. A study focused on lot size reductions in Houston found that the policy change contributed to reduced housing costs as well.

Land is the most expensive part of buying a home in Austin, so building on smaller lots can reduce the cost of new builds. But also, in theory, the owner of a median-sized lot in Austin (around 8,600 square feet, according to one study) could slice up their property to accommodate three homes; though, in practice, most lots will only be split into two. The process – known as lot subdivision – can also be costly and time-consuming, but the city is exploring ways to provide low-interest, forgivable loans to owners to help with those costs, while reforming the subdivision process to make it more accessible to typical homeowners.

Council also approved code changes that will allow apartments to be built closer to single-family homes and created a new zoning district that will be mapped along the first phase of Austin’s forthcoming light rail line via Project Connect. Both policy changes are meant to boost housing supply and help reduce sprawl.

But, as the hours of public testimony that preceded Council’s votes last week indicate, some residents are skeptical of the changes. Many speakers expressed fears that the new rules could drastically alter the character of the neighborhoods they live in or exacerbate the affordability problems the changes are meant to address. Council directed staff last week to study options to reduce displacement, such as exempting neighborhoods prone to gentrification (mostly in East Austin), or by creating an “Equity Overlay” to help protect these neighborhoods.

CM Alison Alter, who represents parts of Central and West Austin, also shared fear that increasing housing density too quickly in areas prone to wildfire risk could threaten community safety. Austin Fire Chief Joel Baker was at the meeting and said the fire department would work with the city’s housing and planning departments to mitigate these risks.

“Our code does need to be updated,” Alter said from the dais. “My position is not 'no change’; my position is responsible change that strengthens our community, not change that makes our community less safe.”

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