The Austin City Council is one vote away from finalizing a new land development code, as members took the second of three votes Thursday night. The final vote is expected in roughly two months.
The vote was split 7-4, characteristic of the divide throughout the process so far. Council Members Leslie Pool, Alison Alter, Kathie Tovo and Ann Kitchen – who represent parts of Central and West Austin – opposed the code rewrite Thursday, as they did on the first vote in December.
“It’s pretty apparent that there are seven people on this council that are ready to vote to pass the code,” Mayor Steve Adler said after the vote.
After a three-day debate on roughly 80 amendments, council members approved measures to allow for bigger duplexes, to attempt to preserve existing affordable apartments and to expand the amount of housing that can be built in West Campus. The majority rejected proposals to limit so-called "transition areas," which allow for more housing in neighborhoods near busy roads, and to tie tenant protections to development.
Much of the talk revolved around how to bring more housing to the city, sometimes at the expense of other things. The tension was perhaps most apparent during discussion of one of Adler’s amendments, which staff said would loosen the requirement of developers to pay for or provide parkland in some projects.
“What really bothers me is the thinking that we have to choose between parks and housing,” said Kitchen, who represents South Central Austin. “Because everybody in this city deserves housing and they all deserve parks.”
Some council members said they worried developers would build fewer housing units if they needed to provide park space, although staff said they had never seen an example of this. Some talked about the lack of park space in Austin, pointing out that parts of East Austin are considered "park deficient"; Council Member Harper-Madison, who represents East Austin, responded.
“I literally talk to my constituents every day who are struggling because they don’t have housing,” she said. “They would tell you they don’t care about a park. They want a house."
Ultimately, the measure passed.
“In everything we face in life we have to make tradeoffs,” Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza said after the vote. “We cannot have this utopian vision that everybody’s going to be happy with every line in this code.”
One of the city’s main aims with the new code is to allow more housing to be built; Austin has a shortage of it. According to numbers from 360 Real Estate Analytics, the Austin metro area added 350,000 jobs in the last decade, but built only 185,000 housing units in that time. Council members set a goal of building up to 405,000 new homes in the city over the next several decades.
Staff say most of this new housing will come from redevelopment along busy roads, likely in the form of larger apartment complexes. A fraction of it – roughly 2% or 10,000 new housing units – could come from zoning found in transition areas, which have been one of the most contentious parts of the new code. This is where the city is hoping to build more so-called "missing middle" units: smaller, denser housing – duplexes, fourplexes and small apartment buildings – much of which is difficult to build under the current zoning rules but which tends to be cheaper than new single-family homes or apartments in big complexes.
The four council members generally opposed to the land code rewrite as it stands have said transition areas are the most concerning for residents in their districts; these council members represent more central, wealthier areas.
“Achieving those housing opportunities doesn’t require embracing extensive transition zoning that could transform their neighborhoods beyond recognition,” said Tovo, who represents Central Austin, including downtown.
In some parts of the proposed transition zones, properties that now allow only two units could allow four or five – and up to 10 units if a developer builds affordable housing or pays into a fund for it.
Tovo said in the next couple of weeks she, Kitchen, Alter and Pool will be presenting an “alternative path” to the code rewrite.
But Garza pleaded with her colleagues to move forward and vote as scheduled.
“Experts and economists have told us we need housing. This is not an Austin problem; this is a nation problem. Whether we want it or not, we’re growing,” she said. “[It’s been] eight years.”
The city’s quest to simplify and update its more-than-30-year-old land code began in 2012, when a comprehensive plan for the city, called Imagine Austin, was passed. The plan envisions a “compact and connected” city, with denser housing options in central parts of the city, in the hopes of preventing Austin from sprawling outward and to offer the city’s workforce, the majority of whom work downtown, housing options closer to work.
The process stalled in August 2018, when council members voted to nix CodeNEXT after what Adler described as “misinformation” throughout the process. Council members regrouped earlier last year, voting on several goals they wanted the code to accomplish, such as providing more affordable housing and discouraging the teardown of older, cheaper housing.
Throughout the discussion this week, members in the seven-member majority supportive of the code rewrite appeared frustrated with the pace, especially as Wednesday’s deliberations went into the night.
In one exchange, Tovo asked Council Member Jimmy Flannigan to explain an amendment asking the city to lower the required space a builder would be required to put between the road and the front of the home, referred to as setback.
“I believe it’s been efficiently explained,” Flannigan, who represents Far Northwest Austin, said. “If you don’t like it you can vote no.”
His amendment ended up passing.
City staff will now make the changes to the code voted on this week. A third and final vote is expected on the code in late March or early April.
This post has been updated.