Austin developers have a new option to build taller residential projects along major roadways, and could soon see additional rule changes aimed at making more transit-friendly housing possible citywide.

City Council passed a pair of land-use code updates that officials have said could help increase the local housing stock and affordability as Austin's rents and home prices continue to climb. The items were approved after extensive planning, and with further changes approved late in council's June 9 meeting.

The measures include an expansion of the vertical mixed-use, or VMU, affordable development program and a reduction of compatibility and parking limits along busy city streets. Both emerged from council's look at passing less controversial housing policies after a drawn-out rewrite of Austin's land development code fell through as a result of a resident lawsuit challenging the city's process.

Compatibility and corridors

Council's first approved measure is aimed at reducing parking requirements and compatibility standards—rules designed to limit the effects of new development on existing homes and neighborhoods—along major Austin corridors.

The proposal was drafted by a working group of several council members who said they wanted to spur denser development where most officials agree it should go: along Austin's transit networks. As defined by the working group and revised by council, those roads include planned Project Connect rail lines, "larger" corridors such as highways and Project Connect bus routes, and "medium" corridors, or Imagine Austin corridors and roads in the city's 2016 bond program.

“I think this resolution sets us on a path to achieve many of our goals that we share as a dais and does so in a way that I think is fair and is balanced, and I’m excited to see us take this step," Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter said.

The approved resolution calls on city staff come up with a finalized update on the compatibility and parking rules for council consideration later this year, with further analysis of its potential effects. The initiative could scale back compatibility in Austin, identified as much more stringent than similar policies in other cities, to allow taller construction closer to existing homes.

A map of the road networks targeted by the measure may be viewed here.


City officials and housing staff have hailed the VMU program as one the best ways the city supports affordable housing across town. As of April, nearly 700 such units had been completed at VMU projects and nearly 1,200 more are now in the development pipeline. Overall, more than 15,700 income-restricted and market-rate housing units are either open or in the works along Austin's transit corridors as a result of VMU.

A map of VMU-zoned properties and their allowed heights may be viewed here.

District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen initially proposed the code update, which council approved after several edits June 9. The program was split into two categories trading affordable housing for incentives allowing larger construction at different levels.

The original program is now called VMU1 with a tweak to its affordability requirements. A new label of VMU2 goes slightly further on affordability while allowing up to 30 feet of additional building height. Those affordability baselines will also be further heightened for projects along Project Connect's Orange and Blue lines.

Those limits were set after some back-and-forth about the requirements and whether pushing for too much affordable housing could cause developers to steer clear of the VMU option altogether—although several members wanted to try for more.

“I'm afraid that we’re losing significant affordable housing along our major transit corridors," said Kitchen, whose push for higher shares of affordable housing was voted down 6-5.

VMU2 could already be in line for a legal challenge given a change to the program outline brought forward by Adler and approved in a 7-4 vote. That adjustment removed language outlining the standard process allowing property owners to be notified of nearby zoning proposals and to challenge those cases, effectively allowing VMU2 development by right to occur on properties already zoned for vertical mixed-use.

Kitchen opposed that change and said it violates “fundamental fairness and respect” for members of the public wanting to weigh in on VMU2 projects.

The notification and protest issue is one the city already ran into during its land code rewrite, and one that Texas courts found violated property owners' rights based on the resident lawsuit. Doug Becker, the attorney on that case against the city, warned council on June 8 that an amendment pushing VMU2 by right could also conflict with those rules.

"[C]hanges to the land use regulations on VMU properties without providing written notice and protest rights ... subjects the city to further costly litigation. At that time, the city will be asked to explain why it again—this time within weeks of the Court of Appeals mandate –violated state law," Becker said in a letter to City Council.

Residents weigh in

The VMU and compatibility changes were supported by nearly all council members, and drew a mixed reception from the public. Several residents backed the proposals as a solid step toward unlocking more affordable options for people getting priced out in Austin, and the measures also attracted opposition from some who viewed them as overreaches that could harm certain communities.

Speaking from his experience as part of an immigrant family, Edgar Handal told council members that he would like to see limits on apartment construction eased.

“It’s painfully clear that detached homes in Austin are attainable only by the rich, and that building homes for the average households means building multifamily housing. Sadly, we seem to be held back in part by the idea that multifamily housing is incompatible with families," Handal said. "Apartments aren’t something that needs to be kept from other homes. They provide opportunity to working-class families.”

Other speakers agreed and said they supported action that could bring more multifamily housing across town. Educator August Strauch said he was displaced by a rent hike this year, and is now worried about that trend continuing without more housing available to him.

“More vertical integrated housing is going to be the only solution to allowing more affordable housing in Austin. Teaching is a love of mine, a passion, but I’ve found myself at a crossroads as to whether or not I can continue to do my passion in Austin still," he said.

On the other side of the debate, many participants said the proposals represent a step toward the further displacement of longtime residents, particularly those earning lower incomes.

Solveij Rosa Praxis said another case on council's June 9 agenda—a rezoning on Clayton Lane that has prompted concerns about tenant displacement in the face of redevelopment—represented the “unintended consequences and perverse incentives" of affordability programs such as VMU. That project would bring the relocation of more than a dozen residents at the Old Homestead apartments, at least temporarily, to allow for a new multifamily development.

“You give this gift to developers if you deregulate VMU; if you get rid of compatibility. If you give by-right entitlements we lose the public process that allows us to negotiate better deals. ... People are being harmed by this when you give away entitlements," said Carmen Llanes Pulido. "We can come up with better deals that produce more housing, preserve affordability, and keep regular Austinites from being displaced.”