Austin Local Elections Endorsements 2022

AURA membership voted on our 2022 endorsements for Austin mayoral candidates and City Council candidates, as well as ballot propositions for Austin, Austin ISD, and Austin Community College.

These endorsements represent the choices AURA members thought were most aligned with AURA’s vision for an Austin for Everyone, with abundant, affordable housing and transportation designed for people, not just cars.

Endorsements

Austin City Council

Endorsed candidates are listed first. In parentheses, we have runners-up candidates who will be automatically endorsed if there is a runoff election where the endorsed candidate did not make the runoff. See below for an explanation of the endorsement process.

Ballot Propositions

  • Austin Proposition A (affordable housing bond): Yes
  • Austin ISD Propositions A, B, & C (info here): Yes
  • ACC Proposition A (info here): Yes

Forums & Questionnaire

To give members and the public a chance to hear from candidates on housing and transportation issues, AURA hosted several forums and asked candidates to complete a questionnaire. Links to forum recordings:


Endorsement Process

Early Endorsements

Earlier this year, we had an early endorsement election for the two incumbent seats in Districts 1 and 8 that required a 3/4s majority of members to approve the incumbents for them to get our nomination.

Regular Endorsements

For the open City Council seats, we used a ranked voting system in which we asked members to rank any candidates that they would be happy to see endorsed by the organization, so being ranked on a ballot was also an approval vote.

The highest ranked candidate in each race is endorsed, but any candidate who got a 50% approval from our members is named a “preferred” candidate and will be automatically endorsed if our endorsed candidate is not in the final election runoff.

We did this because many races had multiple candidates with great platforms that we knew would be popular with our members and likely lead to close races, and that certainly held true. Many of the races were very close, with a handful of votes separating the endorsed from preferred candidates.

Austin City Council Elections 2020

AURA hosted several Candidate Forums August-September 2020 with many of the candidates running for election for Austin’s City Council in November 2020. We recorded each candidate forum and are posting those videos here, along with questionnaire responses that we received from candidates. For our final forum, we also hosted a panel, in collaboration with Farm&City and Friends of Austin Neighborhoods, on Proposition A & B that will also be on the ballot in November 2020.

All resources relating to the 2020 City Council Race and Propositions A & B will be in this blog post to help AURA members decide on their forthcoming endorsement vote.

Recorded Candidate Forums

Forum Transcripts

We will provide a transcript copy of each forum here as soon as they are finished being edited. Stay tuned.

Questionnaire Responses

Here are all of the questionnaire responses we have received so far in a PDF. We are still waiting on some answers from D6 Candidates and will update the PDF when we receive those. Stay tuned.

Project Connect Media Release (2020-07-20)

MEDIA ALERT
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: July 20, 2020
AURA members identify priorities for November transportation
measure

AURA members overwhelmingly approved a set of policy preferences aimed at shaping Austin City Council’s crafting of a new transportation ballot measure for this November’s election. The specific policy planks approved by AURA members are:

  1. AURA supports the 11 cent property tax increase to pay to fund the full Project Connect plan.
  2. AURA urges City Council to require Republic Square to North Lamar Transit Center as a segment of the initial light rail project.
  3. AURA urges City Council and CapMetro to expand light rail service to Tech Ridge as soon as possible, including in the initial rail project if it is legally and financially feasible.
  4. AURA supports a historic investment in improving bus service that matches the scale of what is proposed by the Project Connect System Vision.
  5. AURA supports the construction of the “downtown tunnel” featured in the Project Connect System Vision.
  6. AURA urges City Council place a $750 million active transportation and Vision Zero bond on the November ballot.
  7. AURA urges City Council to develop a comprehensive anti-residential displacement policy approach for areas impacted by transit investment; the policy may include innovative land use, PIDs, TIFs, and new TOD below-market-housing funds.
  8. AURA supports the exclusion of new funds for roadway expansion in the package.
  9. AURA urges City Council to provide a new operations and maintenance funding stream proportional to the needs of the November package’s proposed transit capital investments.
  10. AURA urges City Council, the Austin Transportation Department and CapMetro to accelerate shovel-ready improvements in the project sequencing.

