Viewpoints Q&A, Part III: Adler, Houston and Tovo on CodeNext

This Q&A with Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Council Member Ora Houston (District 1) and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo (District 9) are the final installment of a three-part series about CodeNext.

The proposed overhaul of Austin’s cumbersome land-use and zoning regulations 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 appreciate the responses from our elected council members, though Ellen Troxclair (District 8) provided a statement instead, which is not included. Below are excerpts of responses from Adler, Houston and Tovo:

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?

Adler: Our next land-development code should do its part to help make housing more affordable — but it cannot, by itself, fix our housing crisis. It is only one tool among many, and our challenge is to do everything we can. The code can help in at least five ways: help increase the supply of housing, especially in neighborhoods where people want to live, to meet rising demand to balance the market; help lower the cost of creating or remodeling housing; help facilitate or incentivize middle-income and subsidized housing that is affordable to more people, especially to create more mixed income residential opportunities; disincentivize demolition of existing affordable housing stock that would otherwise be replaced with large expensive homes, and providing more housing in locations where residents can lower their transportation costs and enhance transportation and transit options.

Houston: CodeNext might encourage additional residential density in areas where residential density is prohibited. The state has severely limited the authority of municipalities to create income accessible housing compared to other states. Financial institutions and private investors do not typically finance a supply of housing stock at income levels which would not afford them a return on investment. 

The strategy would need to be to build housing to attract people at 80 percent and below of the city’s median income, in addition to high-end single individuals with no children who appear to be the current focus.

Tovo: In Austin’s real estate market, very little new construction is affordable to families at or below 80 percent median family income (MFI) unless it is income-restricted as part of a density-bonus program or created by a housing nonprofit. In its proposal to increase the number of units that can be built on sites in Central and east-central Austin, CodeNext may in fact encourage more demolitions and redevelopment, which could increase displacement and gentrification in those areas – and prompt rings of displacement in adjacent areas as those Central Austinites move outward. As our city demographer has said, we can’t build our way out of a housing crisis.

I support building affordable housing on public land, implementing tools to preserve existing nonsubsidized affordable and moderately priced housing, and making our density bonus programs more effective.

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

Adler: Housing affordability reflects the relationship between housing price and household income. Housing that’s affordable means your housing costs, including utilities, are no more than 30 percent of your income, and no more than 45 percent of your income including utility and transportation costs. An affordable home for a family of four making 80 percent of Austin’s median family income (an income of $62,250) would be a home priced at approximately $225,000 or a rental unit costing $1,556 per month.

Houston: “Affordable housing” according to the federal government is defined as housing costs that do not exceed 30 percent of an individual or family gross income (not net income, which in reality are the funds we have to work with at the end of each pay period). The definition needs to be updated because it does not take into account the other costs that were low or not in existence during the mid-20th century, such as the cost of child care, gasoline prices, student loans, personal credit debt, insurance, and cellphones. My definition is housing options that are available in all areas of the community and are accessible to all income levels.

Tovo: We have tens of thousands of Austin families who need affordable housing. Although some developments have been approved under density bonus programs with higher levels of median family income, I believe we should only target our incentives toward creating affordable rental housing at 60 percent MFI or below – or $52,750 for a family of five. I also believe we should require developers operating under density bonus programs to create family friendly units – such as two- and three-bedroom units — rather than efficiencies and one-bedrooms.

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?

Adler: The new land-development code could reduce the cost of home construction by reducing regulations that increase the actual cost of construction and also by reducing the time that projects need to wait or get delayed obtaining approvals by making the rules less open to interpretation, less conflicting and inconsistent, more predictive — and by allowing for more administrative approvals in areas where discretion is more limited.

Houston: I am the “regular citizen” — not a land planner, architect, speculator, developer or housing advocate — listening and learning along with everyone else through the conversations. I am in communication with amazing commissioners who represent the constituents of the district and are looking in-depth at CodeNext. It is my humble opinion that CodeNext has gotten complicated, cumbersome and complex in very different ways.

This draft is about how the land within the city limits will be planned and uses language that is more complex and difficult to understand.

Tovo: Permitting and approval delays are probably the largest contributor to development costs. The City Council has invested in substantial increases to staff in relevant departments over recent budget cycles, and city management needs to continue to focus on staff education and training.

CodeNext was intended to create an easier-to-use land-development code while still retaining important provisions of our existing code. We still have work to do on both fronts: The first CodeNext drafts were very complex and difficult to navigate for professionals as well as lay readers — and regulations related to McMansion and some other provisions that represent careful and balanced compromises were significantly weakened. I’m hoping draft 3 will retain the most important current code provisions and offer a clearer, simplified structure.

