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Austin to allow more homes on one plot of land in the pursuit of cheaper housing

A row of houses on a street with a sidewalk and a strip of grass
Patricia Lim
Austin City Council members on Thursday made changes to encourage the building of more and smaller homes in single-family neighborhoods, akin to the city's Mueller development.

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In an attempt to encourage the construction of middle-class housing, Austin voted Thursday to amend land use rules to let property owners build more homes in neighborhoods restricted to one family living in one house on one plot of land.

Council members voted 9-2 in favor of the changes, which will allow developers to construct up to three homes where previously only one or two were permitted. Council members also nixed limits on unrelated adults living together and loosened restrictions against tiny homes — all part of a slew of changes coined HOME, or Home Options for Middle-Income Empowerment.

“I think we can celebrate this moment and the achievement tonight as we create more housing opportunities across the city," said Council Member Leslie Pool, who represents parts of North Austin and whose office brought the measure forward.

Council Members Alison Alter and Mackenzie Kelly voted against.

Thursday’s vote is part of an increasingly common strategy in Austin by politicians, builders and affordable housing advocates to target zoning rules, which restrict what can be built and where, as a way to lower the cost of housing.

Since 2020, monthly rents and the price of for-sale homes in Austin have increased 25%. A family would need to earn about $180,000 a year, tens of thousands of dollars more than the typical family of four earns in Austin, to qualify for a mortgage to buy a median-priced home. While rents have started declining, the average rent in the region is a little over $1,500 a month.

By loosening zoning restrictions, supporters reason, builders are able to erect more homes, thereby increasing the supply and lowering the price of housing. The phenomenon has been backed by numerous studies.

The changes council members approved Thursday are aimed less at building a ton of new housing and more toward encouraging building different and smaller kinds of housing. Instead of the single-family homes and large apartment complexes that characterize Austin, the measure encourages developers to build duplexes, triplexes and townhouses.

"A duplex is a home, a triplex is a home," Alim Virani said during public comment Thursday. He said his parents lived in a duplex when they first immigrated to the U.S. "In that duplex they made a home for themselves. ... I am wondering if my family instead came in 2023 to Austin as refugees, if they could find a home for themselves here."

At a press conference Tuesday, numerous groups expressed support for these land use changes, including AARP Texas, affordable housing nonprofits, public transit advocates and the union representing emergency medical responders. Supporters have cited not only the potential to build housing middle-class families can afford, but also the chance to build homes closer together and to stave off the pattern of sprawl that has defined the Austin region.

But these supporters were drowned out at Thursday's meeting, where hundreds of residents testified for more than 11 hours. Most spoke against the land use changes — yelling, cheering, booing and holding signs that read “No density without affordability,” referring to the idea that simply building homes closer to each other does not make those homes cheaper.

Intense opposition to revising zoning rules is nothing new in Austin. In 2020, a group of homeowners successfully halted a decades-long rewrite of the land code. Those same homeowners have since protested other zoning changes in court, including a program that makes it easier to build income-restricted housing.

Many residents at the meeting Thursday said they worried about additional traffic caused by people living in more homes, the potential strain on the city’s utilities and the potential for builders to tear down trees during construction.

"Our current infrastructure — water, fire, electric, gas and trash collection — cannot support our current homes, development and businesses," said Paula Brown, who was among dozens who testified by phone.

People hold signs that say "No density without affordability" at the back of a room with others seated in front of them
Michael Minasi
Residents gathered at Austin City Hall on Thursday to voice their opposition to plans to allow builders to erect more homes in neighborhoods across the city.

Yet others spoke about the lack of affordability requirements. In certain opt-in programs, the city can require developers to reserve a portion of new housing for people earning less than $85,000 a year, the typical income in Austin. But HOME was not designed as an opt-in program; instead, it changes building rules across the city.

Regardless, proponents emphasized that this housing is intended for people earning middle incomes, who often don't qualify for subsidized housing.

Others warned that allowing developers to build more could encourage landlords and homeowners to sell their homes for a high profit, potentially displacing current residents.

"Don't ruin or displace your constituents," Cindi Reid, a realtor who grew up in East Austin, told council members. She urged them to expand subsidized housing programs, such as community land trusts.

Research on the impact of new housing on displacement is mixed. Some studies have found that new housing decreases nearby rents and prevents low-income families from moving out, while others have found that new housing coincides with outside interest in a neighborhood, bringing in wealthier residents and increasing the pressure of low-income families to move out.

In an attempt to avoid extensive teardown of older homes, the council approved a rule allowing developers to build more if they preserve at least half of an existing home built before 1960. They also, on recommendations from the city’s Planning Commission, tweaked zoning rules in the hope of limiting the size of homes built.

As homes in Austin have grown in price, they’ve also grown in size, mimicking a trend across the country. According to data analyzed by an organization of Austin architects, homes built before 1990 averaged roughly 1,500 square feet. But homes built in the past three decades have averaged about 2,300 square feet. In mock-ups of what could be built, city staff have imagined three townhomes, each about 1,700 square feet.

Other cities have looked to zoning as a means to lower housing prices. In 2020, Portland, Ore., made it possible to build up to six attached homes on land that had been historically reserved for one home.

In the year after zoning rules were changed, Portland builders erected 336 new homes that otherwise would have been difficult to build — a number that represents just 0.1% of the total housing units in the city. On average, these homes sold for roughly $117,000 less than homes built without the size restrictions enacted by the new rules.

The changes Austin council members passed go into effect in 10 days, but won't be able to be used by builders until February. And while policy is one thing, action is another. Homebuilders KUT spoke with this week said they weren’t sure these changes would incentivize building duplexes and triplexes and may instead continue to encourage building one, new large home.

Council members say what they passed Thursday is just the start. Next year, elected officials will consider reducing the amount of land required to build a home. The result could be that a property owner could cut their plot in half, building three homes on each piece of land to get six in total. The intent is the same: to build more in the hopes of lowering housing prices.

Clarification: The story has been updated to make clear when the city can require developers to build income-restricted homes.

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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