Early looks at newly proposed land-use code highlight its limited role in Austin’s affordable housing goals

The Austin skyline runs against the Colorado River.

The Austin skyline runs against the Colorado River.

The most recent draft of the proposed overhaul of Austin’s land development code—the rules governing what can be built in the city and where—shows revisions that boost the city’s income-restricted housing capacity from 1,500 to 8,841.

The nearly six-fold increase, city staff said, comes from increased allowances in multifamily housing construction across the city as well as the ability for developers in more parts of Austin to enter into a density bonus program, which offers developers the ability to build more housing units—increasing their profits—in exchange for construction of income-restricted housing.

Although city staff heralded the six-fold increase during an Oct. 8 presentation to City Council, they highlighted the long-awaited code revision’s limitation, as a stand-alone entity, in accomplishing Austin’s goal to build at least 60,000 new income-restricted units by 2027.

“It’s a lofty goal, and it’s going to take a lot to achieve it, and the land development code is one tool that you have to achieve it,” said Alex Steinberger, a partner with planning firm Cascadia Partners, which was hired by the city as a consultant. “It’s a very strong tool; it’s an important tool, but it won’t get you all the way there.”

The 8,841-unit capacity relies on the code’s expansion of its density bonus program. Steinberger pointed to the city’s capital program and projects funded through the $250 million affordable housing bond passed by voters in 2018 as other means of producing income-restricted housing throughout the city without relying on the initiative of for-profit developers to build affordable units in exchange for market-priced units.

Steinberger also said the capacity estimate did not account for nonprofit developer projects, which, he said, use different criteria for how they build and finance projects. Earlier this year, City Council passed its Affordability Unlocked policy, which dramatically expands incentives for nonprofit developers to build income-restricted housing throughout Austin.

“This code is a nonprofit developer-friendly code,” Steinberger said. “It helps them build more densely and more economically. The work that remains to be done is trying to tee up the funding and the programs to make the [60,000 income-restricted units] goal a reality.”

An uphill battle

When it comes to the ability to require affordable housing, local governments in Texas have their hands tied, said Erica Leak, housing planning and policy manager for the city of Austin. This is something City Council members said they want the public to clearly understand.

The state of Texas prohibits its cities from implementing inclusionary zoning—zones in which developers are required by law to provide some percentage of income-restricted housing in new development—a tool on which other cities across the country rely to produce affordable housing. Texas also does not allow cities to charge impact fees, which cities would be able to levy on new development. Those fees would go toward an affordable housing fund maintained by the city government.

Instead, affordable housing from the private market in Texas typically comes through government subsidies or creative incentive programs—such as the density bonus program—designed by local governments. To subsidize its way into its affordable housing goals, city staff estimates a price tag between $6 billion to $11 billion. This means the emphasis is on incentives—use of which are, by definition, voluntary—and calibrating those incentives so developers want to buy in.

Although Leak said the latest draft of the land code rewrite makes Austin’s incentive package attractive, she said the limitations imposed by the state make it an uphill battle.

“There is just no way that an optional incentive program will ever be able to produce a sufficient number of income-restricted units,” Leak said. “It really does require subsidy. It requires other tools, but unfortunately, the state of Texas prohibits the use of tools available in other cities. This is really the greatest number of affordable units we think [the code] can provide.”

District 1 Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison implored city staff to educate the community on the state restrictions Austin faces in providing affordable housing.

“Please be very clear about those tools, limitations, etc. so they really understand what is happening, what can happen, what can’t happen and under what circumstances they can be more active in moving us forward,” Harper-Madison said.
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


Travis County primary runoff election results: Delia Garza, José Garza, Ann Howard and Dimple Malhotra headed to victory

José Garza will advance to November's general election after his victory over incumbent Margaret Moore. As of 10:45 p.m. on July 14, Garza had more than 68% of the vote.

A graphic reading "Today's coronavirus updates)
Travis County cases are plateauing around 500 daily, Austin's top doctor says

Stage 5 risk is still likely to come, Dr. Mark Escott said, due to strained ICU capacity.

In Hays County, Carrie Isaac and Kent “Bud” Wymore square off in a runoff election for the District 45 Republican nomination. (Travis Baker/Community Impact Newspaper)
Results show Isaac and Berry leading in local Texas House Republican runoff elections

Results are coming in for the two Texas House Republican runoff elections that appeared on the July 14 ballot for Central Texas residents.

Texas Senate District 14 special election
Senate District 14 election results: Sarah Eckhardt in the lead; runoff with Eddie Rodriguez possible

The winner of the special election for Texas Senate District 14 will serve out the term of former state Sen. Kirk Watson through 2022.

2020 primary runoff
UPDATE: Margaret Moore concedes race to José Garza in Democrat primary runoff contest for Travis County district attorney

Read here to see the returns on the 2020 Democratic primary runoff contest for Travis County district attorney.

2020 primary runoff election
Ann Howard apparent victor in Travis County Precinct 3 Democratic primary race

Early voting results for the July 14 Democratic runoff election for Travis County Commissioner Precinct 3 have Ann Howard in the lead against Valinda Bolton at 15,131 votes to 7,739.

Polls closed at 7 p.m. July 14 in Texas' primary runoff election. Delia Garza and Laurie Eiserloh are running in the Democratic race for Travis County Attorney. (Design by Shelby Savage/Community Impact Newspaper)
Travis County attorney election results: Delia Garza on her way to victory over Laurie Eiserloh

Laurie Eiserloh and Delia Garza are running to replace retiring Travis County Attorney David Escamilla, who has held the position for the previous 17 years.

Education Austin President Ken Zarifis said earlier this month that in-person teaching is inappropriate because it will risk the health of students, employees and teachers. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
All Austin ISD classes to be held online during first 3 weeks of school year

Travis County health officials said earlier July 14 that districts should delay the start of in-person instruction until at least Sept. 8 due to the ongoing pandemic.

A photo of the property Tesla is considering
Travis County approves 20-year incentives deal with Tesla for potential gigafactory

Travis County County commissioners voted July 14 to approve millions of dollars in possible tax rebates for the electric carmaker.

The Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, giving claimants $600 per week, will end July 25. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Federal unemployment payments of $600 per week end July 25

While the added $600 federal unemployment benefits will end, Texans are still eligible for other forms of relief.

Dr. Steven Kelder is a professor in the Department of Epidemiology, Human Genetics, and Environmental Sciences at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health in Austin with a career spanning more than 25 years. (Graphic by Chance Flowers/Community Impact Newspaper)
Disease expert discusses ongoing pandemic and nearing school year

Dr. Steven H. Kelder recently answered several questions for Community Impact Newspaper regarding COVID-19; trends in cases statewide; and important considerations for parents, students and educators as the 2020-21 school year approaches.