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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Seven votes for land use reform

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Things are looking very good for supporters of land use reform in Austin. A joint statement posted on the Council message board this morning by Jimmy Flannigan, Pio Renteria, Natasha Harper-Madison and Ann Kitchen indicates that there are now seven Council members in support of changes to the land development code aimed at creating more housing and enabling public transit and walkable neighborhoods. Remember, you only need six.

The most recent message from those four comes a week-and-a-half after Greg Casar and Delia Garza laid out their vision for a new LDC, emphasizing the need for a code that allows more housing options and reduces sprawl. A few days later, Mayor Steve Adler posted his own message, largely endorsing Casar and Garza’s statement.

In contrast to the statements from Casar, Garza and Alder, the statement this morning did not provide direct answers to the five questions that City Manager Spencer Cronk said Council must provide direction to city staff on before it begins crafting a new code. Instead this message focused on a bunch of more specific issues that Cronk didn’t ask about.

Here are some of the most significant conclusions:

Triplexes on every lot: Or at least I think that’s what it’s endorsing…

The smallest form of residential development (residential housescale) should allow for single family, duplex, triplex, or ADU development depending on site conditions.

Triplexes on every lot is what Minneapolis recently approved in its new comprehensive plan. That was a compromise, after the original draft called for quadplexes on every lot.

(Potentially) Eliminating parking requirements: 

One option could be to eliminate parking minimums city-wide and adopt parking maximums or minimum unit-yield in areas necessary to ensure sufficient transit supportive development. Another option could be to eliminate parking minimums except in areas that require a more context-sensitive approach.

I’d be surprised if we end up eliminating minimum parking requirements entirely. If we don’t go all the way, what might be those “areas that require a more context-sensitive approach”? Again, we’re not talking about eliminating parking –– the question is whether it will continue to be mandated as part of residential and commercial development.

(Potentially) Eliminating minimum lot size: 

We should explore eliminating minimum lot size and lot width in exchange for minimum outcomes (like number of units).

This would be huge. The current minimum lot size for much of the single-family stock in central neighborhoods is 5,750 square feet, preventing developers from splitting them up to provide smaller, cheaper homes.

Shift flood mitigation focus: 

Impervious cover is a tool that lacks nuance, does too little in critical flooding areas, and is too restrictive where infrastructure exists. More flexibility in impervious cover can be a benefit if it comes with additional drainage infrastructure. This could address key flooding issues and allow increased density (housing, commercial, retail, etc.) especially when near shared community assets. It is not our intent to change regulations governed through the Save Our Springs Ordinance (SOS).

Flooding is one of the most common concerns that neighbors cite when trying to block new development, particularly multifamily developments. Because multifamily zoning allows for more impervious cover, the fear of flooding  is often a justification that elected officials or land use commissioners can use to vote against an upzoning. I’m really not an expert on this issue, but relying on drainage infrastructure instead of impervious cover limits will allow greater density and less sprawl, which will benefit the environment, both by preserving more greenfield land and reducing car trips.

Are Kitchen & Adler really supportive of an ambitious code rewrite? 

As I’ve said before, I think there are five votes for an ambitious rewrite: Casar, Garza, Renteria, Flannigan and Harper-Madison. There are three solid votes against: Tovo, Alter and Pool.

In the middle are Adler, Kitchen and Ellis. Surprisingly, both Adler and Kitchen have endorsed what appear to be pretty aggressive rewrites. We still haven’t heard from Ellis.

Kitchen began her Council tenure generally aligned with the “neighborhood” bloc. She generally joined Tovo, Pool and Ora Houston in votes against controversial developments that were opposed by neighborhood associations. She voted against a 2015 ordinance that legalized accessory dwelling units (garage apartments) on most single-family lots.

By the time CodeNEXT came around, Kitchen appeared to have shifted to the middle. She and Adler positioned themselves as consensus-seekers. For fear of drawing an opponent for reelection, Kitchen sought to drag out the CodeNEXT process as long as possible and avoid taking tough votes. Adler helped her do that.

Whereas Kitchen leaned preservationist and has since moved to the center, Adler generally favored developments but sought as much as possible to broker compromises and avoid anything that was too controversial. On CodeNEXT he advocated for the “Austin Bargain,” which he said would increase density on corridors but generally “protect” the interior of single-family neighborhoods.

