Austin tried and failed to rewrite its land code. Republican lawmakers might do it for them.
In Austin, 5,750 square feet is a magic number.
It’s one-tenth of a football field. Half of an Olympic standard swimming pool. And precisely the size of the American dream.
“If you're driving around urban Austin, through Hyde Park, Clarksville, Crestview,” said Scott Turner, a local homebuilder, “then most of [these lots] are going to be 50 feet wide.” And 115 feet deep. Which gets us to 5,750 square feet, the amount of land Austin requires to build a house in most parts of the city.
In land use terms, this number is called minimum lot size. Austin’s minimum lot size is larger than that of other major Texas cities. (Houston’s, for example, is 1,400 square feet.)
Turner, unsurprisingly, is not a fan. Austin’s minimum lot size means he can’t build as many homes as he’d like. But it also means that anyone looking to buy a house has to buy 5,750 square feet of land — and likely the large home built to justify that amount of land.
“Until we start to try and address our minimum lot size problem, all we’re going to get are big expensive homes because that’s all the code will allow,” Turner said.
Austin tried to address its “minimum lot size problem” — and the problems many people saw in the land code as a whole. Nearly a decade ago, the City Council embarked on a rewrite of the city’s land development code, a lengthy manual dictating what can be built in the city and where. Elected officials reasoned they needed to tweak regulations like minimum lot size and height restrictions to let developers build more in central neighborhoods — to better accommodate the city’s population, which had more than doubled in three decades.
But, ultimately, these revisions never came to pass. After spending a decade and more than $10 million on the project, the city was stopped short in 2020 when a group of property owners successfully sued and halted the land code revision.
Since then, the cost of housing in the city has skyrocketed and builders and advocates for more housing have turned to the state for help. What Democratic-led Austin couldn’t get done, now the Republican-led state may do, much to the chagrin of local leaders.
Housing prices have gone up, up, up
Many housing experts believe a shortage of homes across the country is to blame for a historic rise in housing costs over the past two years.
Austin, it seems, has been the foreground for these rising prices. From the start of the pandemic until last summer, the median sales price of a home in the Austin area rose roughly 62%, while rents increased at the fastest pace experts had ever seen. (Because of rising interest rates, housing prices have since declined, although rents are still increasing.)
Although developers are building a lot of new homes in Austin and the surrounding counties, real estate experts argue land use rules have long restricted how many homes can be built, especially in older, more central neighborhoods. Advocates for more housing say the city’s skyrocketing prices reflect builders’ inability to overcome this deficit and keep up with the scores of people moving here.
“The reason why we're not building enough of the right kinds of housing in the right kinds of places is because our arcane and outdated development code does not allow for it,” said John-Michael Cortez, who worked for former Mayor Steve Adler and serves on the board of the nonprofit HousingWorks Austin.
In 2012, the city adopted a vision for Austin’s future that imagined a city growing inward instead of outward. It relied heavily on the terms “compact” and “connected” and envisioned building more homes where many already exist and improving transit so people could walk, bike, bus or drive a short trip to work.
Making this vision a reality, the city decided, relied on changing its land code. So, elected officials began a process of revising Austin’s development code, last overhauled in 1984.
But years in and beset by concerns that new land rules would drastically change the look of neighborhoods, the council voted to scrap one iteration before attempting another go.
In 2019, the city seemed poised to pass final changes, including a small reduction to the city’s minimum lot size. But just before a final vote, more than a dozen property owners sued the city, saying it violated state law by not individually notifying homeowners of potential changes to their property’s zoning. A judge ruled against the city.
Hamstrung by their legal missteps, elected officials in Austin have spent the past several years making slight — mostly uncontroversial — tweaks to the city’s land code. Yet earlier this month, the same group of homeowners filed against the city again, this time over new policies intended to get developers to build affordable housing.
State lawmakers step in
Republican legislators are now wading into Austin’s land code debate.
Lawmakers have filed several bills that, if passed, could greatly impact what kind of housing gets built in the city. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, has filed a bill that would lower minimum lot sizes in at least a dozen counties, including Travis, to 1,400 square feet — about a fourth of the requisite amount of land needed to build a house in Austin.
