Can Austin Build on Recent Land Use Wins to Be a More Affordable, Sustainable City?

The City of Austin Planning Commission is planning to form a working group to explore small-scale reforms to Austin’s outdated and overly restrictive Land Development Code. The last attempt to totally overhaul the code, named CodeNEXT, was dismantled by an unfortunate state law which gives a minority of homeowners – who are themselves a minority of the residents of the city – a veto over affordability reforms. This renewed effort is a real opportunity to make reasonable and urgently needed land use reforms.

Austin made some significant, but incremental reforms earlier this summer. In a win for housing advocates and current and future residents of the city, Austin City Council passed land use reform items during their June 9th meeting. Council passed a resolution that would direct the city manager to come back with an ordinance in the fall that would relax compatibility restrictions and parking minimums on major corridors. They also passed an ordinance, to take immediate effect, that will create a new category of vertical mixed-use zoning, allowing an additional 30 feet in height, to get to a maximum of 90 feet, in exchange for a certain percentage of affordable units. Council also passed a resolution that aims to consolidate Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) regulations and make them more flexible with the hope of seeing more construction.

Pressure has grown on Austin’s city council to enact serious land use reforms amid the housing affordability crisis. The city’s housing supply has significantly lagged behind the rate of regional population growth, especially in high opportunity areas. The current land development code is far too restrictive for responsible infill development and encourages sprawl outside the city. The current sprawl-oriented code is an environmental and equity disaster that is leading to the destruction of the environment, traffic, pollution, and car dependency. Amid the dual affordability and climate crisis, council acted to make modest reforms to the code.

Thanks to the pro-housing council members and Mayor Adler, these reform items were improved through amendments and resistance to measures that would weaken them. A strong push from the mayor ensured that VMU2 development would be by-right instead of being subject to a long and costly zoning process that would have discouraged participation in the program.

A separate item passed by council strengthened watershed and other environmental regulations for development. While green infrastructure is important, it will add to the cost of building homes for Austin residents. Again, the mayor and pro-housing council members pushed for an affordability analysis of the proposal and ensured that missing middle development was not subject to more stringent regulation than single-family homes. Mayor Adler was also able to amend the resolution so that infill projects would not be subject to the same regulatory burden as greenfield development – sprawl projects where greenspace is destroyed.

Perhaps due to the severity of the city’s housing crisis or mounting frustration with years of inaction, there seemed to be less patience for measures that would defang these reforms. In addition to scratching the zoning process, council voted 6-5 to reject higher affordability requirements for VMU2 participation, which would have likely deterred participation and led to fewer affordable units.

Austin’s land use policy arena is shifting, and reforms seem more urgent and more likely.

While the changes passed on June 9th represent incremental progress at a time when drastic action is necessary, they are steps in the right direction nonetheless. The model city for zoning reform is undoubtedly Minneapolis, Minnesota, which eliminated parking mandates city-wide, allowed more density around transit stops, created provisions for inclusionary zoning, increased funding for affordable housing, and most famously, eliminated single-family zoning.

Many pro-housing groups point to these bold measures and lament that the same bold measures seem impossible in Austin. Some see measures like those passed on June 9th as weak and unlikely to adequately address the severe housing shortage facing the city. However, even in Minneapolis, reforms started modestly. Minneapolis city council, led by Lisa Bender, relaxed ADU regulations in 2014. When the fears of this reform were not borne out, the next steps towards total reform became easier.

The VMU2 ordinance stops compatibility triggers at 100 feet along light rail corridors. The corridors item reduces costly parking mandates – but not actual number of parking spots – along light rail and large corridors by 75%. These are significant, albeit still inadequate reforms. What we are seeing is progress, and that is worth celebrating.

The Planning Commission’s renewed effort to reform the code is laudable and needed. The residents of Austin deserve to have their policy makers and public servants take their needs seriously. And Austinites need housing.

The 2022 Austin City council reduced parking requirements. Perhaps a complete city-wide elimination of parking mandates is now possible in 2023. When taller buildings are built along major corridors under the new compatibility regime, members of the community will see the benefits they provide. Maybe compatibility can be eliminated next year too. If the planning commission is bold in its reform effort, comprehensive reform can and will be accomplished in the near future.