City Council differs on impact CodeNEXT draft could have on affordability in Northwest Austin

The change in median home prices for December was across the board in Northwest Austin.

The change in median home prices for December was across the board in Northwest Austin.

Image description
Council differs on impact density could have in NW Austin
Image description
Council differs on impact density could have in NW Austin
Image description
Council differs on impact density could have in NW Austin
Since 2011 the median sales price for single-family homes, condos and townhomes in Northwest Austin has risen 75 percent, according to data from the Austin Board of Realtors.

With the latest draft of the city’s land-development code rewrite, CodeNEXT, up for discussion by City Council, some members see it as a potentially useful tool in easing the city’s affordability concerns. Many council members agree that increasing the level of housing density allowed by the code could help keep prices from rising as steeply; however, how much density should be allowed and where to put it remain points of contention.

North Austin District 4 Council Member Greg Casar said that there are a few ways that rewriting the land-development code could curb home and apartment price growth. One method is to increase density along corridors that surround significant roadways by allowing residential units to be built above existing retail and office space. In neighborhoods with less substantial roadways, Casar said the code could allow for a greater variety of housing options such as duplexes, triplexes or small apartment buildings.

“I don’t think anybody on the dais has said that CodeNEXT is going to fix affordability in it of itself,” Casar said. “However, we have a lot of problems that are making things worse that we can address now to slow price increases.”

Casar’s neighboring council member to the west, Leslie Pool of District 7, said her constituents are concerned about allowing increased density in neighborhoods that have traditionally housed single-family homes.

“I’ve been here almost 40 years and I have a strong sense of what the Austin cachet is,” Pool said. “When I make decisions it is informed by being really connected on a personal level to this community.”

The Density Debate

The current draft of CodeNEXT, which was created over several years with input from city planning commissions, addresses many issues such as flood mitigation, drainage and parkland preservation. The main area of debate among City Council members and affordable housing advocates, however, involves the proposed code’s changes to density.

The current draft proposes that the city allow for more residential zoning above retail and office space along major corridors such as North Lamar Boulevard, Burnet Road or US 183. The exact corridors to receive zoning for added density are still being negotiated among council members, but many agree that access to major roadways and transit options are important factors.

District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said the Lakeline Mall area along RM 620 is a potential option.

“[Lakeline has] been identified as a density retail area for a long time; it’s served by two highways and a train line,” he said. “There’s fields there and the opportunity to redevelop some of the parking lots that were full 30 years ago that aren’t anymore.”

Pool said she could support new residential zoning along North Lamar, but she is skeptical that adding density will lower costs.

“I hold pretty strongly to the belief that density does not lower the cost of living in a town like Austin that is in a development boom,” Pool said. “There are so many people wanting to move here the market is controlling the prices.”

Transit and traffic

Some have expressed concern that adding density along already congested corridors would increase traffic, Flannigan said helping more people afford to stay in Austin will help ease traffic from commuters traveling through the outlying areas of the city.

Casar, another proponent of increased density along corridors, said access to transit is a deciding factor in allowing it.

“I’ve spoken to many people who want more frequent bus routes,” Casar said. “The way you get those from [Capital Metro] is by having more riders. So if you have more riders living near the stops, you’ll get higher frequencies.”

The Northwest Austin market

Despite their disagreements, Northwest Austin’s council members agree that the city’s land-development code needs reform soon.

Flannigan said in one election cycle, he has spoken with constituents who moved to Northwest Austin from Central Austin seeking lower costs of living and then moved again to Cedar Park and other suburbs for the same reason.

“If the city doesn’t accommodate the growth that’s coming, that growth will get built in Cedar Park, Leander, Hutto and Taylor,” he said. “Then all those people will drive through Northwest Austin to go to work unless we figure out how to solve this problem.”

The real estate market in Northwest Austin also presents challenges for renters. Strong development of apartments in Northwest Austin in recent years has caused rental rates to stabilize, however developers may begin to step away from the market until demand increases, allowing rates to rise again, said Bruce McClenny, president of Houston-based apartment rental trend website,

There are nearly a dozen apartment complexes either opening soon or under construction in North Austin and Northwest Austin.

“The people that fund [developers] to build [apartments] are looking for returns,” McClenny said. “They see this [data] and say we better hold off and see how the market comes back. Let this slow down and build into a market that doesn’t have so much supply.”

Recently, apartment building capacity in Northwest Austin remained close to 94 percent, which McClenny said influences a developer’s decision to build in an area.

