- The Austin City Council met last week to discuss potential solutions to Austin’s housing affordability crisis.
- Its previous solution – an overhaul of the Land Development Code – has been blocked by a court order.
- The City Council sent a number of potential solutions to the City Manager for further study.
Last week, the Austin City Council took up an old topic it had mostly been avoiding since COVID began. It declared last week the Austin Housing Affordability and Supply Week. And the highlight of the week was a meeting of the City Council on Wednesday to discuss possible solutions to Austin’s affordability issues.
As I am sure you know, this is a very big topic in Austin and around the country. Many cities around the country have an affordability crisis and few greater than Austin – where the median housing prices have increased tremendously over the last 18 months.
On Wednesday, the City Council floated a lot of proposals. But what was discussed? And are they on the way to solving Austin’s affordability issues? Well that’s why you have to read below.
Also – as you read – I want to give a special thank you to Jack Craver for his comprehensive coverage of the City Council meetings – and all other things Austin politics. If you do not subscribe to his daily email, I encourage you to do so.
Recap of Austin Issues
As you probably recall, the Austin City Council has tried to help housing affordability in the past. Back in 2019 and 2020, City Council was in the process of passing a comprehensive overhaul of the land development code. The changes were aimed at allowing more dense housing to be built – especially along specially designated transit corridors.
But some local residents filed a lawsuit challenging the changes. And they won. The District Court ruled that the land development code overhaul violated Texas law by not giving individual property owners the right to protest it. Austin has appealed that ruling but, for the time being, the LDC overhaul is on ice.
Since then, there has been some talk from the City Council that it could try to do a piecemeal change of the Code for certain neighborhoods that could definitely use higher density housing. Unfortunately, as you can imagine, this would be very difficult and be very time consuming.
So under that backdrop, the City Council met last week to discuss possible solutions.
Possible Solutions Discussed
Prior to the meeting, Mayor Adler had made it clear that he wanted the discussion to focus on areas the Council could find agreement. As a result, it seemed likely that the Council was going to avoid many of the difficult solutions that could potentially provide the most benefit to resolving the affordability crisis.
But the Council did discuss the following potential solutions:
- More housing in commercial areas – From a high level, this appeared to be a pretty popular topic. Most of the councilmembers appeared to support the premise. Of course, the devil is always in the details and so when there is an actual vote on ways to achieve this goal, we will see if there is actual consensus. But for now, the Council seems to want to do this. And doing so could provide up to 46,324 residential units, according to a 2018 Planning Commission report.
- Accessory Dwelling Units – There was discussion on two ADU proposals: a) allowing some of them to be converted into houses; and b) allowing the current single family houses that are not zoned for ADUs to build one. There was pushback by at least one councilmember on the latter proposal.
- Compatibility – In many areas of Austin, regardless of what the zoning rules allow for the property, the property owner cannot build higher than the surrounding neighborhood. So many commercial properties that back up to residential properties are limited to two story growth. There was talk about changing this rule but it, predictably, got pushback from some Councilmembers.
- Incentives for companies to build housing for employees – A couple of months ago, I wrote an article on whether we would see the return of the company town. Well, the Austin City Council may help its return. It discussed providing incentives for companies to build housing for their employees.
Where Do We Go Now?
As you can see there were lots of potential proposals discussed. Unfortunately, nothing was put to a vote and enacted. As a result, while there was lots of talk about potential solutions, nothing was decided. The Council asked City Manager Spencer Cronk to study these proposals.
In addition, the best solution was not discussed. And that is the overhaul of the land development code to allow more dense building throughout the City. Obviously this is tied up in the Courts right now, but the City Council should be preparing for both the eventual resolution of the lawsuit and contingency plans for if its appeal fails.
The bottom line is that to solve Austin’s affordability problem, we need more housing. And the best way to provide that housing is to increase the density. Hopefully in the near future, the City Council will figure out a way to allow for that needed increase.