RVs everywhere

The Woodview mobile home park, off W. Oltorf.

For once, everybody at City Hall appears to be adopting a “live and let live” approach to housing. But only in mobile home parks.

On Tuesday the notoriously anti-housing (but improving!) Zoning and Platting Commission adopted a recommendation to allow RVs in mobile home parks. Current city code distinguishes between RVs and mobile homes and prohibits the former in mobile home parks.

Despite the prohibition, some mobile home parks around town are predominantly inhabited by RVs, in some cases because RVs were on that property before it was annexed by the city and subject to city zoning rules. So they’re sort of grandfathered, although the new rules will likely kick in if they do any sort of redevelopment of the site. To try and help out some of these mobile home park residents, staff offered a compromise code change: mobile home parks could be up to 50% RVs. But at least one property I’ve seen is more like 90% RVs. So that doesn’t really help…

To ZAP’s credit, they said what’s the point of RV restrictions? The proposal even came from David King, a former president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council and one of the most reliable opponents of zoning changes that facilitate more housing throughout the city. CM Ann Kitchen, who appointed King to ZAP, tells the Monitor that she supports the idea:

“I think that that proposed ordinance (as written by staff) needs some more work. I think focusing on the type of entity –  the mobile home versus the RV – is not the point and it’s limiting in a way that doesn’t help us with our goals for affordability and housing options.”

What’s striking is how easily everybody can agree to adopt a commonsense change in places where they and likely few people they know lives. Compare that to the bloodletting that follows the tiniest changes proposed for single-family neighborhoods in Central Austin. Kitchen, for instance, joined three colleagues in voting against a 2015 ordinance that legalized accessory dwelling units (garage apartments) in most of the city after vociferous opposition from ANC. Even those considered friendly to land use reform, such as the mayor, will not go as far as allowing triplexes by-right on every lot.

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Which areas of Austin at highest risk of wildfires?

The other day the Public Safety Commission recommended that City Council adopt a Wildland Urban Interface Code, a distinct set of land use regulations geared toward reducing the risk of wildfires. Here’s a map of the city based on wildfire risk.

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As you can see, the great majority of what we’d refer to as the urban core (bounded by MoPac, Ben White and US-183) is not identified as at risk of wildfire. Why? Areas at the highest risk (red) are directly interacting with wildland that is likely to catch fire. The areas of lower risk, in green and blue, are within striking distance of embers from wildfires.

According to a city analysis, 62% of homes in Austin are outside of the no-risk areas. That tells you everything you need to know about how the city has grown over the past few decades. We have prevented housing in the urban core and pushed growth out onto the fringes, eating up more wildland.

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What’s next for paid sick leave?

Rally for paid sick leave ordinance in front of City Hall, Feb. 2018.

Ever since February of 2018, when Austin became the first city in the South to mandate paid sick leave for employees, Republicans at the state level have promised that the law would be short-lived. And yet, the Legislature adjourned yesterday without taking action on the issue.

Paid sick leave ordinances in Austin, San Antonio and Dallas may survive, thanks in large part to the religious right. The Texas Tribune explains:

As originally filed, Senate Bill 15 by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, would’ve created a statewide framework for employment laws in the state. It included provisions saying cities couldn’t regulate certain benefits practices or enact rules on how businesses schedule their employees’ shifts.

But Creighton overhauled the measure in an upper chamber committee and stripped out a provision in the bill agreed upon by business groups and other stakeholders that explicitly protected city ordinances that ban workforce discrimination.

The bill then became ensnared in a fight over protections for LGBTQ workers and stalled in the Texas House. Creighton later filed four narrower bills, each aimed at accomplishing a slice of the original measure’s goals. But after those bills passed the Senate, a House committee reinserted the language explicitly protecting the nondiscrimination ordinances, and none of the four bills made it onto the House calendar in time for a debate by the full body.

Glorious. At first glance, this just seems like an example of extraordinary Republican incompetence. However, my sense is that the business community only got concerned about LGBT rights after significant pressure from progressive/LGBT rights activists who highlighted the fact that the proposed law could impact local anti-discrimination ordinances.

