Smaller-scale "missing-middle" multifamily projects in Austin could soon move through a more rapid development process as officials seek to make it easier to bring a wider array of housing to the city.
Austin City Council is looking to tackle several issues related to the local housing crunch before several members' terms expire and their successors are sworn in next year. One change council will consider this week is the first step toward speeding up the construction of an array of projects with 16 or fewer units.
Currently, any development with more than two housing units must go through an extended site plan review before permits are issued and construction begins—a path that single-family homes and duplexes can avoid. Given Austin's notoriously lengthy, expensive and complex development process, an extra burden on anything larger than a two-unit project can effectively motivate builders to skip over midsize multifamily projects in favor of higher-priced single-family homes, even if the final product ends up taking up about the same amount of space.
Scott Turner, owner and founder of Riverside Homes, said that division is one he has become familiar with after decades of infill development work in the city.
Like many developers in Austin, Turner said the city's development system is complicated and based around some of the nation's most restrictive zoning rules that incentivize the construction of new single-family homes at the expense of other options with more rooms. Simply moving from a two- to three-unit plan typically adds at least a two-year review before a builder can take any next steps, he said.
"The process to get approved for a site plan and the regs that go with it are the same, regardless of whether it’s 12 units on an acre or 1,200 units in a giant apartment complex. It’s literally the same process," Turner said. "The moment I want to do three units I have to go through this lengthy process that involved a whole lot of time and expense. ... That is a huge, huge barrier for missing-middle housing.”
Making midsize possible
On Dec. 1, council will decide whether to move forward with a proposal from District 8 Council Member Paige Ellis aimed at cutting back some of those housing barriers.
Ellis' resolution calls for all proposed triplexes and quadplexes to skip the site plan stage and move directly to permitting, a benefit only one- and two-unit projects enjoy today. Additionally, the city would develop a "site plan lite" for missing-middle housing, defined as five- to 16-unit projects, that would strip away some requirements of the full site plan review.
Ellis said the measure stems from extended community discussions over the need to fix a broken code and bring "gentle density" in neighborhoods where it is feasible without forcing infill builders onto the path of larger apartment developers.
"We want to make sure that the red tape of trying to get through the permitting process is not what is preventing people from building housing," Ellis told Community Impact. "We know that lengthy permitting processes cost time and they cost money, and a lot of the fees that are assigned to these projects have to be paid upfront. And therefore you’re leveraging that loan on trying to build that before anybody can rent it or before you can move a family member into that extra unit.”
Mayor Steve Adler, a cosponsor of Ellis' proposal, has said he believes that Austin's land development code is holding back the type of residences addressed in the resolution.
“Austin needs more of the kind of housing that most people can afford. And we must build that housing faster and cheaper. This resolution is another way we can address our housing crisis," Adler said in a statement.
Many in the city have hoped to see more missing-middle housing in existing neighborhoods for years, but the city's development rules have ended up limiting such additions. During the extended and now-inactive push to rewrite Austin's land development code, a city staff analysis found only 2% of housing added in the city through the 2010s qualified as missing middle.
Turner said he believes the changes, if approved, would have a notable effect on affordability and access to housing in all Austin neighborhoods. He said some of the best examples of naturally affordable housing around town almost all come from before Austin's current land code was in place, a trend that could be flipped with a breakthrough in missing-middle construction.
“If you drive around your neighborhood, wherever you live, wherever you work, any neighborhood you like, and you look around and say, ‘What looks like something that might be affordable to live in relative to the neighborhood?’ It’s a certainty that it was built before 1984," he said.
Further council review
If Ellis' resolution is approved, both pieces of her proposal would be put out for added community feedback before returning to the council dais as city code amendments next year. Ahead of the Dec. 1 vote, Ellis already received support from several colleagues who have pointed to missing-middle space as a top target for city housing updates.
“As Austin’s affordability crisis deepens, we need to allow people to build, smaller, more affordable homes. Simplifying the permitting process also helps affordability. I appreciate [Council Member] Ellis’ leadership on this issue," District 4 Council Member Chito Vela said in a statement.
District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool also said the proposal with backing from residents is one that officials have wanted to see through for years.
“Easing the burden on this type of home is something I’ve been focused on for a good while, and I share Council Member Ellis’ desire to find specific remedies to accommodate more missing-middle housing," Pool said in a statement. "As we continue to recover from several challenging years, we are in a good position to focus on these types of reforms and make progress with widespread community support.”
Ellis said she does not wish to touch existing zoning rules or roll back other development limits designed to protect existing residences or the environment. She said the change is one that could help bring a wider range of new homes and create more connected, walkable communities in the city.
“We’re getting in the way of trying to help the housing crisis because we’ve decided you’re in one residential site plan or you’re in with the big projects. And we’ve got to find a way to let the middle housing get built naturally," she said.