However, the political winds have shifted since the 2018 election. Adler squashed Laura Morrison, who ran an old school neighborhood preservationist campaign and got a whopping 19% of the vote.  Prop J, the referendum backed by neighborhood groups that aimed to restrict Council’s ability to rewrite the land development code, went down in flames. In only one of the four competitive Council races did a density skeptic triumph (Kathie Tovo).

As a result, Kitchen and Adler have become more comfortable embracing reform. They probably know it’s better policy and they aren’t as worried about backlash from the community. I would guess the same is probably true of Ellis, who generally sends urbanist signals (she even lives in an apartment building!!) but has called herself a moderate.

However, I would be wary of predicting a slam-dunk for a big reform. While these statements appear ambitious, they remain vague and could be subject to different interpretations. There are repeated references to the need for “context-sensitive” policy … that could open the door to big reforms being significantly watered down due to neighborhood opposition.

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You can keep driving & have a single-family home

For some reason a lot of people I know and meet, including plenty of smart ones, feel the need to tell me something resembling the following:

Some of us need to drive! How else can I get to my job on one side of town and transport my quintuplets to daycare on the other side of town! Plus, I need to drive all over the place during the workday. 

A close cousin of that statement comes in the housing debate: 

Not everyone wants to live in a tiny condo. Maybe I want to have a big yard for my kids to play in! Did you ever stop to consider that?? 

Consider this statement recently shared on the Austin Police Association FB page (APA leadership later said whoever posted it didn’t have authorization to do so):

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I hear you dude. Nobody’s talking about confiscating your ride. Our goal is not to eliminate your option to drive, but simply to provide others with the option to walk, bike or take transit. It’s true that facilitating those other options may in some cases reduce the amount of space reserved for cars, but not to the point where it will significantly impact your ability to continue driving. Even the most ambitious multi-modal proposals only envision reallocating a minuscule portion of the overall right-of-way in this city from cars to bike lanes or transit lanes. Basically, we just want more of stuff like this bike lane in Crestview:

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See? Room for cars and bikes.

Local political operative/funder Fred Lewis is a master of similar straw man arguments. Here are a few he shared with a reporter from Strong Towns amidst the CodeNEXT debate last year:

“Bottom line is there is absolutely no trust,” said Fred Lewis of Community Not Commodity, an advocacy organization in opposition to CodeNEXT.  “They have utter contempt for single family neighborhoods.”

“You can say everyone is going to ride bikes or walk but nobody believes it,” said Fred Lewis of Community Not Commodity.

CodeNEXT opponent Lewis, says he isn’t opposed to walkability, but he is skeptical that it’s what people actually want. “The idea that people are going to walk to the store is ludicrous. It’s 100 degrees here in the summer.”

Land use reform does not envision abolishing single-family homes. If you desire and can afford a big house and a big yard, there’s no city law that is going to infringe upon that right. Land use reform almost never entails mandating anything; it’s really about reducing regulations to allow more types of housing. Finally, it’s also about allowing (not mandating) a greater mix of residential and commercial uses, so that more families can live close to work, childcare, grocery stores and other amenities.

The key for supporters or transit and density is not to take the bait and get into a lifestyle debate. The emphasis has to remain on enabling options, rather than arguing about the merits of a suburban or car-dependent lifestyle. Describing single-family homeowners or drivers as a basket of deplorables will work about as well for urbanists as it did for Hillary Clinton.

The good news is that I think the vast majority or urbanists understand this. After all, many of them happily live in single-family homes and the great majority of them drive at least part of the time, either due to preference or because they lack alternatives.

While some people present these straw man arguments in bad faith, many others are genuinely confused about what we are proposing when we talk about enabling greater density and diversifying transportation options. Once they understand that we are simply advocating for greater options, not attacking their lifestyle, they will become much more open to our arguments.

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The Code debate begins

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Adler’s unsuccessful attempt to create a “team” mentality around CodeNEXT

On Wednesday evening, Greg Casar and Delia Garza kicked off the debate over the future of Austin’s land development code with a joint post on the City Council message board. In it, they provided responses to the five questions City Manager Spencer Cronk said he wants feedback on before city staff can begin drafting a new code.

You may recall, Cronk made his questions multi-choice, each with three potential answers. The first question was whether Council wanted to (a) adopt a new code but delay implementation of a new zoning map, (b) adopt a new code & zoning map or (c) just make a few changes to the existing code.

