Zoning debate is nationalized

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The national conversation about housing is changing. Or rather, for the first time in years, a national conversation about housing is taking place.

On social media I’m seeing prominent liberal writers take a few minutes from Trump-bashing to bemoan exclusionary zoning and excoriate the (predominantly) Democratic elected officials who protect it in major cities across the country. The New York Times has twice editorialized in favor of eliminating single-family zoning and has run guest columns that have blamed NIMBYs for making San Francisco and other major cities increasingly unlivable for the poor and middle class. Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Julián Castro have all proposed housing policies that aim to dismantle exclusionary zoning.

Here’s what Elizabeth Warren says about zoning in her housing plan:

But there’s another driver of expensive housing costs: some state and local zoning rules needlessly drive up the cost of construction. These aren’t necessary rules that protect the environment or ensure that homes meet safety codes. These are rules like minimum lot sizes or mandatory parking requirements. These kinds of rules raise the costs of building new housing and keep families from moving into areas with better career and school choices.

This is great news for local activists who for years have struggled to make the case that liberalizing zoning regulations is actually the progressive thing to do, whether or not it helps developers.

It’s easy for local politicians and activists to dismiss those who call for density as developer shills. It’s much harder, however, to tell loyal Democratic voters the same thing about Elizabeth Warren.

The old adage is that all politics is local, but today I believe the opposite is increasingly true: all politics is national. For a variety of reasons, including the decline of local media, people seem much more likely to keep up with national politics than local politics. People often view local politics through the national political lens, supporting candidates not so much based on their views on local issues as much as their affiliation with a national political tribe. 

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A look at affordable housing projects

Of the $250 million affordable housing bond that we approved in November, $94 million is used to fund income-restricted rental units. Any developer can apply for those funds. Some of the projects will be a mix of market-rate and affordable units (the city funds can only fund the latter). Other projects are done by developers that focus exclusively on affordable housing.

Staff from the Neighborhood Housing & Community Development department provided an update earlier this week on the applications they’ve received in the past quarter. There were 17 applications just in that three-month period, which is about twice as many as the city typically receives in a year.

Here’s a map of the projects applying, most of which probably won’t get picked.

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Only one or two of these projects is located in what would traditionally be viewed as a “high-opportunity” area. That generally means an area with high(er) incomes that is close to jobs, amenities and good schools. But in light of changes in the real estate market, it’s worth rethinking those definitions.

Notably, a number of projects on the near-east side, for instance, are providing affordable housing in an area where market rates have exploded due to gentrification. They are also very close to transit and downtown.

There’s a big range of projects targeting different household sizes, different income levels. And of course, some projects are much bigger than others. Housing bond dollars can only be used for units for those at or below 50% area median family income ($30k/single, $34k/2 person, $43k/family of four). But some of the projects are drawing other funding sources (notably Low Income Housing Tax Credits) to provide income-restricted units at higher levels and some projects include some market-rate units, which help pay for the affordable ones.

For instance, on E. Oltorf, Saigebrook Development, a for-profit affordable housing builder, is planning a 190-unit project. Fifteen of those units will have no income restrictions, while 123 will be at 60% AMI (financed by tax credits, no bond funding) and 52 will be at 50% AMI. Among the income-restricted units, 43 will be 1BR, 81 will be 2BR and 51 will be 3BR.

Similarly, at Lakeline Station, Foundation Communities, the nonprofit developers, wants to build 13 units at 30% AMI and 56 units at 50% AMI. Of those 69 units, 21 will be 3-bedroom, 34 will be 2-bedroom and 14 will be 1-bedroom. Those units are part of a bigger development that includes another 51 units at 60% AMI.

Meanwhile, some projects almost exclusively target smaller households. Burnet Place Apartments, for example, is seeking funding for 55 studio apartments, 33 of which would be at 50% AMI, 11 at 40% AMI and 11 at 30% AMI, which amounts to $18k for a single person and $25.8k for a family of four. Similarly, of the 62 units Travis Flats is seeking bond funding for, only 11 will be 2BR and one will be 3BR. The rest will be studios or 1-BR.

Some projects are really, really small. Blackshear Community Development Corporation wants money to build two units –– one 2-bedroom & one 3-bedroom –– at 50% AMI on a single-family lot in the Rosewood neighborhood. At 6711 Porter, Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corp wants money to build a single 1BR garage apartment at 30% AMI.

How does the city decide which projects are most worthy of its support? It’s a complicated scoring process that takes into account a number of city goals. The goal to build as much affordable housing as possible is balanced against our desire to facilitate economic integration by placing affordable units in affluent areas that are otherwise off-limits to the poor. Similarly, we want housing to be near transit or within walking distance of critical services, schools, grocery stores. Finally, we want housing that serves different types of households, including families with children.

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First step towards Project Catalyst, er, 4700 E. Riverside

After repeated postponements, the Planning Commission will finally take up what could be the biggest zoning case in a generation: Project Catalyst, or as it was recently humbly renamed, 4700 East Riverside.

It’s a 97 acre mixed-use development centered at E. Riverside and Pleasant Valley. The plan is about 4 million square feet of office and around 4,700 residential units. The developer, Presidium, says 8-12% (400-550) of the units will be income-restricted.

This project has gained prominence over the last year due to the opposition it has attracted from Defend Our Hoodz, a group of anti-gentrification activists. DoH was originally founded by a veteran east side activist in response to the demolition of the Jumpolin piñata store on E. Cesar Chavez, but it was eventually taken over by 20-something radicals. They’re not a particularly large group, but they show up at every meeting related to the project and disrupt it. They will almost certainly show up tomorrow.

Folks with more credibility than DoH will likely voice concerns about gentrification and displacement as well. While the income-restricted units are significant, the rest of the units will likely be very pricey. Much pricier than the Ballpark Apartments, a student-oriented complex that will be demolished to make way for the new development.

CM Greg Casar previewed his stance on the project when he opposed rezoning the nearby Mesh Apartments. Although the rezoning will allow greater density and a certain percentage of the new units will be income-restricted, Casar says he is opposed to upzoning existing multifamily properties that provide low-cost housing. He worries that upzonings will incentivize their redevelopment into luxury housing.

What was interesting in the Mesh debate, if we can even call it a debate, was the lack of opposition from the West Austin anti-growth crowd. There was not a peep from Tovo, Alter, Pool, the three who are most likely to claim that upzoning single-family properties will result in displacement. Will the same dynamic play out at 4,700 E. Riverside?

While opponents of the project will make it appear that Council has the choice to either preserve the Ballpark Apartments or bulldoze them to create luxury units, that fact is that the developer does not need permission to do that.

Council’s choice is this: It can do nothing and inevitably the developer will redevelop the properties with no affordable housing. Or Council can negotiate a major upzoning in return for certain community benefits, notably affordable housing.

Beyond the affordable housing, another major benefit of the new development will be density and mixed use. The existing multifamily properties on E. Riverside aren’t particularly dense due to the enormous amount of space they devote to surface parking. For instance, the Ballpark Apartments is about 13.5 units/acre, which is about the same density as the most common form of single-family zoning in town (SF-3).

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Unlike the current properties, the new multifamily will hopefully be up on the street, rather than behind gated parking lots. Along with the office and commercial, this should create a more walkable, transit-oriented area. This nicely compliments the city’s plans for the E. Riverside corridor, the only one of the city’s major corridors that has been designated for the full treatment of urbanist improvements, including protected bike lanes, wide sidewalks, streetscaping, etc. And of course, Riverside will also be home to high-capacity transit –– dedicated right-of-way for bus-rapid transit or light rail –– if voters approve Project Connect in 2020.

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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.