“We have an opportunity to build the infrastructure that will profoundly change how we move around our city and to do it in a way that will benefit all of us for generations to come,” said Cesar Acosta, AURA Board President. “AURA will continue to fight for transportation investments that reflect our mission of creating an Austin for Everyone. We encourage all that support our policy vision to share our positions publicly, to reach out to the Mayor and Council, and to engage our Board to find ways to work together,” concluded Acosta.

AURA is a grassroots, all-volunteer organization that advocates for an Austin that is inclusive, open to change, and welcoming to everyone.

CONTACT INFORMATION:
Cesar Acosta, AURA Board President
Email: cacosta137@gmail.com

Should you have to own property to vote? Opponents of more housing in Austin think so.

Who should determine what housing can be built in Austin?  Austin’s democratically elected city council or an archaic process that only gives power to property owners?

Groups opposed to a new land development code are suing to only include property owners and exclude renters from the discussion.  A local judge ruled in their favor and the case is pending appeal.

Austin is in a housing affordability crisis.  From 2010 to 2019, rents in Austin grew by 93%, the highest percentage increase of any major American city.  Austin’s zoning code, officially called the Land Development Code or LDC, was written in 1984. The LDC is outdated, very restrictive, and widely recognized as a major contributor to the housing crisis.

In 2016 and 2018, Austin voters elected a pro-housing majority to city council with a strong mandate to address Austin’s housing crisis and allow for more diverse and abundant housing.  Laura Morrison ran primarily in opposition to new housing against Mayor Steve Adler and received only 19% of the vote.  Voters rejected a ballot initiative to stall any new land use code.  Polls show a majority of Austinites support a new code.

In February 2020 the city council passed a new land use code on a second of three readings by a 7-4 vote.  Unhappy with their inability to stop the LDC rewrite at the ballot box or at council, opponents are turning to a “valid petition” to stop the process.

So what are “valid petitions” and why are they so undemocratic?

A “valid petition” is a process under state law for property owners near a specific property that is being rezoned to protest that rezoning.  The property owners of 20% of the land within 200 feet of a rezoning must sign a “valid petition” for it to be valid.  Normally a rezoning requires a simple majority 6 out of 11 votes on city council to pass.  A valid petition changes the required votes to 3/4ths, or 9 out of 11 votes.

More than 50% of Austinites are renters.  They do not get a say or vote on these petitions.  The 20% requirement is based on eligible land, not eligible property owners.  If you own twice as much land as someone else, your protest counts for twice as much.  Rich landowners who own large amounts of property have more influence than small landowners of more modest means.  Absentee landlords have more say than most actual Austin residents.

The process was designed for individual zoning cases but opponents of a new code want it to apply to a broad land use code rewrite.  If the lawsuit stands, only 3 council members and a small fraction of property owners could trump the votes of hundreds of thousands of Austinites who elected a pro-housing majority to council.

The four council members who oppose the new land use code represent wealthier and whiter West Austin districts with larger lot sizes.  The current code prohibits anything but expensive single family homes from being built on most of the land in their districts.

Opponents of the new code portray their lawsuit as a fight of the people against powerful interest groups.  But is a process really an accurate reflection of the will of the people when it excludes the majority of Austinites?  Is it really a tool for the “little guy” when it gives those who own more property more power?  Should a minority of property owners in West Austin be able to veto more diverse and affordable housing in their neighborhoods?

Oppose the Burnet Road proposal

The 2016 Mobility Bond provided the City of Austin with funding “to address implementation of Corridor Mobility Reports, which identify short-, medium-, and long-term transportation improvements.”

The Corridor Mobility Report for Burnet Road proposes for the long term the addition of center-running transit lanes north of U.S. 183. It assuredly does not propose having six car-priority lanes and zero transit lanes there.

The “proposed Burnet Road project” aired by the City in recent months frames itself as carrying forward the 2016 Mobility Bond—yet it proposes having six car-priority lanes and zero transit lanes!

