Alongside housing policy, council's final scheduled meeting of 2021 may feature votes on paid parental leave for city first responders, relief funding for local artists and items related to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport's growth.
Housing stays in focus
Council is coming off of a Nov. 30 work session that saw officials run through a variety of development and land use proposals that could be voted on in the near future. That meeting was geared toward airing out ideas in hopes of finding housing policy updates that council members could reach agreement on and pass quickly without controversy. Now, several ideas from that session have been forwarded for consideration, including those listed below.
- Easing restrictions on accessory dwelling units, or ADUs: A resolution from District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo calls for city management to put together a "menu" of pre-approved ADU plans for faster development, add an inventive policy for affordable ADU construction, and allow ADUs in some single-family areas where the structures are not permitted.
- Incentivizing residential development in commercial areas: This resolution promoted by District 10 Council Member Alison Alter would allow for residential construction in areas zoned for commercial or office uses, and where housing is not allowed, in exchange for an affordable housing requirement.
- Moving ahead with VMU2: Council already approved a measure from District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen last month that would expand Austin's vertical mixed-use, or VMU, affordability program into two tracks labeled VMU1 and VMU2. A public hearing for the update could be set by council for Jan. 27, 2022, days after the planning commission is scheduled to meet and discuss the topic.
In addition to those specific items, Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison also hopes to launch a study of the overall costs of building homes in Austin, and how those costs are passed onto both owners and renters.
As proposed, Harper-Madison's directive would see city management look into costs for housing types ranging from single-family homes to multifamily complexes, broken down by distinct parts of the city with different characteristics. Harper-Madison told Community Impact Newspaper Dec. 7 that she is pushing the plan to give officials a comprehensive rundown of Austin's "cumbersome" development process and "completely untenable" housing costs.
“Right now in huge parts of Austin, it’s a cakewalk for homebuilders to take a property and demolish one small house, and replace that one small house with one big house. If that same builder wanted to replace that one small house with four or six or eight units, that process really takes forever," she said. "I’m just thinking a lot about all the red tape that’s built into our systems. I think it’s really important for us to understand the extent of that so we can make informed policy decisions."
The city analysis would not be complete until late 2022 with an interim update due next May. And despite the longer timeframe, Harper-Madison said she believes the information to be gathered will help council take on the cost issue down the road as they move ahead with other consensus items in the meantime.
“When we make housing expensive ... the people who pay for it, ultimately, those are buyers and those are renters," she said.
First responder parental leave
A Kitchen-backed policy up for a vote Dec. 9 would provide all city first responders with paid parental leave.
Kitchen repeatedly pointed to the update as essential for sworn employees of the city's emergency response departments, regardless of its cost or the state of ongoing labor negotiations between the city and local police, fire, and EMS unions. She also said the move is needed to bring benefits in line with the leave currently granted to the city's civilian staff.
“From my perspective, this is not a benefit to negotiate," Kitchen said.
If passed, Kitchen's resolution would give City Manager Spencer Cronk one month to bring council a plan and cost estimate for granting parental leave benefits to first responders. The policy would apply for births, adoptions and foster placements.