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Austin affordability plan shows incentives to build taller, denser


The CodeNext density bonus plan’s release Friday offered the first look at specifics on building incentives.

The plan would allow builders to go beyond current zoning in height and density in more of Austin.

The draft plan increases the amount of land eligible for density bonus programs fourfold.

The city of Austin released its draft plan Friday showing how the city will try to encourage the development of more affordable housing by allowing larger projects in certain areas.

The draft is part of the larger CodeNext effort to rewrite the city’s land use code.

As one of the tools the city’s staff hopes will bring more affordable housing, CodeNext would expand the use of density bonus programs to more parts of the city. The programs allow developers to build larger housing projects than the zoning allows, as long as a certain portion of the housing units they create would be affordable to people earning less than Austin’s median income.

“Density bonus is one lever we can pull to help with affordability in Austin, used in tandem with other tools in order to make sure Austin is a great place for lots of people at lots of price points,” said Alina Carnahan, the city’s spokeswoman for CodeNext.

While it had already been known that CodeNext would open up more of the city to bigger and denser housing projects, the release of the draft on Friday provided new specifics on how much higher builders can go and how many more units they can pack into a given development.

Under the CodeNext draft, the amount of land in Austin available for density bonus programs would quadruple. The code would open up about 36 square miles of the city to the programs, allowing developers to build bigger as long as they do one of three things:

• Commit to building a percentage of units that would be affordable to renters who earn at most 60 percent and buyers who earn 80 percent of Austin’s median family income, which is $77,800 for a family of four, according to the city.

• Pay a fee that would go toward the city’s affordable housing trust fund. The payment would be calculated based on a fee schedule and the size of the development.

• Build affordable units elsewhere in the city.

Under the new code, many of the areas where density bonus programs could be applied are on properties already zoned for multifamily developments. They could also be placed in higher density “transect zones” along the city’s main transportation corridors, according to the plan and the CodeNext draft map.

Largely, developers would be able to go beyond what the land use codes allows in the amount of housing units allowed per acre. A small portion of the new areas eligible for density bonus programs would allow developers to build taller, typically along highways and downtown, the draft said.

But, for example, on the west side of Burnet Road near Hancock Drive, the maximum height of a condominium or apartment building could grow from four to seven stories if the developer chose to participate in a density bonus program.

Where height limits cannot be altered, a density bonus program would allow the amount of units per acre to jump nearly threefold. On the west side of Springdale Road near Prock Lane in East Austin, a density bonus program would increase the number of maximum allowed units per acre from 24 to 64.

Austin already has some density programs in place, such as the University Neighborhood Overlay in West Campus and the Downtown Density Bonus program. The programs have had varying degrees of success, with some having very little participation. The downtown program has only produced fees paid instead of creating affordable housing units.

Those programs would remain in place, but would be absorbed into a broader code outlining density bonuses. Planned unit developments, such as the Grove at Shoal Creek and Austin Oaks, wouldn’t be affected.

In the 13 years since the city created its first density bonus program, the effort has added 1,662 affordable housing units and 1,450 more are expected in the next decade — a fraction of the 60,000 affordable housing units city officials hope can be built in that span, according to city reports and presentations.

The public will have until July 14 to comment on the draft plan. Comments will still be accepted after that, but won’t be considered in the plan’s second draft.

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