City Council is readying for a final vote Dec. 7 on the first half of Austin's HOME initiative to bring more housing into single-family areas following months of debate over the proposal.

The breakdown

The changes to single-family land-use rules under HOME, or Housing Options for Middle-Income Empowerment, were brought by council member Leslie Pool and initially advanced by council members earlier this year. HOME is aimed at what some officials call "gentle density" in Austin's heavily residential areas.

Central to HOME's first phase, up for a vote this December, is allowing up to three homes on single-family properties across most of the city; one- and two-unit limits are the norm in those places today. A second phase that could advance next spring would reduce the amount of land needed to build a home.

Those two pieces combined would greatly increase housing development possibilities on thousands of Austin properties, an outcome that has prompted strong opinions among supporters and opponents. Hundreds of area residents and advocates have testified across multiple, lengthy public forums on HOME, and hundreds more have weighed in in writing.

Put in perspective

Some of those in favor of HOME say it will eventually provide new, more affordable housing options amid spiking housing costs that have pushed homeownership out of reach for many. Backers also hope HOME can reverse trends that include persistent gentrification, widespread teardowns replaced by larger single-family homes encouraged under current building rules, and more and more residents feeling pushed out of Austin due to cost-of-living increases.

“The world in Austin has changed, and now the single-family neighborhoods aren’t accessible for the middle class anymore. We can’t deny this fact, and I won’t look away from it," Pool said during a Dec. 5 press conference. "We neighbors who live here now have the ability to make room in our city for all who are coming here wanting to make this their home too, just like room was made for us when we were in the same place in our lives and careers."

A coalition of HOME supporters includes economic, development, workforce and housing policy organizations, such as the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, Austin Infill Coalition, the Austin EMS Association, Preservation Austin, Capital Metro and AARP Texas.

Those wishing to pause HOME are worried that the policies could make some unfavorable current-day outcomes even worse. They've noted fears that increased speculation in the housing market and rising property taxes could stem from the new building allowances, pricing out Austinites and causing even more displacement—especially for lower-income residents. Some have also criticized the plan for focusing on market-rate housing without any income limits.

“HOME is only going to accelerate the homelessness crisis and the housing affordability crisis. It has no requirements for affordability, and not only that, when you massively increase the potential profits that developers can make, it incentivizes them to take over," said Sol Rosa Praxis, an organizer opposed to the plan. "Homes that families have been trying to hang onto for generations, they’ll have to sell because their property taxes are increasing.”

Many have expressed concerns about the changes' effects on existing communities, both in terms of their desires related to the longstanding feel of certain neighborhoods, and the infrastructure and environmental impacts of added construction.

The Austin Neighborhoods Council and east-side activist groups including PODER and Go Austin/Vamos Austin have led the charge against HOME, and they've been joined by the NAACP's Austin branch and many other community organizations and neighborhood associations.

About the program

Supporters and opponents have pointed to research from other cities where similar housing density measures were adopted to bolster their cases for or against HOME. Some officials and experts have also said HOME's first phase is unlikely to bring notable changes to Austin without the second lot size component scheduled for review in 2024.

City staff who analyzed the plan's potential effects on affordability said it's likely to help reduce the high costs of building homes in Austin and equitable housing access citywide. However, they also noted the potential for negative impacts on lower-income residents and renters, such as added displacement pressures, and recommended that resident stabilization supports accompany the proposal.

In response to a council question about "the opportunity cost of doing nothing," staff also highlighted several undesired trends that are likely to continue without action along the lines of HOME.

The framework

In mid-November, the resident Planning Commission forwarded HOME to council with several recommendations. Commissioners asked city officials to limit the size of new housing allowed under HOME, promote the preservation of older housing alongside new development and produce regular analysis of the new policy's results.

Ahead of their vote, council members are also laying out their own edits that could be finalized Dec. 7. Proposed edits include:
  • Not allowing new development under HOME until February
  • Increasing building allowances for three-unit housing projects
  • Streamlining the calculation of yard setbacks, or the distance between buildings and the street or property line
  • Preventing one unit in a two-unit housing development from being extensively used for short-term rentals
  • Calling for detailed annual and biannual reporting on various trends and data points tied to HOME
  • Incentivizing tree preservation and planting on sites building under HOME
Separately, council members representing several Central and East Austin districts Dec. 14 are calling to create a new city down payment assistance program to help low- and middle-income Austinites take advantage of HOME. The program would support eligible property owners wanting to add housing units on their land.

Council member Chito Vela, a co-sponsor of that proposal, said HOME and related support will give Austin homeowners more freedom on their properties decades after restrictions that kept parts of the city exclusive were first enacted.

“Today, the worst thing we can do for Black and brown families is nothing," he said. "Displacement is happening because our existing code bans the type of housing that middle-income families can afford. When the price of land is high in a growing city, we have to allow people to build their homes on less land.”

Another co-sponsor, council member Natasha Harper-Madison, shared Vela's view that avoiding the proposed council action could hurt prospects for minority residents. She also encouraged Austinites on all sides of the debate to remain engaged with public policy discussions.

"The truth of the matter is the usual cast of characters, those folks who’ve been so committed to Austin being a single-family preference city, they are the ones who always show up, so they always get what they want. Now that everybody’s showing up, now everybody gets to get a piece of the pie," she said.