Viewpoints Q&A, Part II: Garza, Renteria and Kitchen on CodeNext

This is the second installment of a three-part series on CodeNext, the overhaul of Austin’s cumbersome land-use and zoning regulations, which has reignited battles between neighborhood groups and developers.

Next month, the city is expected to unveil the third CodeNext draft — and officials say that a vote could come in spring, despite looming questions about how the new code would generate affordable housing, decrease traffic congestion and impact neighborhoods in central Austin neighborhoods.

The rush to pass something should be tempered by the magnitude of the challenge. The zoning code revision is perhaps the single-most important task council members will tackle during their tenure, influencing what gets built and where and the city’s economic, social and racial diversity for decades to come. Getting it right should be the priority.

The zoning overhaul also is expected to test Austin’s 10-1 council system. Community activists are pushing for a referendum that permits voters to override the council.

We raised some of those issues with four council members on Sunday. Today, we put those same questions to Council Members Delia Garza (District 2), Sabino “Pio” Renteria (District 3) and Ann Kitchen (District 5). Below are excerpts.

How specifically would CodeNext generate more housing — in a meaningful way — for families who earn 80 percent or below the city’s median family income?

Garza: This has always been an easy answer for me. Housing is expensive because so many people want to live in Austin. We should allow – not require – people to put more houses on smaller lots. Basically, if we allow more housing to be built, folks that want and can afford new and more expensive housing will not have to purchase older less expensive homes (on expensive land) and demolish that home to build new. More new housing stock takes the pressure off buying out families that want to stay in their older, more affordable home. A restrictive code won’t affect wealthy folks; they will always be able to afford consultants to navigate the process, buy larger-than-necessary lots and demolish older homes. A restrictive code hurts the family that wanted to stay in that older home, but was forced out because there wasn’t enough housing stock to accommodate a variety of needs and income levels.

Renteria: Many in our city have come to expect low-income Latino and African-American neighborhoods to provide the solution to our housing crisis. Under our current land-use code, neighborhoods in District 3 have borne a much higher burden of displacement and gentrification than other parts of Austin. A rewrite of our land-development code can help us protect the cores of our East and South Austin neighborhoods from displacement by shifting development to our major corridors and providing more affordable housing and housing in general throughout the city to ease the pressures that those vulnerable communities face. CodeNext will not solve our crisis — but it could provide tools we need to address housing challenges in a more responsible, sustainable, and equitable way.

Kitchen: Austin’s housing crisis is shared by every fast-growing major city in the U.S. — and under our current code, this crisis is only worsening. To generate more housing, CodeNext will allow creation of more places to live that blend in with neighborhoods such as granny flats or ADUs (accessory dwelling units) to help families preserve and create more uses for their homes. The code will allow building affordable homes and apartments in wider range of areas, such as corridors and some commercial areas. The code will also help families to remodel on existing small lots so they can stay in place and discouraging demolitions of homes.

How do you define “affordable housing” in terms of median family income?

Garza: This confusion happens when people try to oversimplify the problem. The national consensus is that you should spend less than 30 percent of your family’s income on housing, or less than 45 percent on the sum of housing and transportation. Different families make different incomes, and some families can’t afford this. Because of this, we need a mix of targeted income levels to meet different families’ needs.

I think of housing as a human right, and we should do as much as we can to make sure that Austinites who want to live here can live here.

Renteria: It’s unproductive to define “affordable housing” only in terms of median family income (MFI). There are many factors beyond MFI that help define affordable housing, including access to transportation and economic opportunities, among others. In my community and throughout the city, I would like to see more multibedroom units and housing available at 60 percent MFI or below. But rather than focus on a definition of affordable housing that is overly simplistic, I believe our focus should be on improving the lives of Austin families by creating mixed-income communities in all parts of town.

Kitchen: Austin is increasing production of well-designed, high-quality affordable housing. Housing is defined as affordable when a person or family is paying no more than 30 percent of their income for housing costs plus utilities. 

Developers and others long have complained that the current land-use and zoning code is so burdensome and restrictive that it drives up the cost of construction and in turn, increases the cost of housing in the city. How will CodeNext fix that problem?

Garza: This is true, and one of the reasons I’ve worked lately to reduce the burden of building backyard cottages (also called ADUs). Our existing code is far too complex, and isn’t a cohesive document. Our new code should simplify building rules by reducing fees where appropriate, creating a predictable process, and having built in processes for resolving conflicts between city departments. Many other cities have these same problems, and I look forward to having the best practices from around the nation introduced into our code.

Renteria: There are tools for preventing displacement that a code rewrite could make more accessible. That includes home repair, remodeling, and secondary units. CodeNext could help simplify the permitting process to ensure that individual homeowners can afford to stay in their homes.

Kitchen: The old 30-year code has also made it difficult and expensive for developers, small business and homeowners just trying to remodel a bathroom. The CodeNext changes are designed to work with the new, revamped Development Services Department to streamline and speed up permitting, create more consistent and clearer zoning, and producing a faster site-planning process. CodeNext can also expedite permitting and building design options for seniors to help them age in place. And Council Member Garza’s Family Homestead Initiative will help reduce home remodeling costs and remove permitting barriers.

