Activist Urges Austin To Look At Land Development Code Through Lens Of Equity

Dec 10, 2019

The grassroots Austin Justice Coalition focuses primarily on criminal justice and related issues, but the impact of development and displacement on communities of color compelled the organization to get involved in the city's rewrite of its land development code.

The code dictates what can be built in Austin and where. City council members are scheduled to take a first vote on it sometime this week.

João Paulo Connolly, a youth mentor and community organizer with the Austin Justice Coalition, says the city's current code is displacing people of color and that city leaders need to recognize different neighborhoods have different histories.

"The lens of equity asks us not to treat Austin neighborhoods the same, but to have a special sort of caution when dealing with certain neighborhoods," he says. 

Listen to Connolly's discussion with KUT about looking at the code through a "lens of equity."

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.

João Paulo Connolly: For a long time, I think we kind of avoided moving into the space of housing policy and tried to focus our efforts more narrowly on criminal justice reform and police accountability work in town. But we reached a point where we started to realize that a lot of the work we do, the communities that we're serving, they are being displaced. They're no longer here.

So we realized that if we don't get involved with questions about displacement and even the right to return to Austin, then the communities that we're working for won't be here anymore.

KUT: What are the concerns then of the Austin Justice Coalition in regard to the land development code rewrite when it comes to displacement?

Connolly: We think that the status quo of Austin already displaces people of color. So we are interested in the land development code and looking at it through the lens of equity. We are neither championing the new land development code, nor are we opposed to it. We want to look at it and see what is the most equitable outcome for Austin that we can get from this code.

KUT: When you look at it right now, what do you see in regard to equity and correcting what you see as the existing problems with the status quo in Austin?

Connolly: Different Austin neighborhoods have different situations. And so I think that looking at the code through the lens of equity forces us to see the ways in which neighborhoods are in different situations, have different histories, have different histories of sort of care and attention from the city. The lens of equity asks us not to treat Austin neighborhoods the same, but to have a special sort of caution when dealing with certain neighborhoods. There's already displacement taking place.

We don't think the land development code itself is what will create displacement or what will end displacement. But we think that the city should be cautious not to do things that will incentivize displacement. That includes things like density bonuses that might make it very motivating for developers to come in in vulnerable areas along corridors and vulnerable areas and redevelop existing multifamily apartments.

I'm not going to say that we aren't in favor of density bonuses. We think density bonuses could work, but we are concerned about the effects that they will have in vulnerable areas.

KUT: And remind people what a density bonus is and then talk a little bit about the concerns about how that could impact communities, neighborhoods.

Connolly: Because of all the limitations, the City of Austin doesn't really have a way of sort of requiring developers to build affordable units. So the argument is that the City of Austin will provide a bonus amount of units. So there is the base entitlement for a lot, which is the number of units that a developer would be allowed to build on a certain lot. And then on top of that base entitlement, the city would allow developers to build an extra number of units, provided they guarantee a certain percentage of those units will remain affordable.

Looking at the way things are right now in vulnerable neighborhoods, should we really be incentivizing developers to redevelop existing multifamily residential apartment complexes where there's already kind of what we call naturally occurring affordable housing, right? There's already affordable housing on those lots. We think that the situation is kind of a delicate, almost kind of an emergency situation for working-class people of color in Austin.

And we're also looking at the impacts that transition areas can have. We are right now at this stage asking the city not to map any transition areas. This is the Austin Justice Coalition asking the city not to map any transition areas in vulnerable areas. And that's because in some neighborhoods that are vulnerable, we think the — like in a neighborhood like Montopolis, for example, adding any transition areas to that neighborhood just seems like a pressure, an added pressure that the neighborhood couldn't take.

KUT: Those transition areas are the sort of the spaces, if you will, between major roads and thoroughfares as you kind of move along into residential neighborhoods. It's that that space that lives in between those?

Connolly: Right. The so-called missing middle housing that everyone talks about and that's the idea is that that's where you get it. And from a sort of an urban planning perspective, the logic of creating transition zones, I can understand and appreciate the need for them. You know, it gives you more density along corridors, and in theory, that's what we're that's what everybody wants.

KUT: So what's wrong with them?

Connolly: The general concern is that any kind of upzoning on that scale in those neighborhoods might stimulate speculation more than it already is in those neighborhoods. And, you know, there was a question the city council debated about whether or not that would affect the value of land in the surrounding lots. And technically, no, not for the purpose of taxes, because those lots have to be comped with lots that are of similar size. But indirectly, yes, because, you know, the general value of everything in those neighborhoods continues to increase.

KUT: Talking about the process that's going on in relation to rewriting this land development code, how has the process looked to you?

Connolly: One thing that I would say is and this is sort of a plea on behalf of AJC's team for caution on the part of the city, which is that the process shouldn't move so quickly that it excludes meaningful community participation. We're not saying the process should, you know, sort of just stall and drag on indefinitely. 

But even just as sort of the initial land development code draft moved through the planning commission, the deadlines were very tight. And we're a community group, which means getting a bunch of people kind of educated on things that they are not experts or policy experts on, but that's how you get community participation.

So now, as this moves into city council, I think it's very important to say – Give the community time to participate meaningfully, to be able to sort of at least accompany the process. Don't rush it through so quickly that the community voices that need to be heard don't get a chance to sort of make it to the table.

Listen to Connolly's full-length discussion with KUT about looking at the code through a "lens of equity."