Kirk Watson’s housing plan

This is a free sample of the Austin Politics Newsletter from July 21, 2022. To get DAILY insights on city politics, click here to subscribe to the newsletter.

Last week Kirk Watson unveiled his plan on housing. Let’s start with the good part:

A recent report revealed that  the City of Austin charges the highest development fees among all large Texas cities, by a significant margin. For example, for infill development, the City’s estimated fee is around $41,300 per unit, while the average estimated fee among other big cities is around $14,400. While Austin is facing a housing emergency, I believe we should designate projects under City review that will fill critical needs and temporarily cut development fees for those projects by at least 50%. If necessary to  prevent any negative impact on the development review process, we could utilize the City’s Stabilization Fund to fill any budget gap created by fee cuts.

Yes, Austin’s development review process is a disaster and the city imposes far higher fees on development than any other in the state. However, reform is much easier said than done. Many of these fees have environmental justifications and constituencies, such as the newly-implemented transportation impact fee and the parkland dedication fee. They absolutely should be reduced, but there will be resistance from the city bureaucracy, other members of Council and influential advocacy groups.

Credit: Wiki Commons.

Here are some other ideas that generally fall into “the right direction” basket:

  • Creating designated hubs of density – especially along transit corridors – where the City requires minimum development as opposed to setting limits
  • Proactively identifying greenfield and large underutilized commercial areas and facilitating the development of new housing, including by utilizing incentives
  • Reducing compatibility and reducing or eliminating parking requirements in targeted areas
  • Changing vertical mixed-use zoning to allow more height in exchange for more affordable housing units 
  • Streamlining the process of subdividing and developing or redeveloping larger single-family lots 
  • Changing City development rules to encourage construction of appropriate duplexes and Accessory Dwelling Units rather than McMansions on single-family lots
  • Creating incentives to convert office buildings into residential buildings, add housing to existing parking lots, and encourage employers to participate in building workforce housing
  • Creating a new City site plan process for simple projects that need less oversight

I’d like to see more details about reducing compatibility and parking. City Council already approved a modest reduction in compatibility on major corridors –– how much farther is Watson proposing we go? Same question on parking.

It’s hard to imagine he is actually going to propose further changes to VMU beyond what Council already established with its recent approval of VMU2. The best way to increase the use of VMU is to further ease compatibility standards.

Now for the really bad part

I have a hard time taking this seriously:

Comprehensive reform of our land development code has eluded Austin for more than a decade. In my view, the failure lies primarily with a “one size fits all” approach, which I see as a relic of our previous at-large system of  governance. When Austinites voted ten years ago to adopt a system of district representation, I  believe they were expressing a desire to localize decision-making, including decisions about development and housing policy. I propose that the best way to make progress is to stop trying to  force every Austin district to adopt the same type of code reforms, and instead allow each Council  member to bring forward a set of district-specific reforms:

Watson claims that efforts to comprehensively overhaul the city’s land development code is a “relic” of our at-large system.

No, absolutely not. It’s a recognition that the housing crisis is a citywide problem that every part of the city has a role in addressing. The problem with the at-large system was that every member was attuned to the grievances of wealthy and powerful West and Central Austin neighborhoods that wanted to wall themselves off from new housing. The promise of 10-1 was that it would finally deliver a Council that truly represents the whole city and is willing to respond to the needs of the many, not the few.

Now Watson is proposing allowing Council members to exclude their districts from accommodating growth. That is a recipe for more economic and racial segregation and more sprawl.

Under this proposal, CM Alison Alter, who is already hostile to reform, just gets to say that her uber-wealthy West Austin district doesn’t actually need to allow more multi-family or missing middle housing? We just accept that large swaths of town will become enclaves of the wealthy few who can afford multi-million dollar single-family homes?

State law already establishes a formidable NIMBY filibuster that allows just three members of City Council to block rezonings. Why is Watson proposing to lower the threshold further, allowing just one member of Council to obstruct housing.

