City Council is set up for its final review of expanded housing development options in Austin's residential neighborhoods, after the Planning Commission moved along its amendments to the Housing Options for Middle-income Empowerment, or HOME, initiative.

The appointed resident planning body voted Nov. 15 to advance a slate of recommendations that may end up influencing the scope of a final HOME ordinance before the end of the year.

The big picture

HOME was first proposed by Council Member Leslie Pool this summer and, if approved, could be one of the more notable changes to Austin's land development policies considered in recent years. Changes would apply to properties under the SF-1, SF-2 and SF-3 zoning categories that cover much of Austin's single-family areas.

The measure calls to:
  • Allow up to three housing units on most single-family properties, raising the one- and two-unit caps in place today
  • Reduce the land needed to build a residence from 5,750 square feet to around 2,500 square feet
Those two pieces of HOME have been split up and only the new unit limit is currently on the table, alongside an increase to the number of residents who can live together in one space. HOME's minimum lot size adjustments could be coming next year.

After the HOME concept got an initial OK from City Council this summer, the plan moved into a public review phase this fall. Hundreds of residents have written in to the city and their elected representatives, attended extended public forums to weigh in for or against, and submitted formal protests to the plan.

Ahead of a scheduled Dec. 7 council vote on HOME, city planning commissioners spent hours Nov. 14-15 hearing additional public testimony and considering their own edits to the initiative.

The framework

Planning commissioners dove into various aspects of the HOME proposal during their November review, ranging from the ins and outs of building regulations under the new rules to the policy's effects on Austin communities that had endured negative effects under past land-use changes.

Commission members proposed:
  • Capping the size of housing on sites that take advantage of HOME by regulating their floor-to-area ratio, or FAR, and square footage depending on how many units are built. Commissioners considered a range of FAR and square footage limits in part to try and discourage the construction of larger homes, an outcome opposite to HOME's stated intent
  • Requiring certain yard setbacks, or areas without development, between new homes and their neighbors
  • Requiring new housing to have a balanced number of front-facing driveways and doorways to avoid what Commissioner Grayson Cox called "walls off garages," and to promote street activation in neighborhoods
  • Encouraging builders to maintain existing homes alongside any new construction under HOME through preservation programs, trading slightly greater development allowances if most of the older housing on a lot is kept in place
  • Calling for regular analysis by city staff on future housing production under HOME
  • Calling for city departments to review how added housing under HOME would impact city infrastructure in neighborhoods
  • Considering new enforcement options related to short-term rentals in light of recent legal decisions on the topic
Zooming in

Equity outcomes under HOME, including the geographic effects of the initiative and affordability options for residents, were also kept in focus by commissioners.

The idea of exempting SF-1-zoned properties—largely located in West Austin and near the city's northern and southern edges—from HOME was voted down, with members citing the move as inequitable.

“This would put HOME squarely in line with the sequence of previous historic zoning decisions that ... made a very intentional decision to concentrate density, growth and the sharing of space in places where folks are less affluent and where we are more likely to see people of color," Commissioner João Paulo Connolly said. "This would be the opposite of affirmatively furthering fair housing, which is our mandate, and this would be, I think, a deeply immoral decision for us to make as a commission.”

In the same vein, commissioners also rejected an amendment tying HOME only to areas around the city's Core Transit Corridors that mainly run through Central and East Austin.

At the suggestion of Commissioner Alberta Phillips, who said she wanted to ensure new policies don't result in another round of forced relocation and gentrification in the city, changes designed to help lower-income Austinites benefit from HOME and create more income-restricted housing units were also accepted.

According to the commission

Commissioners voted 11-2 in favor of their HOME amendments, while holding varying opinions about its potential results.

Chair Todd Shaw said he wants to see the initiative advance as a common-sense update to Austin's stagnant development rules.

“We have a land code that’s 50 years old. Folks, that’s got to alarm you. You can’t be the 10th-largest city and depend on that for your needs within the city. ... So we’re taking small steps," he said.

Vice Chair Claire Hempel based her support on HOME's stated goals and its place in Austin's ongoing series of land-use debates.

“I don’t love that we had to do this piecemeal like this; we tried to do it holistically, that failed twice, so this is what we have to do," she said. "I will be proudly supporting these improvements for the people that I employ who cannot buy homes now, there’s just no way for them to do that and stay in Austin."

Cox called HOME "bad policy resulting from bad policymaking" and said he wouldn't vote for the plan given its his views on the public process so far and a lack of information on its effects. Before her vote against, Commissioner Jennifer Mushtaler criticized HOME's review and how the plan might impact city resources, crime and infrastructure.

“I’m not sure we’re going to get the family communities that we’re hoping for and I’m not sure that we’re going to get the kind of middle housing that we need. This isn’t lending itself to ownership and permanence and stability for families that need that and are looking for that, to be close in the city and work in our city and live in our city," she said.

While voting in favor, Phillips also called for better engagement on the topic and consideration of affordability requirements going forward.

“When we started this journey I pointed out that this process was not very welcoming to people of color, people who look like me, people with my lived experience because of how it was put together and where it was held, and the fact that we weren’t taking these conversations to the community," she said. “I’m hoping as this goes forward, even to council, that they will consider making sure that they are being inclusive and not exclusive."

Also of note

While the Planning Commission session was underway Nov. 14, members of the Community Development Commission met across the City Hall lobby and voted to ask council to hold off on a HOME vote.

In their resolution calling for a delay, those commissioners said the update shouldn't be carried out until more lower-income Austinites are involved and an equity analysis on its effects is completed. Commissioners also cited a need to find ways to preserve existing housing that's been naturally affordable to own or rent, and for HOME to include requirements related to affordability and flooding mitigation.