Granted, the paid sick leave ordinances aren’t in force today and may never be. That’s because a state appeals court ruled that they are already preempted by state law that bars municipalities from implementing a higher minimum wage than the state. Whether mandatory paid sick leave is covered by the minimum wage law is up for debate, and is likely to be decided by the state Supreme Court.

In the long-term, however, I believe the political winds are blowing in favor of paid sick leave. There are now three major Texas cities that have adopted the policy, which polls show is tremendously popular. Republicans are likely to lose more seats in the Legislature, if not lose control of the state House, in 2020, which will make it even harder in the next legislative session to pass an anti-paid sick leave bill.

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What to do about revenue caps?

As you may have heard, the Legislature just approved property tax “reform.” The good news is that that included $6 billion of new state funds for schools. The bad news is just about everything else.

The city of Austin, Travis County and most other local governments will now be limited to 3.5% annual increases in property tax revenue unless they get approval from voters. That’s down from the current 8% limit.

There hasn’t been a rollback election in Austin in recent memory. Will it become a normal thing? Maybe not normal, but it could become an occasionally useful tool.

The good news for progressives is that the law requires the election to take place in November. That is logical, since it would follow soon after Sept. 30, the state-mandated deadline for local governments to complete their budgets and certify their tax rates. But November elections, particularly during national election years, generate the highest voter turnout and give liberals a fighting chance of mounting a campaign that appeals to their base. 

If the rollback elections could take place in weird times of the year, the electorate would be dominated by older homeowners who are frustrated about property taxes. If the city wants an electorate amenable to property tax increases, then it needs as many voters at the polls who don’t pay property taxes directly.

The new revenue caps don’t go into effect until next year, so this year the city of Austin and all other taxing jurisdictions should go all the way up to the 8% limit to a) establish a higher floor that future increases will based on and b) get some extra cash to put into reserves in preparation for lean times.

However, if there is strong messaging and dedicated campaigning, I can imagine Austin voters approving the city going above the 3.5% revenue cap at the polls in 2020, along with a major transit bond (and hopefully) a major bond targeting pedestrian/bike infrastructure.

At the very least, I hope that the mayor and other Council members who recklessly approved increases in the regressive homestead exemption in past years will not even consider increasing it again.

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Austin’s booming burbs

The proposed I-35 expansion.

Interesting story in the Statesman today about the growth of small cities in Texas.

Among the top 15 cities with the highest growth rate, about half were in Texas, including two Austin-area suburbs in Williamson County. Georgetown came in at No. 7, with an annual growth rate of 5.2%, and Round Rock was No. 15 and grew by 4.3%.

Other smaller Central Texas cities grew even faster, though they did not make the list because their populations don’t exceed 50,000 people. Dripping Springs grew by 20.59%, Leander by 12.5% percent and Kyle by 8.1%, all increases similar to those seen in previous years and continuing a boom along the Interstate 35 corridor.

“I think it’s interesting San Antonio really has joined the ranks of high-growth cities in the country,” Austin demographer Ryan Robinson said. “I think that’s interesting because Austin and San Antonio are developing more of a relationship than we have in the past. We are becoming one big urban region. … Starting in Bell County and ending in Bexar County, everything along the Interstate 35 corridor is growing like crazy. It is really beginning to act like one big urban creature.”

Obviously there have been people living in these communities for decades for a variety of reasons. Some people want big houses and don’t like living next-door to hippies. But this tremendous level of population growth –– far outpacing growth in the city of Austin –– is largely a reflection of the city’s affordability and mobility crises.

For what it’s worth, here are a few reasons I can imagine moving to one of the burbs in the coming years.

  1. The city hasn’t allowed enough housing in the city, so housing will become too expensive for us to remain near the city center. So there’s a good chance that while we’ll still be able to afford to live within city limits, we’ll probably have to move further out and sacrifice the car-light lifestyle we enjoy centrally.
  2. Because it hasn’t provided enough housing, the city isn’t dense enough to provide robust public transportation. As a result, living in the city doesn’t offer as much of a transportation discount as it should.
  3. Again, the lack of density and the lack of investment in pedestrian/bike infrastructure means that much of the city is not substantially more walkable than the suburbs, so what’s the point of paying a lot more to stay in town?

