Austin City Council is preparing to pass land development code updates designed to allow larger residential additions—including affordable housing—in areas where such construction is limited.

Council’s Dec. 1 agenda features a pair of items that could open heavily trafficked streets across the city to more housing projects. If approved, the changes would go into effect more than a year after city officials laid out a slate of options to tackle the local affordability crisis, including the proposals now up for consideration.

One could bring residential development to commercial properties if affordable housing is included; currently, adding housing on commercially-zoned land is illegal. The second would allow taller, denser projects to be built closer to existing residences on targeted major corridors. Council is looking to roll back the effects of compatibility—guidelines designed to protect existing residences by limiting aspects of new development nearby—in those areas.

The update comes months after a decade-long push to rewrite Austin’s land development code, last fully revised in 1984, ended in court following a successful challenge from residents over the city’s methods.

Some officials have said the items now up for discussion would represent the biggest steps the current council has taken to address affordability in Austin. The measures have also attracted some pushback due to concerns related to the city's level of community input and whether the changes are properly balanced for their intended effect.

Relaxing compatibility on corridors

Council is weighing a rollback of compatibility standards along dozens of stretches of roadway citywide, areas that many residents and officials have agreed are best-positioned to welcome larger housing projects.

Narrowing compatibility standards on major corridors as proposed would generally allow more expansive buildings closer to existing homes. The increased allowances would vary slightly between the roadways targeted by council: “large” and “medium” corridors, and current or future transit routes.

Critics of Austin’s compatibility rules have long held that local limits are far more restrictive than similar policies elsewhere, with a cap on building size leading to lost housing in new projects affected by the rules. Compatibility in Austin extends up to 540 feet away from single-family homes while other cities generally enforce limits well below that range.

City compatibility standards limit the height of new buildings within a certain distance of existing residences. (Screenshot via city of Austin)

Council passed an initial outline of the compatibility adjustment earlier this year. Housing staff then spent months finalizing an ordinance that would put the new rules into effect—but said they now believe it is not ready to be approved.

Greg Dutton, a planner in the city's housing department, told council Nov. 10 that staffers are concerned about the measure’s complexity and unpredictability for both builders and staffers, how it fits into other land-use policies that are now in the works, and whether it will go far enough to encourage bringing more housing to Austin.

A staff analysis found the vast majority of property subject to compatibility along Austin's corridors—more than 16,500 acres, or 70%—would see no reduction in development limits after the code revision.

Despite those reservations, city officials have stressed that they hope to pass the update before several members’ terms end in early January.

“It impacts a large number of properties in a lot of different ways, in ways we have all agreed on,” Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter said. “I don’t intend to postpone this to next year. I think we need to do something that we unanimously agree on and get that moving forward."

Before making it onto council's December agenda, the planning commission considered the update in mid-November and added several adjustments. While noting the proposal’s potential, commissioners also shared some worries before eventually forwarding the measure to council in a 7-2 vote.

“I know it doesn’t go quite far enough per staff’s comment; they would like us to go further. But also, council put this forth,” Chair Todd Shaw said Nov. 15. “They wanted to try to do something with the current council, and I would like to present them with a ‘yes’ with our amendments so they have something that kind of pushes forward all the hard work that our working group did and leave it with council to kind of look at those amendments.”

Commissioner Greg Anderson, who voted in favor, said he believes compatibility is the greatest cap on new housing in Austin. However, he said the new proposal in its current form may not fully address the issue—a view shared by several of his colleagues on the commission.

“We’re going to go from what looks to be the most restrictive compatibility-like standards in the country, to the most restrictive compatibility-like standards in the country,” Anderson said. “Instead of drowning in 10 feet of water, we’re going to drown in about 9.5 feet of water. That’s progress, I guess; it just doesn’t feel like it.”

Unlocking residential development

Another item aimed at adding more housing to corridors in Austin is a proposal to bring residential development where only retail, office and other commercial uses are allowed.

Unlike the compatibility item, which would grant more space in new projects, the commercial measure would give no new entitlements to anyone seeking to participate. Additionally, the change would only apply to developments with affordable housing.

Dutton said housing staff are "very supportive" of this update, which they project would unlock nearly 9,000 properties across Austin for residential use. Most are found along busy corridors with a majority near future Project Connect transit routes. Around half of that land is located in areas identified as being at risk of displacement.

Ahead of council's vote, one topic that could lead to further deliberation is the tradeoff between significant housing additions and the placement of hundreds of new residents near vehicle-heavy streets. Dutton flagged that issue given the negative health effects that pollutants can have for neighbors as staff recommended adding a 500-foot buffer between highways and eligible residential projects.

Several officials said the question of how residential density relates to environmental or health outcomes should be examined more as similar planning continues—especially alongside consideration of a separate measure incentivizing new construction on corridors.

"I understand the implications of having more housing located right next to highways, but I think if we make that policy decision as a council body we should also balance it with, ‘Well then where is it best to have that?’" District 8 Council Member Paige Ellis said. "If we can move more toward a perspective of ‘walkable, bikeable communities are good for denser housing,’ then I think we’re onto something."

Election night scheduling sparks change

The progress of both land code amendments generated some community complaints after both were placed on planning commission’s Nov. 8 agenda—2022's midterm election day. The commission is the last stop for code updates before they move to the council dais for possible final approval.

Elections will not conflict with public review of high-profile code updates in the future. In the wake of the meeting, a resolution from District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo was approved Nov. 15 that sets a new city policy to avoid scheduling board and commission sessions on local, state and federal election dates.