The housing filibuster

While City Council now has a comfortable majority that is usually in favor of new housing and not instinctively hostile to density, an 8-3 majority is in many cases not a big enough majority to overcome opposition to new projects, including really, really good ones.

Why? Because the state of Texas, despite its supposed commitment to property rights, requires any zoning change to be supported by 3/4 of the governing body if the rezoning is protested by those who own at least 20% of the property within a 200-ft radius of the parcel. In Austin that means you need 9 of 11 votes on Council to get the zoning change passed.

To be clear, the petition’s validity is based not on the number of people who sign, but on the amount of land they own. In some circumstances it only takes one or two large property owners to satisfy the 20% requirement. That’s some medieval logic. 

For instance, last week neighbors opposed to a rezoning to allow five rowhouse on Alamo St. (including one unit at 60% AMI) filed a valid petition and very nearly doomed a project that was supported by the neighborhood association, the neighborhood plan contact team and included a unit permanently dedicated to a low-income household. The rezoning ultimately passed 10-1, with only Kathie Tovo opposed, but the developer’s team was no doubt sweating bullets waiting to see how the two other density-averse CMs (Alison Alter and Leslie Pool) would vote.

Here’s a list of the properties whose owners were eligible to sign the petition, according to a staff report. You can see on the right how the impact of their signature is determined by the size of their lot.

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Meanwhile, over on Rutherford Rd, a 228-unit affordable housing project is similarly threatened by a valid petition organized by neighbors who say the new housing will bring additional traffic and threaten their property values. Fortunately I think that project, because it’s 100% affordable, will also be approved by Council.

I’m less optimistic, however, about the prospects of another petition-threatened project on E. MLK, where a developer is seeking to upzone a lot to add six units. It’s exactly the kind of place where we could use some new density, but it’s not hard to imagine three Council members being swayed to oppose the project just based on the neighborhood opposition.

Many in Austin politics, particularly the anti-density crowd, like to blame state government for our affordability woes, highlighting the state prohibition on inclusionary zoning and rent control. Well, valid petitions are a barrier to affordability whose elimination might actually receive bipartisan support. While plenty of Republicans are land use hypocrites who believe that exclusionary zoning is one of the essential powers of government, there are others who actually believe all of that property rights stuff and don’t like the idea of a couple pesky neighbors preventing you from doing what you want with your land.

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