City Council is taking up wide-reaching changes to Austin's land-use rules on May 16 with the stated intent of opening the door for more housing construction and transit-friendly development citywide.

Council will wrap up this year's review and public engagement on proposals to slash Austin's minimum residential lot size, reduce the influence of single-family homes on the size of new development nearby, and promote denser construction and housing near future light rail stations.

More information on the series of land development code updates is available from the city online.

Current situation

The series of revisions to the city's development rulebook comes after the first phase of council's Home Options for Middle-income Empowerment—or "HOME"—initiative was approved last year, allowing for more units on single-family properties.

Now, Austin's minimum lot size—the baseline amount of land needed to build a house—will likely be greatly reduced under HOME Phase 2. Officials envision both phases bringing smaller and less expensive housing to residential areas, as opposed to the larger homes on larger lots generally favored under today's regulations.

Additionally, council is set to:
  • Cut the range of Austin's compatibility standards—rules that enforce building restrictions within hundreds of feet of any single-family home
  • Create new development incentives for housing and community-oriented uses along the planned Project Connect light rail line under Austin's equitable transit-oriented development, or ETOD, plans
  • Establish new regulations for the placement and construction of electric vehicle charging stations
Alongside the major new land-use items, council members could also adjust some requirements for Austin's density bonus programs—tradeoffs granting more entitlements in exchange for community benefits like income-restricted housing.

The updates would set new redevelopment requirements to make sure that existing affordable spaces, whether residential or commercial, are replaced with comparable options so tenants have the chance to return.

The approach

Council members met May 14 to discuss policy recommendations from city staff and the planning commission, as well as their own edits. Those revisions and other materials are available via the meeting agenda page and council's message board.

Some of the many changes floated by city officials before their final votes include:
  • Reducing Austin's minimum lot size to 1,800 square feet, a proposal from Mayor Kirk Watson: The limit would fall in between a 2,000-square-foot minimum forwarded by staff and a planning commission-recommended 1,500-square-foot size. All are well below today's 5,750-square-foot standard.
  • Studying the feasibility of an equity-based HOME overlay to provide antidisplacement protections in more vulnerable and gentrifying parts of town: Council member José Velásquez is bringing that amendment, which follows community criticism of HOME's potential to negatively impact affordability and the displacement of lower-income Austinites.
  • Requiring detailed data analysis on HOME Phase 2's effects in the community, including displacement impacts: Several council members asked for the review following a similar mandate attached to HOME Phase 1.
  • Adjusting the ETOD plan to remove properties that don't completely fall within a proposed overlay near the Project Connect route, and more gradually increasing building height allowances between the rail line and residential areas: Both changes came from Watson.
  • Blocking short-term rentals in new ETOD areas: This was suggested by council member Vanessa Fuentes
What they're saying

Both pieces of the HOME initiative and the accompanying land-use reforms have been promoted by groups including the Austin Justice Coalition, AARP Texas, public employee labor groups and pro-housing advocates. Supporters have argued that a change to the status quo is needed, and could help mitigate rising housing costs and gentrification in places that have already seen rapid change.

As council weighed the policies May 14, representatives of the environmental justice group Go Austin/Vamos Austin, Austin's NAACP chapter and several neighborhood organizations rallied against the changes. Opponents of the city's initiatives remain concerned that they pave the way for overdeveloping existing communities, while new housing under HOME won't be affordable to low- and middle-income earners, and could push even more longtime residents out of their communities.
Many Austinites remain opposed to aspects of the HOME initiative and other development code reforms under consideration. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact)
Many Austinites remain opposed to aspects of the HOME initiative and other development code reforms under consideration. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact)
What else?

Council member Alison Alter raised concerns about HOME's potential to make both existing neighborhoods and new subdivisions more prone to wildfire risks, especially in outlying Wildland Urban Interface areas.

Alter said policies allowing more closely packed housing could leave current and new residents in danger of seeing fires spread more rapidly, and of getting stuck during a fire event.

Ben Flick, engineering manager with the fire marshal's office, said staff will look out for problematic areas but noted added housing could lead to a "bottleneck" for residents and first responders amid fire evacuations. Fire Chief Joel Baker said he believes the department will still be able to keep up with its work on development reviews after HOME is in effect and flag problematic subdivisions or site plans that could pose a risk.

This week, council may also add in further guidelines related to fire risks and review.