If you recall, the City of Austin’s attempt last year to rewrite its land development code, which dates back to the mid-1980s, fell apart with the demise of what was then known as CodeNEXT. It’s complicated and we won’t explain it all here, but what’s important is, we’re trying again!
Last week, our beloved City Council voted to adopt a policy document that will, if all goes well, lay the foundation for another drafting of a new city development code — one that will hopefully enable vastly increased housing affordability for an Austin that’s growing unaffordable for many of its residents almost as quickly as it grows.
The new document includes some guidelines related to increasing affordability in the city by allowing, among other things, the construction of higher-density housing types — duplexes, fourplexes, and more — close to major transportation corridors, along with allowing the construction of housing on smaller lots. The end goal of the code rewrite? Creating the capacity for 400,000 new housing units in the next 10 years.
Sure, you’ve heard of Rumble in the Jungle. Hell, you may’ve even attended the Thrilla in Manila. But are you ready for another Rager in the Chamber???? ATX City Council to battle, again, its land code rewrite policy. @MayorAdler’s hoping for a 1st Rd KO, though unlikely. pic.twitter.com/jEurINqLE9
— Christopher Neely (@TopherJNeely) May 2, 2019
It’s a good start, but since the code hasn’t actually been rewritten yet, we don’t know how it’s all going to pan out at this stage. Just to get ourselves excited about the possibilities, we sat down with David W. Glenn, director of governmental relations and policy for the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin, a nonprofit representing the local residential construction industry.
You might not be surprised to learn that an organization supporting the development of homes in the Austin area supports adapting the city’s code to enable the development of more homes in the Austin area, but Glenn still has a lot to say about what we can do to make housing more affordable in the city — and they honestly all sound pretty good to us:
If for some reason you can’t watch the video above, we’ll briefly lay out the three methods Glenn describes:
1. Removing regulatory barriers
A lot of people might start to get a little suspicious when “removing regulatory barriers” comes up, but you’ve got to keep in mind that loosening up zoning and land use restrictions isn’t some kind of libertarian fantasy on the level of, say, getting rid of OSHA or privatizing the police. Though not a silver bullet by any means, fewer restrictions on the types of housing developers can build in a city is one of the critical tools in the urbanist toolbox for improving affordability, some of which you can attribute to simple supply and demand as denser construction brings more overall housing units online — and it’s an approach supported by some of Austin’s most progressive housing advocates.
For example, one of the restrictions many believe should be removed in a new code is current limitations on the construction of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) or “granny flats” — basically just smaller houses utilizing the backyard space of larger houses. So, how you build one in Austin? At the moment, it’s not that easy. If we relaxed some of those ADU restrictions in parts of the city we’d be able to add additional housing to many existing lots without even changing the appearance of the homes out front.
2. Reducing Minimum Lot Sizes
Reducing minimum lot sizes in the city also feels like a no-brainer. At the moment, we don’t allow homes to be built on lots smaller than 5,750 square feet in most cases. Smaller lot sizes would allow the construction of several smaller, more affordable homes on lots that would previously only accommodate one family — which would in turn allow more people to live in single-family homes if they desired them, while taking up much less space in the city overall.
3. Embracing “Missing Middle” Housing
Embracing “missing middle” housing is Glenn’s last recommendation, so let’s define what that even means. Austin’s current code prioritizes the development of single-family homes first, and large apartment complexes to a lesser extent. But there are a lot of housing varieties between those two extremes, like duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, townhouses, row homes, small garden apartments, the aforementioned ADUs, and so on — that’s the so-called “missing middle,” and the city needs to write a code that incentivizes this type of development in order to increase our overall housing stock. These types of housing are usually more affordable than single-family homes, and some people prefer them to units in larger apartment or condo buildings.
As you can start to see, Glenn’s three points for affordability in Austin all flow into one another to some extent — you have to remove some regulatory barriers in our local code (one of which is our current minimum lot size) to really embrace many of those “missing middle” housing configurations, so you’ve basically got to accomplish all three goals to make this happen. We’re excited to keep an eye on the development of Austin’s new code in the coming months, and we certainly hope the priorities named in the video above make it across the finish line.