Huh? City says reducing transition areas would barely impact housing capacity

As Council inched towards the end of debate on the LDC Thursday evening, Alison Alter asked staff for an update on a question she’d asked earlier. If all of the missing-middle transition areas were limited to only two lots off the corridor, how much housing capacity would the city lose?

The answer was shocking: 400 units.

For a bit of context, the total additional housing capacity under the current code is about 135,000. Under the proposed code, it’s a little under 400,000.

The response from seemingly everyone watching, including those on both sides of the dais, was befuddlement. Seriously?

Later that night and the following day I was told by numerous insiders that staff was actually answering a far more specific question. There had been a misunderstanding.

However, Friday afternoon I talked to Annick Beaudet, the co-lead of the LDC revision team, who told me that the estimate was in fact an attempt to calculate the impact of reducing transitions to two lots citywide. She stressed that the estimate was very rough. It was not actually calculated by counting lots, but rather by limiting the transitions to 300 feet from the corridor. In many cases there are more than two lots within 300 feet.

How can this be? 
When I posted this news on Twitter over the weekend, I was hoping some mapping geeks would jump at the opportunity to either disprove or confirm staff’s estimate. No takers so far. It still doesn’t make sense to me looking at the maps.

Let’s just look at this one section of Crestview, just west of N. Lamar. All of those dark yellow lots are currently single-family and are being proposed for R4. That means that the base entitlement is increasing from a duplex (based on lot size) to four units. If they take advantage of the affordable housing bonus, they can go to eight units.

I counted 60 lots zoned for R4. Now, I don’t know exactly what would qualify as two lots off the corridor. The most conservative estimate would include anything that is within two lots of those large commercial (brown) properties that front Lamar and Justine Lane. If we use that methodology, there are 28 lots left.

Most of those 28 units probably only have a single unit, but under the current and new code they could all become duplexes and/or add an ADU. And some of them are eligible for the preservation incentive, which would give them the right to add two units on top of the existing unit.

So if those 28 are rezoned to R4, their base capacity = 112
With the affordable housing bonus, their total capacity = 224
With affordable housing bonus + preservation bonus, total capacity = 252

If they aren’t upzoned, their base capacity will = 56
If they aren’t upzoned, their max capacity w/preservation incentive = 84

That seems like a pretty big gap in capacity. Remember, I’m not saying that upzoning will actually result in 252 units. The actual yield will be far less. It’s very likely that few, if any, developers will take advantage of the affordable housing bonus.

That’s why staff’s calculation is based on what they call feasible capacity. According to staff, it “accounts for redevelopment potential of lots given zoning and market. Uses conservative estimates of build-out densities based on observed trends.”

It’s impossible to predict when homeowners will sell
There’s an additional complication when calculating the impact of missing middle zoning: most of the properties are owned by individual homeowners. It’s very, very hard to predict what they will do with their properties in the coming years.

Planning Commissioner Conor Kenny elaborates:

In the long-term, my guess is that there is much more than 400 units to be gained from extending transition areas beyond two lots.

In the near-term, the question is: How does this estimate impact the LDC revision? The preservationists, after months of bemoaning how the transition areas will transform neighborhoods, are now touting this number as evidence that the transitions don’t actually produce much housing so why bother with them?

Meanwhile, some reformers on Council, notably the mayor, are likely looking at that number and thinking that getting Tovo, Alter, Pool and Kitchen’s votes in exchange for 400 units would be a pretty good deal politically.

I would urge reformers to think carefully and get some more context before offering such a deal. I think there’s a very good chance that the staff estimate understates the impact.

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What happened to Austin’s missing middle housing?

Defenders of the status quo, particularly Kathie Tovo, like to highlight the existence of missing middle housing in older central neighborhoods. They’re right to applaud it, but they’re wrong to suggest that is the current code that has helped create and/or protect it.

Here is a graph that Peter Park, the lead LDC consultant, showed Council the other day.

The figures are pretty damning. Not only does it show how much bigger units have become in the past 30 years, but it shows how little 2-4 unit residences have been built.

This timeframe doesn’t align perfectly with the current code, which was implemented in 1984, but it’s probably safe to assume that the great majority of the pre-91 missing middle housing stock was built before 84. As I’ve written before, many of the duplexes you see throughout town, including the one I lived in most recently, would not be allowed under current rules.

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The politics of transition

Staff did a good job of mapping transition areas in the first draft. In the second draft, they bowed to political pressure from both Central/West Austin anti-growthers and anti-gentrification voices on the East and reduced overall housing capacity.

The impulse to block or slow redevelopment is somewhat intuitive. In a city with rapidly rising housing costs, blocking new development, which is always more expensive than the old stuff, seems to make sense. The problem is that when land values are as high as they are in Austin, single-family homes are always unaffordable.  

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Staff dials back reform on 2nd draft

The Strawbiddy Yops regale babies, toddlers and their parents with storybook songs Saturday morning at the Hive in far south Austin. Certainly not the best photo I’ve ever taken, but you get the idea.

2nd draft shrinks transitions, reduces housing potential
To the credit of city staff, they haven’t hidden the fact that the second draft of the code, which was released Friday, will probably get us less new housing than the first. It’s still not clear exactly how much the total housing capacity was reduced by, but it wasn’t hard to notice the changes on the new zoning map.