Watson offers the NIMBYs a carrot

Now, the next part of his plan proposes to “incentivize” districts to do the right thing:

Those districts that adopt pro-housing code reforms should benefit directly from the new revenue  those reforms will generate in the form of an Affordability Annuity – a dedicated, ongoing funding stream that neighbors could choose to devote to local parks, pools, libraries, displacement prevention, rental assistance, or other initiatives. This is also a way to help ensure equity for those areas that provide more of the city’s needed housing stock than others.

OK. So let’s imagine that every district does the right thing and increases housing options.

But a new development in Central or West Austin is much more valuable and yields much more new tax revenue than a new development in Southeast Austin. So this threatens to balkanize infrastructure spending to the advantage of the areas of town that need it least.

I’m glad to see a mayoral candidate talk about the important role that new development plays in supporting public services. But Council needs to be able to use every penny of new revenue to address the city’s most pressing budget priorities, notably the staffing crisis it’s facing because the wages for public employees are not close to keeping pace with inflation + housing.

So how might district-based zoning be OK…?

It might be OK if we elect pro-housing Council members. For instance, at least four of the candidates running in Central Austin’s District 9 recognize the need for serious reform in the district. But at least one of them does not.

So on the whole I’m pretty pessimistic about district-based code reform.

It’s much easier for a middle-of-the-road Council member to endorse bold reforms on a citywide basis. If we reduce it to a district decision, it all of a sudden becomes a “planning by town hall” situation most likely driven by the same small group of incumbent homeowners responsible for the terrible neighborhood plans that got us into the mess we’re in now.

Walter Long? How about Muny?

Watson imagines a future Mueller on the city-owned land around Walter E. Long Lake, arguing that plans for it to be dedicated entirely to parkland are infeasible:

While the City completed a park Master Plan in 2019, the estimated cost of executing that plan was $800 million – not only an entirely unachievable budget but, I would argue, also now entirely the wrong plan. Given the housing emergency facing Austin today,  I believe we should change course at Lake Walter E. Long and instead pursue a vibrant, mixed-use, transit-oriented development that could help reshape our city’s housing future – and still create at least the second-largest park in Travis County.

I have a better idea. Instead of subsidizing sprawl east of US-183, how about developing Lions Municipal Golf Course? That land is much more likely to be truly “vibrant” and “transit-oriented,” since it is already served by bus service and within walking distance of existing businesses and amenities, including Austin’s highest-performing public schools.

I wish Watson would strongly consider that. I know that he sponsored legislation that allows voters in the area to approve a special utility fee that will pay to keep Muny either a golf course or public parkland, but “given the housing emergency facing Austin today,” I hope he recognizes that our priorities must change.

Watson responds to my concerns

I asked Watson by text to address my concern about neighborhoods blocking change. He responded:

One of my favorite Beatles song is “Something.” After years of accomplishing nothing on LDC reform, I’m offering some ideas to accomplish something and recognizing that we need to do these things in the context of our current form of governance. This doesn’t wall off any any area and, in fact, attempts to incentivize not doing so.

100% of those ideas will have obstacles to overcome and details to work out, including likely figuring out guard rails or ways to avoid/prevent unintended and unwanted consequences. But it’s time to have the discussion, and I look forward to it. I want to hear ideas for improvement that help make more progress than we’ve had.

I just don’t see this district-based approach as necessary at all. It overestimates the strength of the anti-growth coalition and presumes that we can’t get anything done without unanimous consent.

It’s true that there’s a lot we can do without overhauling the whole LDC, and much of that can be accomplished on 6-5, 7-4 or 8-3 votes, especially if there is a mayor who effectively uses the bully pulpit to push a pro-housing narrative.

It’s hard to know if district-based code reform is a serious proposal or if it’s just a campaign tactic aimed to appeal to growth-hesitant voters. Either way, it’s concerning that new housing in our best neighborhoods is being framed as an option instead of as a need.

This is a free sample of the Austin Politics Newsletter from July 21, 2022. To get DAILY insights on city politics, click here to subscribe to the newsletter.

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