Imagine Austin, the city’s comprehensive plan passed by the City Council, committed to preserving neighborhood plans in the new land development code. The CodeNext maps have not held to that commitment and instead propose rezoning sections of interior neighborhoods in ways that conflict with existing council-adopted neighborhood plans.

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

Adler: Most of the incentives necessary to promote income restricted housing would happen outside of the new land-development code. And within the new code, it could be that the most-effective incentive tools would be one form of density bonus or another, as well as making the building process easier for affordable-housing developers. Increased housing supply facilitated by the new land development code should spur less-expensive housing because of the general impact supply has on the market.

Houston: That is a great question for the consultants.

Tovo: Current code and CodeNext offer expedited review and fee waivers for projects that meet certain affordable housing requirements.

Since under state law Austin can only require affordable housing under density-bonus programs, we need to use these as effectively as possible. To encourage affordable housing in all areas of our city, we must require affordable units to be built on site rather than to allow developers to pay fees into a housing fund. The current CodeNext draft allows staff to waive this requirement, and it should not; we need a code that makes onsite housing the requirement and an in-lieu fee an exception granted only by the City Council.

Instead of granting more entitlements to tracts by right (such as increasing the allowable number of units from two to three per site), CodeNext should tie any increase in entitlements over current code to an affordable housing requirement or to requirements to preserve existing housing on that site. Those changes would help produce more income-restricted units and could help stem the tide of demolitions that is contributing to rising costs and displacement.

Most housing affordable to moderate and low-income families is not income-restricted. We need to expand our ability to preserve these housing units; the current CodeNext draft offers virtually no new tools in that regard and may instead encourage redevelopment of those units.

All of these issues must be addressed before CodeNext is approved.

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

Adler: By increasing the number of people living and working close to transit routes, the new land-development code could encourage ridership, which in turn will facilitate the development of transportation options. Additionally, the new land-development code could facilitate more opportunities for living closer to the places that people need to travel, resulting in less driving overall. Finally, the new land-development code could require more developers to pay for mobility options to offset the generation of increased traffic.

Houston: Unfortunately, the rewrite does not address the crisis the city faces with traffic congestion. The rewrite addresses site development standards and zoning entitlements. There is a belief by some that by building different housing types and denser housing options close to the center of the city, individuals will walk, bike, use transit or ride sharing.

District 1 is 46 square miles. Development is booming. There are limited to no employment opportunities in the far north and northeast parts of the district. The majority of individuals who live in those locations are not going to walk or bike to their places of employment up to 10 miles to the center city. That’s not considering that someone may work further west of the urban core or downtown.

In addition, let’s not forget the lack of transit options in these areas of the city. People need to drive their cars to get to places, period.

Tovo: To the extent that the final CodeNext draft and map reflects the Imagine Austin goal of locating additional housing on major corridors and centers around the city, more residents may be able to live in closer proximity to jobs, schools and leisure activities – thus reducing the need for them to travel long distances.

Do you favor putting CodeNext on the ballot?

Adler: No. Austin just went through a transition from an at-large City Council to a 10-1 district council to ensure that every district has an equal vote, and to ensure that wealthier parts of the city with greater voter turnout no longer control all local decisions. The effort to put CodeNext on the ballot is an attempted repudiation of the 10-1 system and a return to the old way Austin used to decide everything, which we know is unfair to lower income and minority communities.

Houston: Why not? It is going to affect every renter and every property owner, commercial and residential, in this community.

Tovo: I support the citizen right to petition granted by Austin’s city charter.

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?

Adler: Given the extra time that is now being invested in the writing of the staff’s recommendation for the new land-development code, I think it is unlikely that the City Council will be taking its final action to approve a new code in April. I do hope, for the benefit of the city, that it would happen not too long thereafter.

Houston: Additional time may be needed to analyze the impact of proposed changes on specific areas of the city to determine what, if any, unintended consequences might occur, rather than blanketing the city with a zoning code that will continue and might even accelerate the displacement of communities which have been historically marginalized since the 1928 Comprehensive Code. This city was built and cultivated by a culturally and ethnically diverse community. It’s imperative we honor all communities and undo the racist policies that were implemented by a power structure that continues to thrive to this day.

Tovo: Probably. I am committed to having a useful and authentic public process and a sound product – neither of which may be achievable under the (somewhat arbitrary) April deadline.

As mentioned above, Imagine Austin, the city’s comprehensive plan passed by the City Council, committed to preserving council-adopted neighborhood plans in the new land development code — that means rezoning along the corridors and in centers throughout the city and not rezoning (upzoning) in the interior of neighborhoods. 

Community members and organizations have submitted thousands of important comments and suggestions for changes to the CodeNext drafts and maps; CodeNext consultants and staff have not incorporated – or responded – to most of these. But I’ll know better whether the council, commissions and community will need more time once I see the third draft.


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