The document outlining this Burnet Road “project” does correctly state that its proposal for six car-priority lanes and zero transit lanes is for the moment “unfunded.” But that proposal is not merely “unfunded”—it is in direct conflict with the Corridor Mobility Report that was upheld and furthered by the Mobility Bond. Despite that, the City is already performing environmental studies related to the unfunded proposal.

If the City would like to see further improvement to Burnet Road beyond what the Mobility Bond has funded, it should further fund the implementation of the Corridor Mobility Report plans. Such funding and implementation will move Austin forward. Cavalierly discarding community-vetted, long-standing plans and returning us to square one will not.

The City is accepting comments on the “proposed Burnet Road project” until Friday, June 5, at 5 p.m., through this web form or by email to Burnet@AustinTexas.gov. Let them know what you think.

The High Price of a Small Lot

People say houses have gotten expensive in Austin. That’s wrong. The houses haven’t gotten expensive — the land has. And it’s mostly due to our laws.

Building a house is not expensive. While the cost of building a house went up 13% between 2014 and 2019, the average salary went up 15% over that same time period and the mortgage interest rate went down 19%. So, in 2019, building a house was actually more affordable than it was 5 years earlier.

But to build a house, you need land. I looked into the price of land in Austin. (I’m an economist. It’s what I do for fun.) I crunched numbers on the prices of empty lots that were sold in 2019 and 2014. From that data, I’ve calculated the expected price for any lot anywhere in Austin. Let me tell you what I found.

I found that the price of land is affected by the distance to downtown. It is no surprise that the price is highest in downtown and drops as you get farther away. To be precise, the price is cut in half for every 14 minutes you drive away from 6th and Congress. (That drive time is not during rush hour.) Austin could lower land prices by improving traffic, but it is expensive to build highways and subways. And I promised you that we could lower land prices by changing our laws.

The other big thing that affected the price of land was the size of the lot … and Austin has a law about the size of lots. Austin’s laws require a minimum size for a lot. So, to build any house, you need at least 5,750 square feet of land. That’s a little more than 1/8th of an acre.

I’m sure when I said “the size of the lot affects the price,” it was also no surprise.  Everyone knows that a bigger piece of land is going to be more expensive.  I mean, if a 1-acre lot is 8 times bigger than a minimum-sized lot, its price should be 8 times higher, right?  Land is land, isn’t it?

I need an example, so let’s look at a place a 20-minute drive (not in rush hour) from downtown.  So, a lot off Slaughter Lane or Parmer Lane, between MoPaC and I-35.  In 2019, 1-acre lots sold for $350,000 and minimum-sized lots sold for $185,000.  Let me state that another way: 1 acre as a single lot was worth $350,000 and 1-acre cut into minimum-sized lots was worth $1,400,000.  

Think about that.  In price-per-acre, minimum-sized lots are 4 times the price of 1-acre lots.  Land is land, right?  How can land cut into 8 pieces be worth 4 times more than the same amount of land as 1 single piece?  How can it be worth over a million dollars more?

The reason is our laws.  When people buy a lot, they’re buying the land and the legal right to build a house on it.  An acre of land with the right to build one house is $350,000.  An acre of land with the right to build 8 houses is $1,400,000.  It is that legal right to build 7 more houses that adds the extra $1,050,000.  If we divide $1,050,000 by 7, we get the price of the legal right to build a house 20 minutes from downtown: $150,000. 

The total cost for the minimum-sized lot was $185,000.  So, if the legal right to build a house was $150,000, that means the land only costs $35,000.  Our laws are so screwed up that they dominate the price of land.  


How can we change our laws to lower the price of “the right to build a house” and make housing affordable in Austin?

First, Austin should eliminate the minimum lot size.  A minimum lot size limits the amount of “right to build a house” per acre of land.  The minimum lot size also forces home buyers to buy more of expensive land than they may want, driving up their costs.  

Second, Austin should make it easier to divide a lot into smaller lots.  Our laws for subdividing require lots of time, paperwork and money.  Moreover, the law puts numerous requirements on lots that make it difficult to do at all.

