In August 2016, AURA released its CodeNEXT Expectations. Although these expectations lay out broad policy priorities for CodeNEXT, a well-written code with a feeble on-the-ground implementation could still spell disaster. Austinites need a zoning map that’s designed to solve for Central Texas’ critical challenges. A broad rezoning of the urban core is critical to ensuring affordability, fair housing, efficient transit, sustainable growth, and an Austin for Everyone. Here are our expectations for the CodeNEXT maps that will be released on April 18:
AFFIRMATIVELY FURTHER FAIR HOUSING AND CREATE AN INCLUSIVE CITY
AURA calls for equitable zoning throughout the city. Austin has a long history rife with racist and exclusionary zoning, the vestiges of which we still see as a racially and socioeconomically segregated city. Austin’s first Latino Council Member, John Trevino, noted in 1983, “Low density development eliminates most minorities… Are we building an elitist community? Yes, we want to enjoy the environment. But none of my folks will be able to move in.” Thirty-four years later, this sentiment still rings true. Our lower-income neighborhoods have smaller homes, smaller lots, and denser developments; but as Austin has grown, our overly restrictive code has pushed our housing pressures disproportionately into East Austin and pushed our low-income residents out. Unfortunately, there are little to no opportunities for those residents to move into other central areas, as wealthier neighborhoods continue to resist higher density infill and lower-cost housing options. CodeNEXT is the opportunity to allow housing throughout the urban core at all income levels and ensure that all urban core areas adjust for population growth. More housing in high opportunity areas will allow more people at varying income levels to live centrally, near amenities and transit, and help alleviate the inequitable housing pressures on our low-income areas.
ALLOW MISSING MIDDLE THROUGHOUT THE URBAN CORE
Our land use code gives few options between single family homes and large apartment complexes. Medium-density buildings, such as multiplexes, row homes, cottage courts, and small apartment complexes, are great small-scale infill options that are more affordable than detached, single-family homes. Austin’s central neighborhoods are desirable areas to live — they have easy access to Austin’s (slowly) improving transit, central city amenities, and the best that Austin’s culture has to offer — yet living there is not accessible to most working families today. Missing middle housing allows families to live closer together and create walkable neighborhoods that are safer and more conducive to transit. Missing middle housing should be allowed throughout the urban core, and not just near corridors, so that more people can access the heart of our neighborhoods. Allowing attractive housing options in only a few limited areas will not improve Austin’s affordability, but will ensure only high end development.
ENSURE ABUNDANT HOUSING CAPACITY
The CodeNEXT maps must ensure Austin has enough housing for however many people want to live here. When 100 people move to Austin every day, and we don’t build enough housing units to accommodate them, low-income residents will be displaced as the wealthy will always be able to outbid the poor. This economic displacement lies at the heart of Austin’s gentrification challenge. An inclusive zoning map would substantially grow our zoned capacity and allow Austin to adapt to its needs rather than set arbitrary caps on our neighborhoods’ populations.
CodeNEXT should emphasize compact, connected urban infill rather than suburban sprawl to meet our housing demand. Despite its reputation as a city that cares about the environment, in actuality, a substantial portion of Austin’s growth is greenfield growth on the edges of the city. This development pattern is problematic for the environment, city resources, traffic, and household affordability. Development on undeveloped land increases runoff and destroys natural green spaces, wildlife habitat, and farmland. Growth of single family development also strains the City’s resources and infrastructure. Single-family neighborhoods consume substantially more water and sprawled areas are harder for city services such as police, fire, and public transportation to reach. Additionally, suburban residents often drive long distances to work in the urban core, straining our roads, adding to our traffic, and hastening the progress of climate change through vehicle emissions. Families living in these edge developments spend staggering amounts of money and time on transportation to access to Austin’s job centers, straining their budgets and reducing their quality of life. While some households may still choose a suburban lifestyle, the land development code should provide options for those who want a more walkable, sustainable urban lifestyle.
MAXIMIZE FORM-BASED ZONING
AURA would like to see Austin zoned substantially, if not entirely, under form-based code; we argued in favor of doing so when City Council selected the “code approach” back in 2014. A good form-based code, one that is aligned with our other expectations, helps create “complete communities” (as referenced by the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan) where residents can access their daily needs without using a car. At its best, a form-based code creates more diverse areas where you may find jobs, restaurants, schools, and grocery stores near where people live. Non-transect zones are supposedly intended for areas that are car-dependent, but we implore the city to allow Austinites throughout the city to live, work, and play in their neighborhoods and reduce their dependency on single occupancy vehicles. Having two parallel codes limits transparency and community engagement, increases costs of development, and further complicates the zoning and rezoning process. Non-transect zones should be used sparingly.