Under the economic pressure of Austin’s rapid growth, the traditional housing stock in Southwest Austin’s 78745 ZIP code is crumbling to bulldozers and wrecking balls at an accelerated rate.
A Community Impact Newspaper analysis shows 102 residential demolitions occurred in Southwest Austin between 2010 and 2016. By comparison, 66 similar demolitions occurred between 1980 and 2009. The 78745 ZIP code incurred 82 and 56 of those demolition totals, respectively.
Many experts say a combination of factors contribute to the trend, including: a lack of diverse housing options, heightened land demand despite limited supply, depreciation of the city’s housing stock, and a complex land development code and permitting process that limits new development—each of which is exacerbated by the city’s inevitable growth.
The data points to a trend in which smaller, more affordable single-family homes are often demolished and replaced by larger, more expensive ones. This has caused the value of neighborhood lots, most of which are zoned for single-family homes, to shoot up, increasing property tax payments and forcing longtime Austinites out of once-affordable neighborhoods.
According to Brandy Guthrie, president of the Austin Board of Realtors, when people get their tax bills, it is usually the land—not the structure on it—that is appreciating in value. At a certain point, it is no longer practical to pay property taxes on a $500,000 lot for a modest starter home.
Scott Turner, owner of Riverside Homes, an urban infill construction company, said this is where developers come in. Turner said his company purchases the properties, demolishes the old homes and builds anew.
“That’s essentially the flow of demolitions that is happening,” Turner said. “Adding onto a home is a lengthier, more risky and more expensive process than just tearing down and starting from scratch.”
District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo said this is a “terrible trend,” from a community perspective. Tovo said she is focused on slowing the demolition rate.
“It’s very difficult to influence the market,” Tovo said. “What we can have sway over is the city process. If we have an agreement on council that [the demolitions are] not in the best interest of the city… we can look for policy solutions that might help.”
Glen Coleman, owner of South Llano Strategies, an advocacy firm focused on land-use laws, said policy toward a demolition moratorium would only divert the economic pressure.
“The only solution I can see is either a recession, which does not sound very pleasant to me,” Coleman said. “Or, what sounds very pleasant ... is let’s have a dramatic increase in housing stock throughout the city. … We’ve got to figure out how to get more density per lot or else these demolitions are going to accelerate.”