On the other four questions –– housing capacity, parking, compatibility, missing middle housing –– Cronk presented the following options:

A. Maintain the status quo

B. Whatever was proposed in version 3 of CodeNEXT

C. Something even more ambitious

In response to four out of the five questions, Casar & Garza picked the most ambitious option. There’s no point in sharing the response to each question, because each one pretty much said the same thing: we need to reduce regulations that inhibit housing in the urban core and encourage sprawl. This response pretty much sums up their argument:

The land development code should be rewritten and remapped as soon as possible. We need a code that allows us to be flexible and creative when addressing the diverse needs of our growing population. Concrete code and map changes should be made in 2019 to make the city more affordable, transit-friendly, and environmentally sustainable. We recognize that all the work that needs to be completed on our code cannot all be done and perfected in a single year. Therefore, for major changes to be made in 2019, the Manager and Council should prioritize “all types of homes for all kinds of people in all parts of town” (our Strategic Housing Blueprint goals) and a development pattern that supports 50/50 Transportation Mode Share by 2039.

The one issue that the two did not pick Option C on was compatibility standards. They restated their focus on putting in place whatever regulations will allow the city to meet its housing goals, but suggested they were open to debate on whether the result should be closer to Option B or Option C. 

I think the caution on compatibility makes sense. Whereas minimum parking requirements and single-family zoning are inherently regressive, reasonable compatibility standards could be a part of a code that facilitates multi-family housing and transit-supportive density. The problem with the current standards is that it’s one-size-fits-all: if there’s a single-family home within 200 ft of your project, you can’t go higher than 50 ft, period.

What’s interesting is that so far Casar & Garza are the only two to provide answers to Cronk’s questions. I expected the anti-density CMs to be reluctant to answer the questions, given that it somewhat forces them to admit they prefer that they support the status quo. But I’m a little surprised that we still haven’t from the three other density-friendly CMs: Renteria, Harper-Madison and Flannigan.

Eventually, however, the others are going to have to take a position. It will be interesting to see what happens…

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Center for Austin’s Future gets a makeover

The Center for Austin’s Future has made some long overdue changes to its website. This is what the issues section says now:

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It’s still very short on details, but it sends key cues to pro-density/transit folks. You kind of have to read between the lines. It mentions the need for greater housing supply, public transit and elected leaders who think in terms of what’s best for the whole city, rather than simply advocate for the narrow interests of certain neighborhoods.

This is a definite improvement over the last iteration of CAF’s issues section, which looked like it’d been written by a Heritage Foundation intern:

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The CAF, you may recall, is an independent political group formed last year. It is run by Ward Tisdale, former president of the Real Estate Council of Austin, and it has a large board of directors consisting of a variety of political veterans and business bigwigs, including former mayors Lee Leffingwell and Bruce Todd. 

The group runs an annual training program, #ATXelerator, which aims to educate and train talented, civic-minded individuals in the ways of local government and local political campaigns in the hopes that they will one day run for office or otherwise get engaged (board/commission etc).

The group has never articulated a clear political ideology, and it has accepted trainees from across the political spectrum. Some members of its board of directors have said that it is a “centrist” organization aimed at pushing politics to the center, while its president, Ward Tisdale, has frequently invoked urbanist principles, saying the group wants to support candidates who will work for a compact/connected city and against sprawl and economic segregation.

Last year the group supported a number of urbanist-leaning center-left candidates:  Danielle Skidmore, Natasha Harper-Madison, and Pio Renteria. However, in District 8 it backed Frank Ward, a conservative running the standard “lower taxes/build roads” message. Ward was running against Paige Ellis, a center-left candidate with urbanist leanings. At the time Tisdale told me that the group supported greater political diversity on Council, including conservatives. However, the group didn’t even spend any money on behalf of Ward, suggesting it didn’t have strong feelings about the race.

I never really got a convincing answer about why the website’s tone was so out of line with the things said by many of the organization’s boosters, such as Chris Riley, Randi Shade and Tisdale himself.

The organization also drew a lot of complaints from urbanists for a mailer it sent in support of Danielle Skidmore, in which it attacked Kathie Tovo for voting against increasing the homestead exemption. Skidmore herself was opposed to the homestead exemption, a regressive policy that only benefits the homeowner minority and shifts the tax burden onto commercial properties, and therefore, onto renters. Skidmore, an alum of #ATXcelerator, publicly criticized the mailers. Shortly thereafter Chris Riley cut ties with the group.