“Clearly, if you have a smaller footprint and cost structure, then you have more affordable housing,” Bettencourt said, an idea backed by research on three decades of home sale data. Senate Bill 1787 also requires that cities allow for a certain number of homes to be built — no less than 31.1 per acre. That's akin to a neighborhood with townhome or apartment-style buildings.
Other lawmakers have filed bills to loosen so-called compatibility rules, which limit how tall developers can build within a certain distance of a single-family home. Last year, Austin council members voted to amend the city’s rules, although several members lamented that the changes were too modest.
While many of these bills are being carried by Republicans in both the Texas House and Senate, at least one Democrat has weighed into the debate. Rep. Carl Sherman, Sr., D-Lancaster, has filed a bill that would make it harder for neighbors to block zoning changes on nearby property, a process called a valid petition.
Currently, if owners with property representing at least 20% of land near a parcel proposed for new zoning oppose the change, the local government has to approve it with a larger share of votes than usual. Sherman and Rep. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall, who has filed a duplicate bill, have proposed upping this to the owners of 50% of land.
“I liken it to having a publicly traded company or even a private company,” Sherman told KUT. “Unless you have more than 50% ownership, you can’t decide what direction the company is going to go in.”
But should they?
While some local elected officials say they support these kinds of changes, they want to be the ones making them.
Ryan Alter, one of the newest members of the Austin City Council, ran on a campaign of allowing developers to build more, as long as some of the homes were kept affordable for families earning low incomes. Part of his proposal took aim at compatibility rules.
“I think compatibility in Austin is overly restrictive,” Alter told KUT. “I think it has proven to limit housing and especially limit affordable housing.”
“When we cause so much decision paralysis and are not able to move forward as a community … people decide to essentially bypass the city."Awais Azhar, city planning commissioner
Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Tyler, and Rep. Cole Hefner, R-Mount Pleasant, have filed bills that would loosen Austin’s compatibility regulations. If passed, these laws would restrict cities from regulating the height of buildings more than 50 feet away from another property; currently, in Austin, height restrictions are typically applied within 300 feet of nearby properties.
But Alter would not say what he thinks of these bills, adding only that local officials should be the ones making decisions on land use.
“I can't speak to the policy,” he said. “I am more focused on who gets to make the decision.”
Elizabeth Mueller, an associate professor of community and regional planning, said she worries that without local officials at the helm of these changes, there could be unintended consequences.
“Ideally, there would be a public purpose attached to creating those smaller lot sizes,” she said, “linked to public goals like creating different types of housing throughout the city or attaching them to affordability goals.”
Instead, she called the state bills a “one-size-fits-all” approach.
But at the same time that local leaders and housing advocates decry the state’s involvement in local land use issues, many say they understand why it has come to pass.
“When we cause so much decision paralysis and are not able to move forward as a community … people decide to essentially bypass the city,” said Awais Azhar, a city planning commissioner and a board member of HousingWorks Austin.
This includes members of a nonprofit called Texans for Reasonable Solutions, made up of new and notable Austin residents like a co-founder of PayPal and Claire Boucher, a musician known by the name Grimes. The group has been advocating for these bills at the state, lamenting local leaders' inability to make the changes they say they want.
Others think these changes, no matter who is implementing them, infringe on the rights of homeowners in Austin. Fred Lewis, a local attorney, is one of the plaintiffs in the case against the city over several zoning changes. He was also a plaintiff in the land code rewrite lawsuit.
"The bills at the Lege will take away local control and are an assault on people's property rights and desire to live in single family homes," he wrote in an email.
It's unclear what traction any of these bills will get — and if they'll cross the many hurdles needed to become law. But state legislators getting involved in the minutiae of municipal land rules feels like a natural conclusion to some.
João Paulo Connolly, organizing director at the Austin Justice Coalition, said it's the lawsuits that Lewis and others have brought against the city that got Austin to this point. (Lewis said: "The lawsuits are not the problem; it is the city's and advocates' lack of fairness and unwillingness to follow the law.")
“By making it impossible for our local elected officials to do their job and help steer the future of the community in the direction that the majority of Austinites want, these lawsuits are creating a world where there is no alternative but some sort of state intervention,” Connolly said. “And that is very unfortunate.”