After 7 years, City Council gives initial approval to comprehensive rewrite of Austin’s land use rules, eyes March final approval

Austin City Council took its first of three votes on the land development code rewrite on Dec. 11.
Austin City Council took its first of three votes on the land development code rewrite on Dec. 11. (CHRISTOPHER NEELY/COMMUNITY IMPACT NEWSPAPER)

Austin City Council took its first of three votes on the land development code rewrite on Dec. 11. (CHRISTOPHER NEELY/COMMUNITY IMPACT NEWSPAPER)

After three straight days of deliberation, which followed more than 7 years of work, City Council, in its first of three votes necessary, approved the proposed overhaul of the city’s land use rules and moved Austin closer to a complete rewrite of how the city governs development within its boundaries.

City Council approved the proposal 7-4, with City Council members Kathie Tovo, Ann Kitchen, Alison Alter and Leslie Pool dissenting. The vote marked a watershed moment for Austin, which, as a community, has been working since 2012 to completely rewrite its rules governing what can be built in the city and where—rules which have not had a comprehensive revision since 1984, back when Austin still fancied itself a sleepy college town. Many officials project that when 2020 Census data is calculated, Austin will be the 10th largest city in the United States.

It was officially the first vote City Council has taken on proposed substantive changes since the process began 7 years ago. With no more meetings scheduled this month, the vote will be the last City Council takes on the land development code in 2019. City staff and council members project the third and final vote will arrive in March 2020.

“This code is a really big deal, and this day is a really big deal,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said.

The mayor emphasized that the city’s issues of affordability, equity and segregation are not solved exclusively by the land development code, but said "those issues are not solved without a comprehensive revision of the land development code.”

The Austin metro has been among the country’s fastest growing for the last several years. That growth has placed pressure on Austin’s housing market, which suffers from a housing shortage and many say the current land development code is too confusing and too restrictive to allow the city to make significant progress on its housing needs. Austin currently has an affordable housing shortage of 60,000 units according to city staff. The city has committed to a plan that produces those affordable housing units as part of a housing capacity boost of 145,000 new units by 2027.

The most contentious part of the land development code rewrite has regarded where the proposed changes place the housing density needed for the city to reach its housing goals, City Council agreed early in the process to place most of the new housing density along the busiest transit corridors. However, it is the implementation of missing middle zones that has caused the most stress, according to City Council members and members of the community.

The missing middle zones are areas of transition between the highly dense transit corridors and less dense neighborhood centers where the city wants to create opportunities for duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes and townhomes—housing types that are rarely seen in contemporary Austin. City leaders and housing experts say the proliferation of missing middle housing is crucial to addressing skyrocketing demand on land throughout the city and mitigating housing costs.

“Let’s legalize the construction of more housing types and complete communities,” District 1 Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison said. “Sometimes growth is uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to go through it.”

Tovo said she was worried that the increased building entitlements offered in missing middle zones will result in rapid redevelopment of existing neighborhoods without guarantees of affordable housing. Tovo, who represents Central Austin, said she cannot go anywhere in her district without someone stopping her to offer their concerns about the threat of redevelopment. Tovo stressed the need to get the community more involved with the process.

Kitchen, who voted against the proposal, said the city needs missing middle housing, but needs to obtain it in a way that “doesn’t hasten what we’re seeing now” with modestly-priced properties being redeveloped and replaced with expensive homes.

District 4 Council Member Greg Casar said he was happy with the way the conversations were going but that they were far from over.

City Council is expected to take its second vote in early February.
By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, USA Today and several other local outlets along the east coast.


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