Sadly, as growth continues in the burbs, the perceived need to invest in regional highways over urban transit will grow, including the $8 billion expansion of I-35.

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Austin’s suburbanized infill

The New York Times had a story recently about the suburbanization of cities. The basic premise is that wealthy people are increasingly choosing to live in cities but they’re bringing along much of the suburban ethos: large homes, abundant parking, big yards, big box stores.

The dividing line between urban and suburban limits has always been a little murky in most cities, many of which have their own vast stretches of single-family homes with attached garages. But the general idea was that the suburbs offered comfort and personal space, private backyards and a bedroom for each kid. City living was more exciting and offered culture and a more diverse mix of everything, but required some sacrifice. Apartments were smaller, parking a headache and a backyard unimaginable.

Today, the cost of city living in many areas is higher but the trade-offs for those who can afford it are fewer.

The result is that the idea of a city itself is changing. In some ways, living in a dense urban area has become much more pleasant for certain types of people — namely the affluent and those who prize proximity to the action above all else. You can now live within easy walking distance of your favorite restaurants, go see a play and shop at Target nearby. But what does it mean when urban living becomes a luxury good and a lifestyle brand?

This story rings true even in Austin, where single-family homes and yards have always been the norm. As much as people complain about density, the main reason that single-family homes are demolished in Central Austin is so that they can be replaced with much bigger single-family homes.

Meanwhile, even projects that are touted as urbanist infill end up catering largely to wealthy people seeking spacious accommodations. Just look at the Grove, the major mixed-use development under construction at 45th & Bull Creek. Of the nine floor plans available for single-family homes, eight of them are greater than 4,000 square feet. While they are offering some smaller condos between 1000-1,400 sf, almost none of their townhomes are under 2,000, while some of them are over 4,000!

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The Vantage Series houses at the Grove range from 4,059-4,737 sq ft. Starting at $1.56M.

Mueller is frequently derided as pseudo-urbanist, but jeez, you’ll rarely see a house anywhere near 4,000 sq ft over there.

Ironically, it appears that many of residences of what was framed as a compact-and-connected New Urbanist development will be much larger than the single-family homes in the surrounding neighborhoods, most of which are between 1,200-1,800 square feet.

Granted, the single-family homes and townhomes are just one part of the Grove. There will also be apartment buildings offering units that are smaller and cheaper. Although I fear that they will still be much larger than average.

Some of this is simply driven by the market. Central Austin is attracting wealth from all around the world. However, some of it is a result of political constraints. You can’t be surprised that developers build million dollar monstrosities when you put a unit maximum on a property, as Council did on the Grove. That was a once-in-a-generation opportunity that we screwed up big-time.

If we want the new housing in this city to accommodate more than the rich, we need to encourage developers to build smaller and cheaper. Otherwise, the only way they’ll be able to turn a profit on the land is to build luxury housing.

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Sidewalks are increasing

It’s too bad that Austin has largely been growing out instead of up. But at least our sprawl development has not been free of sidewalks. In fact, most street frontage in Austin now has sidewalks. Here’s the source.

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What explains the rapid increase? Part of the reason is definitely that about a decade ago the city began requiring that new development include sidewalks. The city has also been investing to build sidewalks in neighborhoods that have always lacked them.

Even walkability allies are critical of the sidewalk requirements. Homeowners are often required to add a sidewalk simply for rehabbing their home or adding a garage apartment to their property. That requirement can deter the addition of housing. Some Council members have asked that the new code lift that requirement for very small projects.

Austin’s undeveloped land

I came across some interesting charts on the city’s Open Data portal. The data tracks Austin’s progress towards the “compact & connected” goals of Imagine Austin, the comprehensive plan that City Council adopted in 2012.

From 2008-16, Austin’s developed land increased by 50 square miles, from roughly 325 to 375. The green on this map is the 2010 development footprint, while the red is land that developed in the subsequent six years. The gray is undeveloped and the yellow is open space.