Anyway, it’s not clear yet how CAF will define itself going forward. Will it just be another standard pro-growth/business group or will it embrace a more liberal, urbanist agenda? We’ll see.

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Waltons fund big push for bike infrastructure

In my inbox this morning:

MoveATX, a new community organization, will launch their advocacy efforts for
more multi-modal mobility infrastructure on Thursday, March 28. MoveATX
recently conducted a community survey on mobility and will release results at the
press conference.

MoveATX is getting $2 million from PeopleForBikes, a group based in Boulder, CO that is supporting a number of similar campaigns in other cities: Denver, New Orleans and Providence so far. PFB is getting much of its money for this effort from members of the Walton family (Walmart), two of whom live in Austin and are apparently big supporters of multi-modal transportation.

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Cars have been so good to the Waltons. And this is how they repay them?

In Austin, the group’s near-term focus will be to push the city to spend money that has already been authorized in the 2016 and 2018 bonds. The goal is to build out a bunch of the bike infrastructure in two years, rather than in four or five years. That is part of a long-term goal of showing the public how much of a difference the (relatively) small investment can make and generating enthusiasm for even more aggressive steps to reduce car dependence.

The effort, which is being run by Jim Wick, Adler’s former strategist, coincides with a resolution that Council will vote on tomorrow that instructs city staff to accelerate the completion of bike projects.

The campaign has already done polling on transportation issues and plans to invest in a variety of paid media and canvassing, says Wick. That could potentially include: billboards, pedicab, BCycle advertising, digital ads, direct mail, social media.

I’m excited to see how this plays out. While most elected officials in Austin have professed support for pedestrian and bike infrastructure in recent years, there simply hasn’t been enough pressure on them to commit to the goals they have set –– with the Bicycle Master Plan, the Urban Trails Master Plan and the Sidewalk Master Plan.

Back in 2014, the authors of the Bicycle Master Plan estimated that about 40-45% of this city has absolutely no interest in ever riding a bike. Meanwhile, about 17% said they felt comfortable riding bikes around town, whether or not they did so regularly. The report estimated that if we built a true “All Ages & Abilities Bicycle Network,” that allows bikers to get around the city via quiet streets, protected bike lanes and urban trails, the percentage of people willing to bike would increase to 55-60%.

Of course, the master plan was done long before electric scooters came to town. Which raises the question: what percentage of Austinites would be willing to bike or scooter if there was adequate infrastructure in place?

The estimated $150 million price tag for the bike network would be a bargain even without the scooters, but their existence makes such an investment even more compelling. The benefits in terms of reduced congestion, air pollution, affordability, safety and overall quality of life would be enormous.

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Making Shoal Creek a bike highway

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Shoal Creek Blvd, with car parked in bike lane.

This week there’s going to be three public meetings regarding the future of Shoal Creek Blvd from 38th Street to U.S. 183.

Right now, 38th is where the beautiful Shoal Creek trail ends, forcing bikers onto Shoal Creek Blvd. At first glance, you might think that Shoal Creek Blvd has two very wide bike lanes. But then you notice there are cars parked there. Indeed, cars are allowed to park in the bike lane on both sides of the street. As a result, bikers are threatened by drivers coming into the bike lane to park as well as parked cars driving off. It’s an extremely dangerous situation.

The good news is that, despite bellyaching from some residents of Shoal Creek Blvd, parking on at least one side of the street is most likely going to disappear to make way for a game-changing piece of bike infrastructure.

ATD won’t provide specifics yet, but the word is they’re going to offer a few different alternatives. The one that has been tossed around for a while is a two-way protected bike lane on one side of the street, which would allow parking to remain on the other side. The other option, favored by bike advocates, is to get rid of parking on both sides and put one-way bike lanes on both sides of the street.  There’s also been some talk of putting in place a two-way protected bike lane in the center of the street.

Anyway, I don’t have strong feelings about which option they go with, as long as the result is protected bike lanes.

It’s hard to understate the importance of this 5.3 mile stretch.  Getting protected bike lanes here will allow the city to complete a 30-mile loop of continuous bike paths: from the Shoal Creek Trail at the Central Library, past US-183 to connect with the future Northern Walnut Creek Trail, the Southern Walnut Creek Trail and ultimately the Town Lake Trail. I don’t know all the details but you get the idea –– this will be a continuous infrastructure providing safe, pleasurable bike travel through a huge part of the northern half of the city.

