Commentary: Use CodeNext to make Austin affordable for millennials

From the first time I started attending information sessions about CodeNext — the rewrite of Austin’s land development code last year — it seemed that every fellow resident of City Council District 7 had a story to tell me. Usually, it went something like, “When I moved to Brentwood in 1976, houses were going for less than $75,000. But my son and his wife just moved to Cedar Park because they can’t afford anything in Austin.”

To Austin newcomers, it probably seems crazy to think that a generation ago, Brentwood was a neighborhood where a young person just out of college could buy their first home. Today, Brentwood’s original single-family homes can sell for upwards of $500,000.

VIEWPOINTS: Push pause button on CodeNext until concerns are addressed.

Many of the baby boomers I spoke to expressed anxiety and frustration at the rising costs of living in Austin. It is ironic, then, that the restrictive land development policies pursued by baby boomer homeowners during the 1980s have denied their children and their generational compatriots a foothold in the very neighborhoods where they grew up.

Then as now, homeowners were concerned about protecting “the character” of their neighborhood — a character defined by their preference for single-family houses even in older central city neighborhoods, where other types of housing like small apartment buildings, duplexes and fourplexes have long provided more affordable housing options.

As Austin’s population increased in the ensuing decades, new housing did not keep up, resulting in expensive bidding wars for the limited number of single-family homes for sale and skyrocketing rents even for older apartments — especially in the urban core.

Already burdened by far more student debt than their parents and far less job security, young Austinites also face home prices and rental rates their parents couldn’t have imagined at their age.

VIEWPOINTS Q&A: What Austin City Council members say about CodeNext.

My generation shares many of the same dreams our parents had at our age; we too want families and homes to raise them in — but our housing priorities are different. Even as we start families, millennials are far more likely to prefer small homes in a central location than more square footage and expansive yards in the suburbs. We are also less attached to car ownership and free parking.

That’s why there’s greater demand for duplexes, row homes and small apartment buildings that could allow my generation more affordable opportunities closer to their jobs and to raise our children in the city. We must update our land development code to once again allow these more affordable homes.

Though change can be scary — and people have an innate desire to preserve the familiar — the status quo isn’t working for anyone. Rising home prices aren’t just pricing out my generation; they are also fueling displacement of long-time East Austin residents and threatening the ability of many middle-class homeowners throughout the city to stay in their homes. Declining school enrollment is just one way the character of many neighborhoods is already changing under our current code.

Austin is growing — and our housing must do the same. But homeowner privileges shouldn’t come at the expense of affordability and inclusion for renters and young people.

COMMENTARY: Why it’s urgent to stabilize central Austin neighborhoods.

I believe that Austin should welcome all who want to live here, but even if you prioritize the people “living here now,” does that not include young people who grew up here? What about those who have already been forced to leave because of home prices and rental rates?

Our existing land-use policies are what’s driving millennials and their young families out of Austin to Buda, Cedar Park, and Leander. Through CodeNext, we can welcome them in Allandale, Brentwood and Bouldin as well.

We can fix this. It just takes political will.

Rinaldi serves on the board of the urbanist organization AURA: An Austin for Everyone.

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