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Look at all that gray in the east. To those who believe the great majority of the urban core should remain dedicated to single-family homes, those big gray patches are the solution to our housing crisis.

Hence, a recent debate at Council over minimum lot sizes. Reformers have pushed for eliminating minimum lot sizes citywide, while West/Central Austin preservationists countered that that might be OK … but only on undeveloped land. So cheaper forms of housing would be legalized east of 183 but would remain largely prohibited in the city’s most highest-opportunity areas.

It’s in this context that I look wistfully at the debate over the Grove at Shoal Creek back in 2016. That giant tract of formerly state-owned land was one of the few examples of undeveloped land in Central Austin resulted in a development that was nowhere near as dense as it could/should have been, with neighbors demanding a 1,515 unit cap on the 76-acre property. Little surprise then to see that the developer, Milestone, is now building gargantuan single-family houses and townhomes priced at over $1M.

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What’s a ‘high-comfort’ bike route?

The Transportation Department has a cool map that assigns a biking comfort level to all major streets around the city.

Green = high-comfort routes, blue = medium, yellow = low and pink = very low.

I definitely like the idea, but I’ve got a few bones to pick with the ratings. In general, I think way too many streets are being classified as “medium” level comfort.

For instance, if we take a look at South Central Austin, where I live, the death trap known as South Lamar Boulevard is colored blue. True, there is a bike lane, but it is unprotected and runs alongside a steady stream of vehicles traveling at upwards of 40 mph. Worse still are the cars crossing the bike lane to get back onto the street from the zillions of commercial driveways.

Any knowledgable biker would say that if you’re going downtown, you’d be much more “comfortable” taking South 5th. It doesn’t have any bike lane, but it’s a relatively quiet, residential street where there are far fewer cars and they are generally traveling much more slowly. It’s also very scenic and mostly shaded.

So it doesn’t make sense that S. Lamar and S. 5th have the same rating. I don’t know how I would rate them, but I know that the latter is clearly superior and the map should reflect that somehow.

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Weekday ridership still lagging

The March ridership figures for Cap Metro are in. Overall ridership is up 1% over March 2018. However, Cap Metro notes,  March ’18 had one more weekday than March ’19. Had they had the same number of weekdays, ridership would have been up 3%, the agency estimates.

Ten months after the implementation of Cap ReMap, which redrew the bus network to prioritize straighter routes and more than doubled the number of frequent routes (every 15 mins during peak hours), ridership is up 3.4%.

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This apparent good news, however, is tempered by the fact that weekday ridership is relatively stagnant. The ridership gains from Cap Remap are due to increases in weekend rides, particularly Sunday rides.

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As I’ve explained before, increased weekend ridership is great. Clearly, it is due to Cap Metro’s decision to run buses as frequently on weekends as weekdays. That means that on the 14 frequent routes, buses now come every 15 minutes during peak hours (6 am-8 pm), while on other regular routes they come every 30 minutes. Before Cap ReMap, weekend service was significantly worse.

The problem is, weekend ridership will never be as high as weekday ridership. We’re spending the same amount of money to run buses on Saturdays and Sundays as we are any other day, but we’re recouping far less in fare revenue. Sunday ridership is up 18.4% over last year and yet the average bus on Sunday is carrying fewer than half as many passengers as a weekday bus.

The money we’re investing to boost weekend ridership wouldn’t be as much of a concern if there was a corresponding increase in weekday ridership to make up for the big weekend subsidy.

The good news is that the slide has stopped. Over the previous few years, ridership had been falling and Cap ReMap appears to have halted the hemorrhaging. It’s going to be a long road before Cap Metro can fully recover and eventually surpass the performance it boasted back in the late 2000’s, when Austin was much smaller. And it’s going to take much more than enhanced service. It’s going to take tough decisions from the city to grow in a way that favors transit (density, less parking).

Correction: Earlier I wrote that weekend ridership was declining. I was referring specifically to fixed routes, but I have since clarified to say that systemwide weekday ridership is “relatively stagnant.”

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