Essentially, this is the beginning of an attempt to build a coherent, connected bike network, much in the same way we’ve built a continuous system of highways for cars. Shoal Creek is to bikes as Mopac is to cars. The best part is that it only costs a fraction as much.

Here are two big questions:

First, is the decision going to be made by transportation staff or City Council? Staff has the authority to reallocate the right-of-way on its own, but that’s not always an authority it enjoys exercising in the face of political resistance. Second, Council can always interfere and block staff plans if it chooses. There are likely some on Council who would be happy to leave the decision to staff and not deal with the issue, others who may want to take the issue out of staff’s hands to block it and there may even be some multi-modal advocates who really want to force the tough debate and deliver a big win for bike infrastructure.

Second, if Council takes up the issue, how will it vote? If this Council can’t get this bike lane approved, its members really can’t pretend to care about reducing car dependence or climate change. The fruit doesn’t hang any lower than this.

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How affordable is the Mesh?

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There’s been a lot of debate on the urbanist internets about a proposed development on Town Lake Circle, just off E. Riverside. The developer is proposing 1,000 multifamily units. They are requesting a density bonus to allow additional height. In return they’ll offer a certain number of income-restricted units, probably around 10% of the total (or about 100).

The problem is, the development will come at the expense of the existing Mesh apartments, a 300-unit complex on the property. It was built in the 1970’s and rehabbed in the last decade or so.  Greg Casar has said that he doesn’t want to support that upzoning, for fear of displacing current low-income households at Mesh. Some other density proponents have sided with him, saying the city’s focus should be on adding new housing stock in West Austin, rather than facilitating the replacement of existing apartments with units that will undoubtedly be pricier.

Others respond that this is the city’s opportunity to get the best deal possible out of an inevitable redevelopment. A developer could tear down the building and replace it with more expensive units tomorrow and City Council would have no say. In this scenario, however, the developer is seeking MANY MORE units (good for reducing sprawl & enhancing transit) and offering to make a certain percentage of them affordable.

What’s a little puzzling is that neither side appears to be presenting evidence about who the current tenants are. Are they truly low-income? Are they long-time residents? Are they likely to struggle finding new housing at a similar price in the area?

When I looked at the prices at the Mesh website the other day, the lowest price I saw for a 1BR unit was $1,015/month, but today I looked again and see there is one 1BR floor plan available “starting at $990.” Many of the other floor plans are far more expensive. I see 1BR units available for $1.1k, $1.2k, $1.32k and $1.48k.

For whom are those rents affordable? According to HUD, the cheapest 1BR unit at the Mesh would be just a tad more expensive than what HUD considers “affordable” to a household at 60% of the area median income, although there is plenty of debate about these figures, especially considering that the calculation for a 1BR unit is based on 1.5 persons. I don’t know any 1.5 person households.

See the two charts below.

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Meanwhile, the $1.1k rent would be a little above the 65% AMI level. The $1.2k rent would probably be around 70% AMI, the $1.3k rent would be a little above 80% AMI and the $1.48k rent would likely be right around 100% AMI.

As for 2BR units, I was shocked to see one available at Mesh for as low as $1,025, which would be affordable for a 3-person household at around 55% AMI. The next cheapest available is $1.35k, while the others are $1.41k, $1.52k, $1.61k and $1.8k.

It’s not clear what percentage of the units are priced at what level, but it seems clear that the great majority of the units are not affordable to those at or below 60% AMI, which is the maximum income level that the roughly 100 income-restricted units at the new project would be required to serve.

Those at or below 60% AMI have a very hard time finding affordable housing in this city. For instance, here are all the 1BR units (not including studios) available on Zillow for less than $967/month.

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And here are all of the 2BR apartments for less than $1,161/month:

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Things get a lot better when you move up to 65% AMI. Here are the number of 1BR units available for up to $1,043:

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And here’s a look at the 2BR units available at 65% MFI:

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Many of the Mesh rents are affordable to those at 80% AMI or above. Here are the number of 1BR units available at up to $1,290 a month:

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I think if we’re really concerned about displacement, we should consider what percentage of the Mesh residents are in fact low-income households vulnerable to displacement.