The gentrification zone
A number of areas identified as “gentrifying” that in the first draft were zoned R4 (max 4 units, up to 8 units w/affordable bonus) were knocked down to R3 (max 3 units, no bonus).

The areas that were determined to be gentrified-beyond-hope retained R4. Generally a lot of the transitions south of E. 12th (E. Cesar Chavez, E. 7th Street, Rosewood) went down to R3, as well as corridors further east, while the corridors north of that (Manor, 38th 1/2) kept R4. MLK has R4 closer to downtown and R3 further east.

The same was true for areas in southeast and south Austin. Properties along E. Oltorf, in Montopolis and those surrounding S. 1st St south of Ben White got R3.

What’s the benefit of this? I’m having a hard time seeing it. We get less housing overall and in R3 there’s not even the opportunity of an affordable housing bonus.

Planning Commissioner Conor Kenny is also unimpressed.

Dialing back residential corridors
One of the other ways staff decreased capacity was by reducing or eliminating transition areas around corridors that were deemed “primarily residential.” This was one of the infamous amendments put forth from the temporary collaboration between the mayor and Alison Alter.

The result is that there are streets that for all intents and purposes are major transportation thoroughfares, such as Menchaca, W. 45th St, Exposition and Pleasant Valley that are not fulfilling their potential as transit corridors.

Some random changes
For instance, in my own neighborhood of Southwood, Redd St., which is sort of a neighborhood corridor, if such a term exists, was initially proposed to be upzoned entirely from single-family to R4. Now it’s all R2 again. Hmm. I wonder if a certain South Austin Council member might have had something to do with this.

Some improved site regs, but still a long way to go
Remember, the code is not just about zoning. That’s what most people focus on, but the theoretical right to build a billion units on a lot doesn’t mean much if there are other regulations (impervious cover limits, floor area limits, fees) that make that impossible. Here are a few of the big things that caught my eye.

Small improvements for duplexes
I’ve talked before about the way the current city code allows duplexes on single-family lots but strongly discourages themThe new draft improves the situation, but not nearly enough.

The proposed minimum lot size in the R2 zone is now 5,000 sq ft for one or two units, compared to the minimum in the current code of 5,750 for one unit and 7,000 for two.

What’s not good is that a duplex would be limited to the same 0.4 floor-to-area ratio (FAR) as a single unit, which means the floor space can only take up 40% of the lot. There’s an exception for units under 1,300 sq ft –– so you can exceed the FAR limit if both units are smaller than that. That’s helpful, but the fact is that limiting the FAR is not simply preventing builders from building very big duplexes –– it’s also encouraging them to build monster single-family homes.

Some helpful FAR exemptions
In response to concerns raised by builders, staff reinstated a partial exemption for parking and attic spaces. That means that up to 200 feet of garage/car port space will not be counted toward the FAR max. The same will be true for up to 400 square feet of attic space.

An improved preservation bonus
In case you forgot, the preservation bonus is a concept whereby you get to build an extra unit if you preserve the original structure on the lot. So, let’s say there’s an old house on a lot zoned R2. If you preserve the existing home, you could build an additional two units.

An amendment by Casar proposed some changes to the program. It suggested easing size restrictions on units achieved through the bonus, increasing allowable impervious cover, exempting a preserved unit from counting against the FAR limit, and making units as young as 15 years old eligible for the program and exempting bonus units from parking requirements.

Staff was cool with all of that except reducing the age to 15. They recommend sticking with 30: “Available data indicates that 30 years is the point at which properties become market-rate affordable, which is consistent with one of the Incentive’s main objectives.”

Sure, but a 15-year-old house is a lot closer to 30 than a 0-year-old house. I don’t know if this makes a big difference. Are there many instances of units built in the 21st century that are already getting demoed? I’d be interested to hear from my readers in the real estate biz on this one.

There will be much more on the code tomorrow…


Large fire at homeless camp under frontage roadThe Austin Fire Department is working to determine what caused a fire at a homeless camp in north Austin that stretches three football fields long under a frontage road. AFD responded to a large homeless encampment fire in the 1100 block of Anderson Lane around 9 a.m.

Terrible. This may likely underscore the danger of homelessness encampments, as well as the risk involved with pushing the homeless to camp in wooded areas.

Greg Abbott renews attacks on city homeless policies, citing stabbing:  The governor said Saturday he has a four-step solution to solve homelessness in Austin, but the city “doesn’t have the leadership to do this.”

Those steps included opening large shelters, providing mental health and drug addiction treatment, job training skills and focusing on long-term housing. He did not elaborate in his tweets on how the resources could be provided.

I’m going to go out on a limb and predict the elaboration will not be coming anytime soon. But I’d be happy if he proved me wrong.

Wendy Davis way ahead of Chip Roy in fundraising: Davis raised $910,000 in the fourth quarter, more than double Roy’s haul, marking the second quarter in a row that she has taken in more than him. She also pulled virtually even in cash on hand, with both reporting $1.2 million in reserves.

If this presidential election goes well for Dems (hardly a foregone conclusion), Roy is a goner