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As Austinites struggle to afford housing, a familiar fight brews over land rules

Framed homes are pictured at Brookfield Residential at Easton Park on Leroi Drive in Austin, TX on July 12th, 2022.
Karina Lujan
/
KUT
Brookfield Residential is constructing homes at Easton Park on Leroi Drive in Southeast Austin.

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Hundreds of people crowded Austin City Hall on Thursday, battling over proposed changes to building rules that supporters say will allow more people to live in the city’s central neighborhoods, but that opponents argue will sacrifice the look and people living on these same blocks.

These fights have been fought before. In the past, opponents have drowned out supporters. But if Thursday’s public hearing was any indication of a shift in the city, it’s clear: People are fed up with high housing costs and are clamoring for something new to fix it.

“There’s this idea that if we don’t build it, they won’t come. Newsflash: They are coming. Whether or not we build it,” said Tai Hovanky, a programmer and one of nearly 400 people who signed up to testify in front of council members and city commissioners. “The lack of new housing options basically just means the prices will keep going up in perpetuity.”

Thursday’s hearing, which totaled seven hours and dragged into the night, is part of a campaign by council members to ease the high cost of housing. Austin home prices have skyrocketed in the past decade, but perhaps no more so than in the last two years. From 2021 to 2023, the median sale price of a home in the Austin area rose 45% and now stands at just under half a million dollars, according to numbers from the Austin Board of Realtors. Renters have experienced a similar price climb, according to local data firms, with average rents increasing 29% over the same period.

Elected officials, like their predecessors, have devised a simple but contentious solution: build more homes. In most places in the country that involves changing land use rules. These rules, which can span hundreds or thousands of pages, dictate anything from how far back from a property line a house can sit, to how tall a building can be, to how many homes you can put on one piece of land.

In Austin, these laws make it hard to build anything other than one home with a front yard and backyard or a big apartment complex. Those who support revising these rules say allowing more duplexes or townhouses to get built could create different and hopefully cheaper housing options for people.

“The status quo of limited options is not sustainable, in which middle-income earners choose between one type of single-family home on a large, expensive lot or a luxury condo on a corridor,” Council Member Leslie Pool, who represents Northwest Austin, told KUT earlier this year. “We can do so much better for teachers, first responders, small business employees, government workers and nurses, who all have great jobs but can’t afford to invest in our city.”

Pool is the elected official behind several of the proposed changes. One of the most contentious would, if passed by the council in December, let landowners build three homes on a plot of land where historically just one or two homes have been allowed. The other revisions would allow people to live in recreational vehicles, or RVs, in more places throughout the city, scrap rules limiting how many people can live in one home and lower the amount of land needed to build duplexes and triplexes.

Additional changes are set to come before the public early next year, including one proposal to significantly lower the amount of land required to build one home.

The goal, again, is this: build more housing. The majority of research on the subject demonstrates that building more housing lowers or lessens the rise of prices. Researchers at New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy looked at studies published over the last four years and concluded this: “Significant new evidence shows that new construction in a variety of settings decreases, or slows increases in, rents for apartments located close to the new construction.”

But in Austin any push to change rules governing what can be built and where has been met with intense opposition. In 2020, a successful lawsuit brought by nearly two dozen homeowners effectively ended a decades-long rewrite of the city’s land use rules.

Earlier this year, these same homeowners asked a judge to enforce the 2020 ruling against several city changes to housing rules. Most of these changes were intended to spur the creation of homes for low-income residents.

But opposition to building rules expands far beyond this small group of property owners. People who showed up to speak at Thursday’s hearing said they feared changing the rules to let developers build more on their blocks would increase traffic, worsen flooding and destroy the aesthetic appeal of their neighborhoods.

“This plan, to me, looks and values the people that are moving into Austin at the expense of people who live here,” Susan Spataro told council members. “New people want to move in so if you’ve owned a home for 30 years … we need to change everything because they want to move in.”

Members of the Planning Commission, Austin City Council, and residents, listen to public comments during a joint hearing on changes to the land use code on Thursday at Austin City Hall.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
Members of the Planning Commission, Austin City Council, and residents, listen to public comments during a joint hearing on changes to the land use code on Thursday at Austin City Hall.

Others said they feared encouraging people to build more housing in existing neighborhoods would lead to the displacement of current residents, especially those earning low incomes. Research on the impacts of new housing in historically low-income neighborhoods is mixed. Researchers in California found that when new housing is built on a block there is a slight increase of people of all incomes moving in and out of that neighborhood, and while they note an increase of moving out among people earning lower incomes, they wrote it is “not as high as commonly feared.”

But this concern led several people Thursday to call for affordability requirements in these changes. They asked that anyone building new housing be required to set aside some of that housing for people earning low incomes.

“I superficially support this initiative, not because I think it will solve the affordable housing crisis our city is experiencing, but because I believe it's a step in the right direction,” said Edwin Bautista, who works at Texas Housers, a nonprofit that does research and advocacy around low-income housing. “I strongly urge the council and commission to consider all municipal tools to mitigate the displacement pressures that are inevitable.”

What was most clear at Thursday’s hearing is that a previously documented generational divide on housing still persists in this city. Many of the people who spoke against approving these changes said they had owned homes in Austin for decades, while those who spoke in favor identified as college students or recent graduates.

“I’m tired. We have so much practice as students with housing insecurity,” Isabel Webb Carey, a senior at UT Austin, said. “We’re tired of anti-density rhetoric, we’re tired of desperation and nothing happening. And if it means affordability, we’re happy to live on top of each other.”

At one moment in the night, the fight over these changes reached a high point. It came when longtime advocate and attorney Bill Bunch, who heads the Save Our Springs Alliance, spoke against the housing changes.

His organization has long been credited for keeping Barton Springs Pool swimmable thanks to a fight he and others waged over development and resulting pollution in Southwest Austin in the early 1990s. But more recently, other environmentalists have questioned the group’s stances on housing issues, particularly an opposition to building more homes in the central city, which environmentalists say is important to combating sprawl and residents’ reliance on cars.

After speaking against the proposed changes Thursday, Bunch also questioned the motives of some of the people speaking in support, including Nicole Nosek, the wife of Luke Nosek, one of the founders of tech giant PayPal. When Bunch’s allotted time was up, he refused to leave the podium and continued yelling his testimony. Mayor Kirk Watson called on him to sit down.

“Mr. Bunch, you’re now out of order and you know better,” the mayor yelled from the dais. Some in the audience booed, while someone called out the value of Bunch’s home as an example of the wealth those who were able to afford a home decades ago have been able to accumulate.

When a security officer approached Bunch, he returned to his seat and the hearing continued on.

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 audrey@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.
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