You can’t be against CodeNEXT

So far, these koozis and sunglasses are the only tangible products of CodeNEXT.

As you’re probably aware if you follow Austin politics even a little bit, there’s much angst in certain quarters of the city about CodeNEXT, an ongoing attempt to rewrite the city’s land development code. Signs around town proclaim that “CodeNEXT Wrecks Austin,” while a smaller number of signs are supportive, saying that the new code will promote a “compact and connected” city.

To be “against” CodeNEXT doesn’t make sense, because CodeNEXT isn’t a defined product. The consultants and city staffers have drafted three versions of the new code, all of which differed significantly. The most recent version strongly resembles the current code, incorporating almost all of the restrictions on development that defenders of single-family neighborhoods cherish: neighborhood plans, conditional overlays, restrictive covenants. There is nary a major upzoning included.

If there’s something you don’t like in the current draft, the logical position is to advocate for its removal from the draft, not to oppose the entire idea of a new code. All we have right now is a draft proposal that those with actual legislative power –– City Council –– haven’t even begun to examine and make changes to.

The same could be said of those who say they support CodeNEXT, including city staff. Thus, the presentations I saw at a forum yesterday by city staff that touted all of the benefits of CodeNEXT –– connectivity, sustainability, affordability –– don’t make any sense because we have no idea yet what the new code will look like once the Planning Commission and City Council are done with it.

The debate that is taking place is not about CodeNEXT but the idea of CodeNEXT. The idea of CodeNEXT is, to a certain extent, everything that the neighborhood associations hate: less single-family zoning, reduced parking requirements, fewer compatibility requirements. And the first draft of CodeNEXT largely reflected that New Urbanist vision. However, in response to howls from neighborhood groups, Council members and land use commissioners, city staff has dramatically dialed down those proposed reforms in the subsequent drafts.

Granted, supporters of land use reform will counter that opponents of CodeNEXT know exactly what they’re doing: opposing any attempt at change in order to preserve the status quo. Perhaps. But at least publicly CodeNEXT opponents all claim that they’re not particularly happy with the status quo either (gentrification, rising property taxes, demolitions etc). If they believe there are solutions that could address those issues, then they should view CodeNEXT as an opportunity to advance them.

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    In the same vein, the city Communications and Public Information Office issued its final CodeNEXT Community Engagement Report on Friday – and if the Housing Works letter reported “optimism, though perhaps faded,” this one was less rosy. The report by consultants Group Solutions RJW came out of a Council directive to reach out to “under-represented groups” such as “low-income, and renter communities, as well as people with disabilities.” RJW contacted 32 community groups vetted by Council and staff, and interviewed representatives of 17 groups, including the African American Resource Advisory Com­mis­sion, Asian American Resource Center, Austin Revital­ization Authority, Austin Tenants’ Council, Community Action Network, Go! Austin/¡Vamos! Austin, Interfaith Action of Central Texas, NAACP, La Raza Round­table, Restore Rundberg, and others, and: “Surprising to the interviewers was how similar the comments and concerns were across groups and organizations.”

    The responses are grouped into “common themes” that “represent the views of most, if not all, of the organizations that participated in conversations.” Those themes include Affordability, Housing, Mobility, the Process, and Trade-offs, but the most telling, and vehement, is “Density and Gentrification: The increased density allowed in CodeNEXT will not increase affordable housing but will harm and displace existing residents by increasing property taxes, changing the character of neighborhoods and driving up the cost of housing.”

    The loud-and-clear message, if this report is to be believed, at least, is that minority communities do not in any way believe the supply-side argument that increasing density in east and central neighborhoods is a benefit. Cited comments in this section are unanimously negative, and include: “Density does not increase affordable housing. Just look around. Look at the new dense housing units. The rents and mortgages are not affordable. People are displaced, then a few affordable units are set aside. The new residents don’t look like the residents who were displaced.” Also: “Density is the latest tactic to force Black and Hispanic people from their land.”

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