Public Notice: For Further Consideration...

So yeah, let’s really get serious about housing in Austin


My friend and pagemate Mike Clark-Madi­son has been writing for the last few weeks about Austin's housing needs, with the general theme being that we need to treat this issue with the urgency it deserves. Excellent point – and it feels like the same thing I've been writing about for the last several years, even while I've become something of a pariah to many of Mike's new urbanist friends. So, because I know Mike and I agree on a lot more than we disagree on, let me add this to his message: If we want to take this seriously, it's time to get serious about it instead of treating it like a political football in a game between the Urbanists and the Neighborhoods.

To that end, here are a few proposals that the city's density wing has whiffed on while fighting over how many theoretical living units you can fit on the head of a pin.

• Allow two units everywhere. Early on in the 10-1 Council, a proposal to allow a second unit on virtually all single­-family lots was scuttled, ironically, by Greg Casar and Steve Adler, in what appeared to be a political calculation designed to avoid riling well-heeled Westside residents.

• Limit short-term rentals in multifamily. In the midst of a housing crisis, Council voted to let up to 25% of all units in any commercially zoned multifamily building be converted to full-time STRs. Good lord, why?

• Allow garages to be turned into "granny flats." I highlighted this no-brainer in a previous column, but it's one of a bazillion such simple fixes to the current code that in this case could be fixed with the stroke of a pen. Amazingly, not even the third draft of CodeNEXT would have fixed this, that process having been hijacked to be more political than technical and practical.

• Update neighborhood plans. These plans are the critical missing link between the aspirational Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan and the nuts and bolts of the development code. Some of the city-created Neighborhood Plan Contact Teams have performed well, and others have very much not. But the city's planning department provided zero guidance or oversight to these bodies, let alone the support to update the plans themselves, even as it dithered away the last eight years saying there wasn't time to do the necessary work.

• Follow the data. Housing reports have been pretty clear about the shortfall in new units. But they've also been pretty clear about where the market is producing, and where it isn't. We're fairly close to our goals for market rate housing, according to the recent Austin Strategic Housing Blueprint scorecard, but hitting below 40% of our goal for families making under $80,000 a year, and under 4% of what's needed for those making less than $30,000 a year. In other words, every time the "pro-housing" Council votes to maximize the total number of units allowed on a project without including serious affordability requirements, they're easing the burden on those who need it the least, while losing another opportunity to provide housing for those who need it the most. As Richard Florida, the dean of new urbanism, noted in a 2019 Bloomberg News piece, "Upzoning is far from the progressive policy tool it has been sold to be. It mainly leads to building high-end housing in desirable locations."

That's all the low-hanging fruit I can fit in 550 words. But it'd be a start, no?


The Project Connect Community Design Workshop series, covering the planned new transit stations, kicks off next Tuesday, Oct. 12 with an interesting one: the new Lady Bird Lake Bridge, providing a crossing for the Blue Line train somewhere near the Convention Center. Meetings are open to the public, but you must register at capmetro.org/get-involved.

Send gossip, dirt, innuendo, rumors, and other useful grist to nbarbaro@austinchronicle.com.

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