Viewpoints: City should not overlook Austin ISD in CodeNext talks

“We need a seat at the table.”

That is the message the Austin Independent School District is sending to the city of Austin with a proposed resolution regarding CodeNext that trustees are expected to approve Monday.

A firm statement outlining the district’s position on CodeNext is needed because city officials thus far have overlooked – if not ignored — Austin ISD’s input and concerns, though the district has a huge stake in the rewrite of city zoning and land-use rules, said Kendall Pace, president of the school board.

Consider that Austin ISD is one of the city’s largest property owners with 145 facilities. Its boundaries encompass 230 square miles, said chief financial officer Nicole Conley Johnson. That’s about three-fourths the size of New York City, about 305 square miles. With 11,500 employees, the district also is one of the region’s largest employers.

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

Austin ISD’s interests, however, go beyond property and employment issues. They include families. At this point, the district is losing families and students because of massive redevelopment in core neighborhoods — mostly in East Austin — that is displacing lower-income families with kids to make way for higher-income families with fewer or no children.

Even as Austin’s population is growing, the district’s enrollment, now at 82,000, is declining. Austin ISD administrators and trustees worry that without key changes to CodeNext, those trends will accelerate.

“Displacement of families living in those core Austin neighborhoods – and not competition from charter or private schools – is the primary driver for our enrollment declines,” Conley Johnson said.

Pace, Conley and others said they’ve tried to get a coordinated planning effort going with the city, but have been ping-ponged around different offices without progress.

That back-and-forth bureaucracy prompted Austin ISD officials to take a more public, forceful approach with something in writing they aim to back with a vote in hopes of grabbing the city’s attention: a resolution that mostly is centered around stabilizing enrollment declines by holding on to and creating more affordable housing.

Specifically, the resolution emphasizes the need for CodeNext to create more duplexes, townhomes, apartments and additional dwelling units that are affordable for families earning 60 percent or less of Austin’s median family income and housing for teachers and staff.

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It also calls for limits on up-zoning that doesn’t help lower-income families, especially in areas affected by gentrification, such as East Austin.

Another request encourages the preservation of older-market, affordable, single-family detached homes, duplexes and multi-unit apartments by not increasing entitlements on existing properties without a clear affordability requirement.

The resolution calls for an expansion of incentives, such as density bonuses that permit developers to build taller or with greater density in exchange for benefits, such as affordable housing. But they should be combined with other incentives or funding to create permanently affordable housing instead of studio or one-bedroom apartments.

It’s worth noting that more than half Austin ISD students are economically disadvantaged. Their families depend on “deeply affordable” or subsidized housing. The resolution points out that most new housing units that are being built are small, expensive apartments and condos that aren’t family friendly. It notes that just 46 children were enrolled in Austin ISD in 6,895 new units that were sampled.

The district’s resolution also objects to CodeNext’s reductions for onsite parking in residential and commercial areas near schools, which they say could create safety problems for students and hinder access to school grounds.

In our view, those are legitimate concerns that should be addressed by the city sooner rather than later. The city’s lack of response so far only gives credence to critics who complain that the CodeNext rewrite is too heavily dominated by a narrow group of city staffers and paid consultants.

CITY HALL: Group asks district attorney to investigate Planning Commission.

With so many unanswered questions regarding CodeNext, which would determine the city’s physical and economic makeup for decades to come, we recently called for a pause so the city could answer residents’ concerns. Following that, the city announced it would slow down the release of a third draft of CodeNext and perhaps push back its April deadline for approval.

That is progress. But the city must do more in ensuring that Austin residents understand how CodeNext – contained in more than 1,300 pages — would impact their communities, then seek their input on revising proposals that don’t address Austin’s affordability crisis, economic segregation and the displacement of families leaving Austin ISD because they no longer can afford the rent, mortgage or property taxes.

They should answer concerns of others, who point out that Austin needs more so-called missing-middle housing for the thousands of people flocking to Austin each year. Questions linger about how CodeNext would address Austin’s growing traffic congestion. Over the next decade, the city will need about 130,000 homes to fill Austin’s housing needs, city officials have said.

We understand that density, which allows more to be built on less land, is a way to address such challenges. But up-zoning for the sake of generating more housing — without an eye on whether that would worsen the housing crisis for working and low-income families, further segregate the city, or accelerate enrollment declines in public schools — could prove disastrous.

“We need a seat at the table,” Pace told us in explaining the need for the resolution. “We want input.”

The city should waste no time in making room for Austin ISD at the CodeNext discussion.

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