Correction: In an earlier version of this article I listed the number of units available at $907/month as affordable at 60% AMI. In fact, it is $967/month. I corrected the wording and the map.

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Towards a more progressive mobility plan

The Urban Transportation Commission has adopted a number of recommendations for Council to consider when it takes up the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan next week. Here are some of my personal faves:

Highway expansions should come with dedicated transit lanes, or at least toll lanes that buses can travel in, ala the increasingly popular 980 MoPac North Express route from Round Rock, which travels in the express lane:

…state that it is the policy of the City of Austin that all highway improvements that correspond with the Commuter Transit Service should have access for buses that is separate from traffic (e.g. as part of an HOV lane, tolled
lane, etc.), that highway entrances and exits be configured to allow the smooth and efficient entrance and exit of Commuter Transit Service near stations, and that this is a top priority when dealing with regional and state transportation agencies.

The Transportation Department should not hesitate to dedicate street space to transit. It should be up to Council to STOP it from happening, rather than approve it:

…to give the city traffic engineer authority to initiate a process to dedicate lanes to transit whenever the lane dedication would substantially improve the efficiency of moving people through a corridor. The traffic engineer shall give notice to City Council on the proposed dedication and give Council 90 days to overrule the dedication, and may otherwise move forward with the dedication.

The city should plan for high-capacity transit on MORE than two corridors. The Lamar/Guad/SoCo and Red River/Riverside corridors that are initially targeted in Project Connect for dedicated pathways should be just the beginning of the development of a citywide HCT system. That means that the corridors Cap Metro has targeted for “bus rapid transit light” (not dedicated pathways but perhaps some transit priority lanes, traffic signal priority etc) should eventually be full-blown BRT operating in completely dedicated right-of-way:

State that it is city policy that the High Capacity Transit Network (Evolving) lines be transitioned to full dedicated-pathway status with high service-level Bus Rapid Transit by the completion of the ASMP term (2039). This policy should guide actions to identify opportunities both immediate (e.g. re-striping lanes downtown to be dedicated transit pathways) and longer-term (e.g. future bond issues or federal funding applications). Land use planning should also anticipate the future complete High Capacity Transit Network and plan transit-supportive development appropriate to a Bus Rapid Transit along the network corridors.

The city should plan for lots of new housing along transit corridors, particularly the corridors targeted for HCT or BRT lite in Project Connect.

Increase density not just on identified transit-friendly corridors but within 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 mile of those corridors to further shift mode choice away from single-occupancy vehicles; transition zones from corridor should reflect Imagine Austin and extend one to four blocks on either side of the corridor …

direct that all land use processes and decisions adopt minimum targets of transit-supportive densities along the High-Capacity Transit Network appropriate for the transit mode planned. Average densities for the lines should achieve a “High” rating for the immediate portion of the High-Capacity Transit Network and a “Medium-High” rating for the evolving portion of the network, and be based on the recommended density levels in the Puget Sound Transit-Supportive Densities and Land Uses study.

Reduce or eliminate parking requirements. One part of the resolution appears to call for a more ambitious blanket elimination, while a later amendment, perhaps acknowledging that is unrealistic politically, provides guidance on how staff should approach reducing parking: 

Eliminate parking minimums in all land use categories throughout the City, particularly in areas that are supported by high-frequency transit and/or identified as Imagine Austin Activity Corridors, as a means to achieving mode split and climate change goals…

Establish indicators and targets for the amount of parking per-capita within ½ mile of the High Capacity Transit Network and Transit Priority Network. Develop targets in cooperation with Capital Metro to advantage parking metrics in Federal Transit Administration grant applications.

Indeed, even if we don’t take stuff like density and parking seriously, the Federal Transit Administration most definitely does. And we need their money bad.

It will be interesting to see how Council reacts to these recommendations. Adler and Kitchen will likely be wary of some of the more ambitious language about taking away auto lanes. I wonder how the Pool, Alter and Tovo will be reluctant to embrace language on density. Both groups may be hesitant to endorse sharp reductions in parking minimums.

The Planning Commission will take up the ASMP again next week to consider the recommendations from the UTC. If it makes the same recommendations, hopefully Council will be unable to ignore them.