Aside from density bonuses, what incentives would CodeNext offer to developers to build affordable housing for lower-income residents?

Garza: Affordable housing for lower-income residents isn’t just a problem for developers to solve; it’s a problem for our whole community. We need to set up rules so that developers build as much affordable housing as we can get. Unfortunately, Republicans in the Texas Legislature have prohibited many of the affordable housing programs used by other states. That means we have to get creative. I support setting targets for affordable housing production each year, and adjusting all of our programs to meet that target. Those programs should include density bonuses and community land trusts — and promote new construction of affordable units by private nonprofits and the city of Austin itself. The city could build mixed-income developments, and use some of the money from market rate units to reduce costs for lower-income families — while also increasing the total supply to help lower rent throughout the entire city. That’s why a large affordable housing bond is so important, and something I hope we vote on in 2018.

Renteria: Unfortunately, the Republican-controlled Legislature has taken every opportunity to prevent us from utilizing tools like affordable housing linkage fees to tackle the issue of affordable housing. Through CodeNext, we can improve the density bonus program to ensure new developments include more affordable housing.

Kitchen: Understanding the limited financial housing incentives available, CodeNext and the Strategic Housing Blueprint (Austin’s housing plan) aim for the development of more diverse types of market and affordable housing through a wider variety of tools. The code can offer incentives for creating affordable housing on site for properties along corridors and other high opportunity areas of the city. The code can also offer incentives to preserve existing affordable housing and build flexible spaces to live and work to support affordable places for artists, musicians and small businesses.

Specifically, how would CodeNext help Austin’s traffic congestion crisis?

Garza: If we do it right, CodeNext can move us in the right direction on traffic in a few different ways. We need to allow many more people to afford to live close to where they work, so that the total distance they need to go is shorter, and more trips could be made on foot or on bike. 

Renteria: CodeNext could help us create a more efficient and reliable transit system by redirecting existing development pressure to and creating more density along the corridors rather than continuing sprawl that worsens traffic and negatively impacts the environment.

Kitchen: CodeNext will help Austin’s traffic by supporting more choices for transportation, improving safety, and preparing for the future. As our city grows, with limited street space and resources, we will need to have more options.

CodeNext can help with:

• Street and traffic signal design, bus stops, sidewalks, and bike lanes that make walking, biking, and transit easier, safer, and faster.

• Street design to support walkability – accessible sidewalks, street trees for shade, and building frontage that reflects local character and human scale.

• Streets prepared for electric and autonomous shared vehicles, including convenient electric refueling options for electric cars, buses and bikes.

Do you favor putting CodeNext on the ballot?

Garza: I was a big advocate for a 10-1 City Council because for too long the same neighborhoods in west Austin elected people that just represented them instead of the whole city. Now, with 10-1, we have multiple Latinos on council instead of just one. Equity is central to a thriving city — and we must grow together and give people the opportunity to thrive. Reforming how we build in Austin is so important, and the people pushing for a vote on a very detailed thousand-page document are trying to disingenuously take away power from the 10-1 system that we all worked so hard to create.

Renteria: Before Austin took a huge step toward equity by approving a charter amendment to implement geographic representation or 10-1, voters in the wealthier parts of town outvoted our less affluent residents on similar initiatives time and time again. While there continues to be issues of engagement and voter participation that we struggle with, folks generally agree that 10-1 is more representative and gives more of a voice to marginalized communities. Placing CodeNext on the ballot would erode the progress we have been able to attain through 10-1.

Kitchen: A ballot initiative that would stop CodeNext before the public or council has an opportunity to work through a final draft short-circuits a chance for progress for our community. CodeNext is an opportunity to better address significant problems in our city – traffic congestion, flooding, environment, and housing affordability to name a few. 

The council is set to vote on approving CodeNext sometime in April. Does the timeline need to be extended, given that many residents say they have not had enough time to study new drafts or fully understand the impact of new zoning on their neighborhoods?

Garza: Imagine Austin was completed five years ago, and we’ve had years of review and discussion of CodeNext. We’re in a housing and traffic crisis now, and it’s getting worse by the day. The sooner we can start addressing that, the better.

Renteria: I am not certain at this time that we need a new deadline, though there is a lot more work to do. I do not support the current draft of CodeNext and hope that we will have a much better one soon. I am open to reevaluating the timeline if it becomes clear that doing so will help us produce a better code. The challenge is to engage families and individuals beyond the handful of folks who have helped guide decisions that have hurt our low-income neighborhoods throughout the years.

Kitchen: The April timeline is a goal and the Council will take whatever time is necessary to get the code revisions right. In response to community concerns, the staff recently extended the timeline for the third draft. During the spring, the council will listen to our boards and commissions, the community and other interested parties in addition to our staff. I appreciate all the work of our land use and other commissions and stakeholders, and am hopeful that the draft code will be ready for final review and revisions in April.


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