CodeNEXT could limit ‘McMansions’ to boost affordability


Monday night, the City of Austin’s Planning Commission passed amendments to CodeNEXT that would discourage the development of very large homes, which the council refers to as McMansions. 

In Austin’s Bouldin Creek neighborhood, Elizabeth Cafferky said that in the ten years she’s lived there, she’s seen congestion and traffic decrease her quality of life. She attributes the changes to multiple units being built on properties that would previously house a single family. 

“There’s too much construction in this neighborhood, I cannot get around without being delayed,” she said. 

Cafferky also worries about how all this development will impact the way water drains and is absorbed into the ground. She doesn’t want to see any new building in her neighborhood, whether that’s large houses or smaller dwellings. Instead, she thinks decreasing taxes for homeowners would make a bigger difference in keeping people from being displaced. 

But 82-year old Martha Zavala, who has lived in her Bouldin Creek home for 53 years, is not a fan of the larger houses nearby — she says they seem too excessive. Her son has asked her in the past to demolish her modest home in order to build a larger one on the lot, but she declined, saying she likes the small house her husband built. She also doesn’t want to move out of the neighborhood because it’s close to her church and her grocery store. 

After much debate about CodeNEXT, the overhaul of Austin’s land development code, the public is getting a better picture of what policies it will include. 

McMansions can only be built in certain areas

The City Planning Commission met Monday and talked late into the night about proposed amendments to the most recent draft of the code. 

Alina Carnahan, a spokesperson for the city’s Planning and Zoning department, explained that the city has had policy limiting McMansions since the mid-2000s. Historically, she explained the city has seen “McMansions” as any home that doesn’t fit with the character of the existing neighborhood, which could come down to a variety of factors. But for the purposes of the discussion on Monday, “McMansions” were referred to homes much larger than their neighboring homes, usually homes over 3,000 square feet in size. 

Carnahan explained that the commission already approved recommendations from city staff which would further limit the large homes under CodeNEXT, preventing people from getting a permit to build them unless they are building to the east and north of US Highway 183, to the west of MoPac or to the south of State Highway 71. They hope that the recommendation would separate Austin into two areas based on where McMansions could be built, simplifying the planning process for people looking to build.

A focus on smaller, affordable homes

Of the amendments related to affordability and preventing displacement, the ones on the table included:

  • Changing the code to encourage building smaller homes
  • Including more affordable fourplexes in Austin in a variety of price ranges
  • Directing housing construction further away from gentrifying and vulnerable areas of Austin

“While this alone will not cure all of the issues we are facing, we must act so that our status quo code can’t continue to push out Austin’s most vulnerable,” said Commissioner Angela de Hoyos Hart at a press conference Monday.  

Consultants have told commissioners that the amendments would encourage developers to build affordable units as opposed to larger developments.  

“Our policies would actually reduce the size of a McMansion or a single family home on a lot by 25 percent,” explained Conor Kenny, one of the City of Austin’s Planning Commissioners.

Kenny added that about nine percent of Austin homes exceed the size limits currently proposed in the amendments, but almost all of those homes have been built since 1990. These new policies aren’t designed to remove the larger homes, rather to discourage more from being built and to open up the possibility of using the land for smaller homes. 

The planning commissioners supporting these amendments explained that Austin’s current code makes it more profitable to build a McMansion when redeveloping on a lot than to build a multi-family home or an additional dwelling.

According to city data on demolished single-family homes in Austin, from 2012 to 2017 only seven percent were replaced by multi-family homes, 34 percent were replaced by two separate units, and 59 percent were replaced by new, single-family homes. The data also showed that the single-family homes demolished during that time had an average size of 1,430 square feet, whereas the new single-family homes they were replaced by were on average 3,544 square feet. 

“Today’s amendments are some of the strongest we’ve seen to our land use code in a really long time,”  explained Council Member Greg Casar, who represents District 4. He believes that Austin’s current land-use codes are “broken” and cause more gentrification. Casar explained that the southern part of his district is rapidly becoming more expensive.

“We are starting to see little houses get scraped and be replaced by really large houses,” Casar said. He wants to see smaller homes being built. 

 “Not tiny homes, but smaller ones, some that a family could fit in, something that is a thousand or thirteen hundred square feet,” he added. 

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, who represents District 6, also supports this group of “McMansion amendments.”

“Any McMansions you see in the city today are a result of the current land use code and yet another reason we need to fix it under CodeNEXT,” Flannigan said, also noting that most people who live in “McMansions” probably do not refer to their homes as such. 

Flannigan lives in the Hunter’s Chase neighborhood, an area which he notes that city officials have described as “well planned.”  But Flannigan said his neighborhood wasn’t originally part of the city of Austin when it was created and couldn’t have built under the current planning code.

Flannigan acknowledged there has been confusion among Austinites about what actually will be included in CodeNEXT. 

“Now we are finally in that phase where all of that public input and all of those community conversations will result in actual tweaks and changes and fixes into this code before it comes to the council,” he said. 

Monday’s meeting is one of several the planning commission will have before sending their recommendations to council before the council amendment and adoption process starts in June. On Wednesday the planning commission will meet again to discuss the mapping of where CodeNEXT will be implemented. They will also discuss affordable accessory dwelling bonuses Wednesday as well. 

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