“If you’re over 96 percent [capacity] your rents are too low, speaking from somebody in the industry,” he said. “Once you get down into the lower 90s and at the 90 percent range that’s when it turns more into a renter’s market as opposed to a landlord’s market.”

Casar said his constituents see rent increases when old apartments receive upgrades to attract new tenants.

“I’ve spoken with so many of my North Austin constituents whose rent has continued to get pushed up just because a landlord throws a new coat of paint on the building and gives it a new name and people get pushed farther outside of the city,” Casar said.

Other affordability tools

The CodeNEXT draft also requires income-restricted units in certain buildings as a part of the code’s Affordable Housing Bonus Program.

“Austin is trying to work with these developers and have them set aside a certain percentage of their overall supply,” McClenny said. “You must have a certain qualification of renter for those units, and you can’t do that at market rent. You have to have a different rent level for [the city] to approve this construction for you.”

Nicole Joslin, chair of affordable housing advocacy group Austin Housing Coalition, said that although she supports the overhaul of the code, she worries that the bonus program will not provide enough housing for Austin’s low-income population.

“If you ask developers [the incentives are] not enough. If you ask housing advocates [the incentives give] too much,” Joslin said.

As council members seek compromises on the code, Flannigan said coming to a consensus and passing a new code should be a priority for the council. With packed agendas in June leading up to council’s July hiatus, the first reading of CodeNEXT was pushed back.

On July 16, a Travis County district judge ruled in favor of a lawsuit filed by local activists to allow residents to vote this November on whether they agree that CodeNEXT, and all future code rewrites, should be left to a public vote.

“There’s more to go to get it to reflect not just what’s on the ground today but a plan and a process for what this city is going to be,” Flannigan said. “If we do nothing, the problems that have gotten worse in the last 30 years will continue to get worse over the next 30 years.”


Austin City Hall (Christopher Neely/Community impact Newspaper)
Some on Austin City Council want more of its $272 million coronavirus relief package to go to residents in need

City Council will determine how much to put toward direct financial assistance at its June 4 meeting.

Candidates in the Senate District 14 special election responded to Community Impact Newspaper's questions about their campaigns to fill the vacant seat in the Texas Senate. (Design by Shelby Savage/Community Impact Newspaper)
Q&A: Senate District 14 candidates discuss the issues ahead of July 14 election

There are six candidates running in the special election to fill the seat of former Sen. Kirk Watson through 2022.

Parkfield Drive at Norseman Terrace
City outlines plans for 3 North Austin roadway projects to increase mobility, pedestrian safety

Plans and timelines for three separate North Austin transportation projects are now available to review online.

Travis County judge pushes back against attorney general's reprimand of stay-at-home order

Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe responded to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's warning that county coronavirus orders conflicted with the state's.

Take a look at how coronavirus impacted Williamson County this week. (Chance Flowers/Community Impact Newspaper)
Take a look at how coronavirus impacted Williamson County this week

The county reported 596 total cases on May 29.

The Williamson County small-business grant program has issued more than $18.5 million as of May 29. (Ali Linan/Community Impact)
Williamson County small-business grant program issues more than $18.5 million

The program has aided more than 1,600 local businesses.

Volunteers load cars at a distribution event in South Austin on May 28. (Nicholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)
Six food distribution events scheduled by Central Texas Food Bank in June

Residents who face food insecurities can drive up with their vehicles for no-contact pickup.

Cap Metro and its community partners have combined to delivery more than 300,000 meals to community members in need. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Capital Metro, community partners deliver more than 300K meals to community

The public transportation agency is teaming up with businesses and nonprofits to provide meals for those in need.

Williamson County and Cities Health District reported eight new cases of coronavirus May 29, bringing the county total to 596. (Screenshot courtesy Williamson County)
1 death and 8 new confirmed cases of coronavirus reported May 29 in Williamson County

Williamson County and Cities Health District reported the total number of cases at 596.

The Austin Central Library will reopen after it was closed for more than two months to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (John Cox/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin libraries, in-person pet adoptions to begin reopening June 1

The Austin Parks and Recreation Department will begin opening amenities, but there is no date set to open Barton Springs Pool.

(Courtesy Fotolia)
New school schedules and a road opening: Latest news from Central Texas

Read the latest news from Community Impact Newspaper's coverage of the Central Texas area.

A photo of the Travis County headquarters sign
Austin Public Health officials say they plan to increase support to Latino community, where coronavirus hospitalizations are up

As of May 26, 76 Hispanic individuals in Travis County were hospitalized with COVID-19, representing around 78% of all hospitalizations.