Tweaks to Austin land code draft protect against displacement, encourage projects with more units

UT researchers present gentrification findings to Austin City Council

An older single-family home (right) next to a newer development (left). (KXAN Photo).

AUSTIN (KXAN) — City of Austin staff have compiled their recommendations for how city council overhaul’s Austin’s land development code. A city spokesperson explained that staff finalized their updated guidance for city leaders on Monday night.

The code defines the rules for what and where you can build in the city. It has not had a major overhaul in three decades. This current process is the city’s latest attempt to overhaul the code.

Austin’s City Council has the final decision on the approval of the land development code changes. This staff report means that the council has all of the major guidance they will use to guide their decisions about the code rewrite in early December. Council will use these recommendations along with a November Planning Commission report to guide their discussion of what changes to approve.

Leading up to this point

On October 4, city staff published a draft of the code overhaul as well as interactive maps of the proposed zoning changes. City staff proposed more revisions in a report on October 25.

The city says they got public feedback via open houses, office hours, public testing, town halls, but that they can’t quantify exactly how many people weighed in on the draft. Based on what the public said and based on the Planning Commission’s recommendations, city staff crafted the report which came out Monday night.

In the report, staff recommends more strategies to reach the city’s goals for this land-use code revamp. The goals touched on by the recommendations include adding density, boosting affordability, curbing displacement/ gentrification, adding density near transit “high opportunity areas”, and incentivizing the creation of “missing middle housing” (multi-unit housing, anything from duplexes all the way up to apartment buildings).

Protecting against displacement

City staff recommends (as did the Planning Commission) reducing or eliminating transition area zoning in communities that are vulnerable to displacement. Transition area zoning is being added with this land code rewrite and means that areas between single-family homes and main transportation corridors where denser development and a variety of housing types are located.

Staff says these recommendations better measure where these transition zones should be placed relative to areas vulnerable to gentrification.

The city recently commissioned the UT Austin Uprooted study which tracked where gentrification was happening in Austin. The researchers found what many had suspected: that the eastern crescent of the city was where the most gentrification was happening and where the most vulnerable neighborhoods are.

Staff’s recommendations would protect areas identified by this study as vulnerable to displacement.

“While greater and more diverse housing supply has many benefits, including helping to stabilize home prices over the long term,” staff said in their report, “[eliminating transition zones from areas of diaplacement] will likely avoid exacerbating potential short-term impacts of redevelopment pressures in areas vulnerable to gentrification and displacement pressures.”

Floor-to-Area Ratio

City staff also recommended changes to the maximum floor-to-area ratio (FAR), which limits the size of a building relative to the lot the building is on.

The October 4 code draft calls for increasing the maximum FAR in “missing middle” zones. But after testing and community feedback, staff reigned those increases back a bit, recommending that the city only allow increased FAR in missing middle zones to projects with three or more units. This is to discourage the construction of larger one and two-unit structures.

Council has directed staff to incentivize more accessory dwelling units (ADU’s or granny flats), duplexes, townhomes, and small multiplexes in order to increase the housing supply throughout the city.

Preservation Incentives

Back in May, Austin City Council asked staff to create a preservation incentive in the code revision which would allow new units to be built in exchange for preserving homes that have been around 30 years or longer.

That preservation incentive was included in the October 4 draft code. But staff’s recommendation Monday calls for some changes to that original version of the preservation incentives to boost development potential for housing with more units rather than building more, larger one-or-two-unit structures. Staff says this, “balances councils housing goals with concerns regarding the scale of new units relative to existing single-family homes and entitlements existing under the current code.” 

High Opportunity Areas

Council told city staff back in May to increase “missing middle housing” in areas which are “high opportunity zones” (these are areas associated with positive life outcomes and are concentrated largely in West and Central Austin). But staff noted, these high opportunity zones are frequently not located along transit corridors, so staff had to come up with new criteria to carry out the council’s direction.

In the Oct. 4 draft, staff proposed adding these missing middle housing zones to portions of “high opportunity areas” along bus routes.

Staff recommended Monday that the council expand the number of places where missing middle zones can be added in high opportunity areas.

A map of which depicts “high opportunity areas.” Map from Austin Strategic Housing Blueprint Implementation Draft November 19, 2018.

What’s next

The city says you can still give feedback on the draft of the code at the Dec. 7 public hearing and that citizens can give public testimony at any regular council meeting.

City Council is scheduled to review the draft beginning Dec. 3. A public hearing is scheduled for Dec. 7 and the council may take its first reading vote on Dec. 9. City code requires three separate readings before the Code could be adopted.

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