As Austin continues to tackle its land-use and mobility issues, leaders in sister cities share their own experience

The city of Austin continues to tackle issues of mobility and housing.

The city of Austin continues to tackle issues of mobility and housing.

As leaders in Austin work to manage the city’s continued growth and the pressure it places on issues such as housing and mobility, there are lessons to be learned and wisdom to be gained from how other cities have approached their own issues brought on by growth.

With a land-development code rewrite still underway to determine new rules around what is built in Austin and where, questions remain around how Austin will address its need for more housing and more affordable housing. In Minneapolis the City Council in December approved the dissolution of zoning categories that only allow detached single-family homes and began allowing duplexes and triplexes—housing stock typically referred to as “missing middle”—in every neighborhood.

City leaders in Minneapolis said the move centered around racial equity, housing affordability and climate change. Jonathan Weinhagen, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, said it is too early to know the impact of the “pro-growth, pro-density” decision. However, speaking at a Real Estate Council of Austin-hosted panel Sept. 12, Weinhagen said a key lesson was to “engage early and engage often,” with stakeholders leading up to City Council’s vote.

Up in Seattle, the city recently passed a mandatory affordable housing program that requires developers to build affordable housing or pay into the city’s affordable housing fund if City Council approves a rezone for their property that increases development capacity.

Marilyn Strickland, president and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and former mayor of Tacoma, Washington, said nothing is more contentious than land use, but as cities modernize, so, too, she said, does their philosophy.

“The question is, ‘What does it mean to live in a metropolitan area in the 21st century?’” Strickland said. “What does it mean to have housing security in the 21st century in America? We’re attached to [our own] houses and lots of a certain size—that’s the American dream. But looking around the world, [it’s common] to have three generations of a family living under the same roof.”

Over in Nashville, the city is making significant investments into affordable housing construction through its $750 million Under One Roof 2029 initiative, in which the city is trying to build thousands income-restricted units by 2029, the city’s 250th birthday. Matt Wiltshire, chief strategy officer of the Nashville Development and Housing Agency, said although the essence of housing is simple, the materialization of it is complex.

“Housing is simple in its basic essence—it’s about supply and demand,” Wiltshire said. “[In Nashville] demand has outstripped supply in the last 10 years. What we’re trying to do in Nashville, we need to build housing across the [income] spectrum.”

Wiltshire said overall the project will cost close to $3 billion to $4 billion, and it needs to be done without displacing a single resident. He said public-private partnerships will be crucial as the project is too large for the government to carry on its own.

Weinhagen agreed that private-sector help is needed, but said, through his experience in Minneapolis, the numbers have to be right in order for the private sector to play ball. He said there is a delicate balance for government to play as well, as too much tampering with the market could be harmful.

“The hard reality is that the private sector is looking at a spreadsheet with risk and reward; they aren’t looking at the story of a community,” Weinhagen said. “But today’s market-rate housing is tomorrow’s affordable housing. [Stakeholders] have to understand that.”

Strickland said unlike in the past, today’s conversations about housing and land use involve transit, and vice-versa, which she said is important for cities looking to make major investments in transit and mobility solutions.

In Austin, the city is gearing up for a potential multibillion-dollar transit bond in 2020. Strickland said it took four different elections for people to finally say yes to transit in the Seattle area, and that going for such a bond in a presidential election year is crucial to bond approval. However, more crucial, Strickland said, is public engagement, outreach and education.

“We went to every area of the city where there would be a transit stop and showed the people what they would be getting” if they voted for the bond, Strickland said. She also said cities should not get hung up on whether a transit bond is $2 billion or $9 billion.

“If people believe in the bond, they will vote for it,” Strickland said.

Strickland said Seattle would look different today had the city invested in transit 20 years ago, but that no one in Seattle imagined, 20 years ago, that one day 1,000 people per week would be moving to the area.

“The best time to plant an oak tree is 20 years ago,” Wiltshire said, alluding to major investments that take time to materialize. “The second-best time is right now.”
By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Su


MOST RECENT

A photo of a road sign that reads, "Eyes Up; Buckle Up."
High-injury roadway Slaughter Lane to receive safety updates this month

Slaughter Lane is among 13 roadways targets by Austin Transportation Department as part of its Vision Zero program.

Dell Children's Medical Center sleep lab
Dell Children’s Medical Center doubles size of pediatric sleep program

The newly expanded, six-bed sleep lab at Dell Children’s now has the ability to offer diagnostic sleep studies and therapeutic studies for children with potential sleeping disorders.

An orange virus graphic that reads "Today's coronavirus data updates"
Travis County reports 753 new coronavirus cases July 8

The Austin MSA is still hovering near Stage 5 risk with 67 new hospital admissions in the past day.

Education Austin President Ken Zarifis hosted an online press conference with Austin ISD teachers July 8. (Screenshot courtesy Education Austin)
Austin ISD teachers demand keeping classes online for start of school year

Education Austin says that keeping all classes online is in the best interest of district employees, students and families.

Census worker
2020 census: Bureau prepares nonresponse follow-up field operations

For individuals who have not responded to the 2020 census, one of about 500,000 census takers will visit the their household between Aug. 11-Oct. 31.

Emler Swim School operates 28 year-round locations in Texas and Kansas. (Courtesy Emler Swim School)
Emler Swim School now offering interactive lessons online

Families can choose to receive training via weekly video calls or through instructional videos online.

Dr. Mark Escott, Austin-Travis County interim health authority, said in a July 8 news conference that officials are "desperately trying to avoid" both overcrowding hospitals and shutting down the economy with another shelter-in-place order. (Courtesy ATXN)
If new shelter-in-place orders are needed in Austin, local officials hope to have 'productive dialogue' with Gov. Abbott

With area ICU beds at 85% capacity, officials are preparing the Austin Convention Center to accept hospital patients and are calling on health professionals from around the country to assist in Texas.

Stage 5 is not triggered by an exact number but could be triggered anywhere above 70 hospitalizations per day over the past seven days, depending on the recent rate of the increase. (Courtesy Travis County)
With 74.8 new hospitalizations per day over past week, Travis County could move into coronavirus risk Stage 5

Under Stage 5, Austin Public Health could suggest only essential businesses remain open.

A screen capture of a virtual meeting of the Travis County Commissioners Court, feauring Gerald Daugherty and Sam Biscooe sitting in the courtroom
UPDATE: Travis County postpones public discussion on Tesla economic incentives until July 14

County commissioners will continue discussions on Tesla with economic development staff at their next regular voting session.

The Texas Education Agency released guidelines about on-campus activities, attendance requirements, and health and safety precautions for the 2020-21 school year. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Texas Education Agency issues guidelines for 2020-21 school year

The guidelines address on-campus activities, attendance requirements, and health and safety precautions that should be enforced at Texas schools this year.

Edward Logan is the new CEO of Sport Clips Inc. (Courtesy Sport Clips Inc.)
New Sport Clips Haircuts CEO to succeed founder

In his early work with Sport Clips, Edward oversaw the company-owned stores, taking many of them to top performers within the system.