Draft of Land Development code aims to let Austin build 6 times more affordable housing


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin’s City Council met Tuesday to discuss the newly-released draft of the latest effort to overhaul Austin’s land development code. Council received a presentation on the proposed changes to the code from city staff and focused its discussion on how these changes may impact the city’s goals to improve affordability in Austin.

These changes to the land development code stand to impact zoning, development, and density in Austin for years to come. The city of Austin, which currently has a population of more than 985,000 people, is projected to have a population of around 1,368,000 by the year 2045.

City staff explained to council members that the proposed land-development code would use a “market-driven” approach to increase the city’s affordable housing stock by offering incentives to developers who agree to build a certain percentage of income-restricted affordable housing units.

Under Austin’s current code, only 3% of the acreage in Austin is zoned in a way that builders can receive bonuses for adding density. City staff tells KXAN that under the proposed land development code revision that the amount of eligible land would expand to 17% of the total acreage in the city.

According to numbers city staff compiled, Austin has the capacity to build 145,000 more units of total housing and 1,500 units of income-restricted affordable housing under the existing code. City staff projects that under the revised land development code, the city would instead be able to build 397,000 units of total housing and nearly 9,000 units of income-restricted affordable housing. Staff explained that this sixfold increase in the amount of affordable housing the city could build would be made possible by bonuses offered to developers, which would, in turn, allow these developers to add more market-rate housing.

Staff explained this plan gets the city just shy of its Austin Strategic Housing Blueprint goal to add 405,000 units of housing to the city.

KXAN broadcast replication of a City of Austin graphic using City of Austin Data for “Land Development Code Revision Report Card.” (Graphic by Rachel Garza).

Tools to add affordable housing in Texas

City staff explained to the council that in Texas, cities can’t require developers to add affordable housing, affordable housing must be added voluntarily.

Erica Leak with the City of Austin’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department noted that while other states have tools like rent control, impact fees (charges for new developments that would go toward affordable housing) and inclusionary zoning (which requires a certain percentage of new development to be affordable), Texas doesn’t allow those policies.

“So one of the few tools that we do have available to us is a voluntary bonus program,” Leak explained. Under the plan proposed in the land development code revision, Leak said, developers would be granted the ability to build more units or taller structures in exchange for their promise to make a certain percentage of their development affordable housing.

She explained that the way the incentive program has to work is that the city has to design the program to be a good deal for the developers so that the cost of the affordable housing requirements to participate would be subsidized by the benefits gained through the bonus.

“So a developer would choose not to participate in the program if they would make less money by participating in the bonus program then by building under the base entitlements,” Leak said.

She added that under state laws, the city may also be able to use other tools to reach its affordable housing goals such as general obligation bonds, setting aside property tax money through an increment financing program, or setting aside property taxes from a homestead preservation zone.

“What’s really unique about the voluntary affordable housing bonus program that’s provided as part of this code is that it’s one of the very very few tools that does not require subsidy from someone to create these income-restricted affordable units,” Leak noted.

What council members were saying

Austin City Council members will ultimately vote on whether to approve the changes to the code, but that vote isn’t expected to happen until at least December.

Each city council member got the chance to ask city staff members questions about the code revision on Tuesday. Every district will host its own meetings with constituents to discuss the proposed code changes and each of the council members also encouraged Austinites to take part.

“We are trying to understand whether or not [the draft of the revised code] met the direction that a majority of the council put forward in May,” said Council Member Alison Alter who represents District 10.

Alter did not vote in support of the council’s guidelines for the land development code at that time.

“I voted against that direction in part because I thought the capacity targets were unrealistic and were not going to get us to the place that we want to get to with respect to affordable housing,” Alter said.

“Broadly speaking, I am skeptical of whether the market will deliver the kind of capacity they’re talking about,” she added, “whether it will deliver the affordable housing — even the small amount of 9,000 units out of the close to 400,000 that we’re talking about being affordable.”

Alter said she wants to learn more about how city staff intends to calibrate the bonuses that will be offered to developers.

“One of the things that I’m concerned about is we’ve set these goals and the goals really favor the market-rate housing,” she said. “When you put a big emphasis on the market rate housing one of the things you do is make it that much more expensive for folks who wanted to do affordable housing to buy land.”

Austin’s Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza who represents District 2 explained that there are some things with this proposed land-use code revision she has concerns about too, such as some of the transition zones proposed for her district.

“But that’s the whole point of this process is we start asking those questions,” Garza said. “We can start making tweaks, we can start figuring out ways to apply all the different policy direction– because it should be applied differently in different parts of town.”

Graza feels, for example, that the city should exercise more caution in upzoning areas where there are more people who are vulnerable to displacement.

“A lot of the problems we’re seeing now, the gentrification, the displacement, it’s happening with our current code and so we have to change how we plan,” she said. “I think many people are concerned with council members talking about growth and they say, ‘Well what about the people who are here now?’ when the reality is, if we don’t plan for growth we make displacement even worse.”

Garza wants to make it clear to her constituents that the document the council is looking at is a draft.

“We’re working towards a process that really does the best and improves the quality of life for all Austinites and keeps our minority families here and keeps our low-income families here,” she said. “Because we need that vibrancy to stay the wonderful Austin that we are.”

How to learn more and share input

The city emphasized that the document council is looking at is a draft and that there will be a variety of opportunities over the next month for the public to weigh in on the draft.

  • On Oct. 18 from 1-8 p.m. at City Hall, members of the public will be asked to test out five zoning scenarios as part of an interactive public exercise. This will be held on the third floor at 301 W. 2nd Street.
  • On Oct. 19 from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. at Conley-Guerrero Senior Activity Center at 808 Nile Street there will be a walkable demonstration to educate the public on the draft and allow the public a chance to ask questions to city staff.
  • On Oct. 23 from 6-9 p.m. at the Austin Central Library at 710 West Cesar Chavez Street, the city will host another walkable demonstration that the public can attend.
  • City Council representatives will organize district-wide town halls.
  • The public can schedule one-on-one appointments with city staff to learn about the code and how it could impact their property or neighborhood.
  • On Oct. 26 there will be a Planning Commission Public Hearing on the draft. A Planning Commission vote on the draft and recommendations to the council are expected to happen in November.
  • Austin City Council is expected to have a public hearing about this draft in November.

Under the current timeline, the council could consider and take a vote on this code in December.

Additionally, the city has an interactive map that allows people to compare zoning under the current code with the changes proposed in the draft. City staff tells KXAN that there will be an electronic path on the city website in the coming weeks to submit feedback on these maps, people will also be able to drop off hard copies of maps with their feedback at City Hall — but the details on that process are still in the works.

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