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Austin may (slightly) loosen rules limiting height of apartments near single-family homes

A green single-family home as seen from the rooftop of Lamar Union.
Patricia Lim
The Lamar Union building on South Lamar Boulevard has a ladder design — getting taller as you drive south — to comply with compatibility rules.

Austin City Council members voted Thursday to relax — a bit — zoning rules that limit how tall buildings can be within a certain distance of single-family homes.

The vote is not quite a done deal; adopting a final version requires another vote, which is expected later this year.

The new rules apply only to buildings on some of the city’s busiest streets. The hope, elected officials say, is to allow developers to build more housing as the cost of renting or buying a home in the city has skyrocketed in the past two years.

But while the amended regulations passed with a unanimous vote, it was clear that several council members felt the changes might be too small to produce a significant amount of new housing.

“I would like us to be going further in relaxing compatibility,” Mayor Steve Adler said. “I recognize there are a lot of people in our community that would like us to go farther. I also recognize that there are people in our community that would like us not to change the existing situation.”

The rules, which are called "compatibility," limit the height of buildings within a certain distance of single-family homes or land zoned as single family. (The land, for example, can be vacant but still initiate these rules.)

The rules before council's vote allowed developers to build up to 60-feet tall if they were at least 300 feet away from a single-family lot; that’s the distance of a football field. That left Austin, according to an analysis done by city staff, with some of the most restrictive compatibility rules compared to cities of similar sizes. Even after the changes Thursday, that may still be the case.

Buildings can now be built five feet higher than before. For example, prior to the changes made Thursday, developers could build up to 50-feet tall at 200 feet away from a lot zoned for single-family housing; they can now build 55 feet tall at that distance. Compatibility regulations now stop applying at 300 feet away from a piece of land zoned for single-family housing.

If developers agree to make some of the new housing affordable to people earning low incomes, the rules are even less restrictive. For instance, on what the council has deemed “larger corridors," developers could build up to 65-feet high if they're 100 feet away from a plot zoned for single-family housing.

City Council has asked staff to come back with final changes to the zoning rules by September.

Audrey McGlinchy is KUT's housing reporter. She focuses on affordable housing solutions, renters’ rights and the battles over zoning. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.
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