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Here comes CodeCRONK

On Friday City Manager Spencer Cronk released a 39-page memo outlining some options for City Council to pursue in revising or rewriting the land development code. He wants their feedback on the following issues: parking, compatibility, housing capacity, and missing middle housing. Finally, he wants to know whether they want a completely new code or to simply make changes to the existing code.

On most of the issues he presents three alternatives:

  1. The status quo
  2. Whatever was proposed in version 3 of CodeNEXT
  3. Something even more ambitious

Cronk only explicitly makes two recommendations in the memo. First, he recommends that Council replace the code entirely, rather than simply make changes to it. Second, he recommends that the code text and the zoning map be done concurrently, rather than separately, as even some land use reform advocates have suggested.

For a variety of reasons, staff does not recommend adopting a new Land Development Code that would take effect without concurrently adopting a new Zoning Map. The Land Development Code and Zoning Map are interrelated and it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to apply a new Code to areas within zoning districts established under a prior version of the Code. Similarly, while using a placeholder zone like “F25” is acceptable,staff does not recommend adopting a Zoning Map that depicts zoning districts established under different versions of the Land Development Code….

…In sum, the more significantly Council wishes to change aspects of the current Land Development Code, the more difficult it becomes to do so through amendments to the existing Code. If this is an option Council wishes to consider, staff will be available to provide general guidance as to the types of changes that could reasonably be made through amendments to the existing Code.

For the reasons identified in Council’s resolution and the Code Diagnosis Report, staff recommends continuing forward with adoption of both a new Land Development Code and new Zoning Map.

On its face, Cronk’s memo is a politically neutral document that simply presents various options that are up to Council to select from. But there are a few instances where Cronk is clearly nudging Council in one direction. Let’s take a look…

Housing Capacity

At the center of the housing debate is housing capacity. That refers to the maximum amount of housing that could be built according to zoning regulations. To be clear, the housing capacity is always much greater than the actual amount of housing that is built. You could zone a property in Del Valle to allow a skyscraper but it’s unlikely that any developer is actually going to build one. Similarly, you can currently build a duplex on most single-family lots in Austin, but for a variety of reasons, few builders pursue that option.

In his memo, Cronk says that the current code will not allow the city to achieve its goal of creating 135,000 new units over the next decade. The current zoning capacity is roughly 145,000 units; it needs to be much greater to facilitate 135,000 units. Cronk includes a handy graphic from CodeNEXT:

Screen Shot 2019-03-18 at 1.01.36 PM.png

This is economics, by the way, that some on Council reject. But Cronk is telling them that it’s not really a debate.

According to city staff, the final version of CodeNEXT provided a capacity of 287,000 units. Cronk does not indicate whether he believes this is sufficient to meet our housing goals.

Parking

Cronk presents evidence that current parking requirements are bad for affordability, again using a graphic from CodeNEXT:

Screen Shot 2019-03-18 at 1.13.55 PM.png

He doesn’t suggest how parking requirements should be changed, but it’s a clear message to those on Council who feel strongly about affordability and reducing car-use that they should strive to reduce parking minimums.

Missing Middle Housing

When it comes to missing-middle housing (triplexes, quadplexes, sixplexes, rowhomes, cottage courts), Cronk tells Council that they’re not going to get much with either the current code or what was proposed under CodeNEXT:

While the regulatory changes discussed above would all increase the availability of missing middle housing, the Zoning Map included with Draft 3 was fairly conservative in applying the new transition zones that allow missing middle housing. Instead, the Draft 3 map largely perpetuates existing zoning patterns that significantly limit the availability of missing middle housing. This means that, if Council chooses the Draft 3 option, the supply of missing middle housing would be unlikely to increase substantially unless appropriate and context-sensitive mapping of new zoning districts also occurred.

Compatibility Standards

These are the rules that limit a building’s height or setback if it’s within a certain distance of a single-family home. Cronk acknowledges that the current rules make it harder to produce multifamily housing in some areas, but he doesn’t seem to indicate any opinion about whether Council should embrace the moderate reforms proposed under CodeNEXT or if it should do something more ambitious.

So, now what? 

It will be really interesting to see how Council members react to this memo at their work session on March 26. I think the way Cronk has framed the options will pressure CMs to select the more ambitious option. It looks really bad to pick “the status quo,” even if that’s probably what some CMs want. If I had to guess, I think a majority on Council will vote to embrace the CodeNEXT version on some of these topics and the more aggressive option on others.

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