If you think we should manage growth in Austin with an eye on preserving what’s good about our city while making housing more affordable, then you’re in luck. For the first time in three decades, Austin is rewriting our land-use code. If we do this right, we’ll be able to manage growth so people in Austin can afford to live in Austin.
When it comes to rising housing prices and our current land-use code, the status quo is strangling us. Home sales and the median sales prices recently hit an all-time high in Austin, partly because our land use code – the rules that govern where and how things can be built in Austin – is convoluted, confusing and lacks the tools we need to manage growth.
Our current land-use code has been amended and written over so many times since the 1980s that it’s a wonder anything gets built at all. When it comes to our current land development code, the only thing you can consistently predict is that there is insufficient predictability and inconsistent application.
As a consequence, no one really knows what the rules are. City staff has to figure out how to enforce contradictory rules, and every zoning case seems to require a variance or an exception of some kind from the Austin City Council. Delays increase construction budgets — and fixing your bathroom ends up costing you a lot more money and time than you imagined.
It’s a mess, but we can fix it if we work together. I want to propose a different way and to do it together, aiming for a resolution where we all win. We can all win if we focus on two goals: protecting our neighborhoods and delivering the increased housing supply we need to make Austin more affordable.
How do we do both? Maybe it makes sense to agree on a compromise up front. Let’s call it the “Austin Bargain,” an agreement that protects all of us from our worst fears so we can achieve the best possible outcome. We all want what is best for Austin and agree on what the broad outlines.
For starters, let’s agree we will not force density in the middle of neighborhoods. There’s no sense in shoving density where it would ruin the character of the city we’re trying to save in the first place — where it’s not wanted by its neighbors and where we would never get enough of the additional housing supply we need anyway.
And in exchange, let’s also agree that we will adopt a code rewrite that will give us the housing supply we need by focusing along our most-trafficked streets and our major busiest areas, such as Mueller or downtown.
That would enable the mixed-income housing supply that creates opportunities for more Austinites to stay in Austin — and also give us the concentration we need to make transit work.
To do this, we’ll need to make hard decisions in the transition areas between corridors, centers and our neighborhoods, but an Austin Bargain would mean that we would begin the code revision process with agreement on as many as 95 percent of all properties in the city.
If we do this right – and that means everyone having a fair say in the process – Austin stands to gain a lot from CodeNEXT. A land-use code that makes sense for everyone would mean we will begin to learn that managing growth depends upon cooperation instead of mutually assured distraction.
Right now, we get to choose if we’re going to engage each other constructively or waste our time making pot shots from political bunkers.
We know what happens if we spend our time fighting. Unless we change, we are guaranteed to lose our city to increased displacement and inequality, higher prices and worse traffic.
But here’s the payoff: If we work together on CodeNEXT, we can reach a consensus on how to manage growth. We’ll have agreement on where we want to add housing and on what kind of housing is appropriate in different neighborhoods. If we do this right, we can increase mobility, hold down housing prices, protect the character of our neighborhoods and address gentrification equitably.
That’s the kind of change Austin will take any way, any time, any day. We are all joined together in this collaboration to preserve and protect the magic of our city. With the Austin Bargain, we can manage growth to make Austin more affordable.
Adler is mayor of Austin.