Lastly, Austin should allow more houses (or housing units) on each lot.  Minneapolis just legalized “triplexes everywhere”, which tripled the amount of “right to build a housing unit”.  And, as any economist will tell you, increasing the supply of something will drive down its price.


You should think of the price of “the right to build a house” as the membership fee to join the country club of landowners in Austin.  And right now, the fee to join the country club that is 20 minutes from downtown is $150,000.  It is absurd that our city’s laws should support something like that.  Please write City Council and ask them to improve Austin’s land use laws.  They need to eliminate minimum lot sizes, make splitting lots easier, and increase the number of units allowed on each lot.  You should also join AURA and help us in this fight to make housing affordable for everyone.  

Michael Nahas, Master of Arts in Economics, UT-Austin

My full analysis of Austin’s land prices is available here

AURA Statement on the Land Development Code Ruling

The recent decision by the Travis County District Court ruling that policy changes such as the land development code rewrite are subject to zoning petition protests by homeowners is disappointing. Unless overturned, the ruling effectively requires a super-majority of City Council members to pass many of the meaningful reforms that are desperately needed in Austin and in all Texas cities.

While we’re optimistic that the decision will be both appealed and overturned, we’re also confident that regardless of temporary setbacks such as this both the land development code rewrite and other ways to increase our desperately limited housing supply will be found and implemented.

Furthermore, we are confident that an even greater majority of people vote for truly progressive elected officials, at every level of government and in every branch, who understand how urgent and necessary these changes are.

Furthermore, we believe that the City Council could today pass some important measures. Several are detailed below. As these measures only reference the text of the land development code and not the zoning, they could be passed in spite of the ruling.

We look forward to working with the city and all those in favor of progress to rebound from this temporary setback and create an Austin that is truly for everyone and not just the few.

Proposed Changes

1) Preservation Bonus

Implement House Scale Preservation on residential properties (SF-1, SF-2, SF-3) as defined in exhibit 1

Implement Multi-Unit Preservation Incentive for multifamily properties (all zones more intensive than SF-3) as defined in exhibit 2

2) Compatibility

Compatibility is triggered by zoning but not current use.

Compatibility Height Setback Distance from the lot line of the triggering property:

* Less than 50 feet = Overall height shall not exceed 35 feet

* Between 50 and 100 feet = Overall height shall not exceed 45 feet

* Over 100 feet = Overall height set by zone standards

3) Setback changes

For all residential and multifamily zones:

* Reduce rear setback from 10 feet to 5 feet.

* Reduce side street setback from 15 feet to 10 feet.

4) ADU changes

Eliminate parking requirements for ADUs.

Allow ADU’s city wide on any residential or multifamily lot including SF-2.

5) Minimum lot size and width:

* For all zones with a minimum lot size that is greater than 5,000 sf shall be reduced to 5,000 sf * For all zones with a minimum lot width that is greater than 45 feet shall be reduced to 45 feet

Exhibit 1)

(A) Purpose and Applicability.

(1) By providing development incentives for maintaining certain existing structures, this section encourages preservation of the City’s older housing stock while increasing opportunities for new housing.

(2) This section applies to all residential development on sites within a Residential House- Scale Zone.

(B) Administration and Enforcement.

(1) To request a development incentive under this section, an applicant must submit a request on a form provided by the director concurrent with a development application. The request must include information required by the director to determine whether the proposed development and the existing structure sought to be preserved comply with all applicable requirements.

(2) The director may establish requirements for administering and enforcing this section, including procedures for:

(a) Determining whether an existing structure meets the requirements for preservation under Subsection (D)(1); and

(b) Monitoring compliance with limitations on altering or expanding a preserved structure under Subsection (D)(2).

(C) Preservation Incentives.

(1) If the director approves a request to preserve an existing structure under Subsection (D), the following incentives apply to development located on the same site as the preserved structure:

(a) Development may exceed the maximum number of units allowed on a site in the base zone by one unit;

(b) The preserved structure does not count towards the maximum floor area allowed for a site in the base zone;

(c) Additional units are not subject to minimum parking requirements; and

(d) Within the Residential-2A (R2A), Residential-2B (R2B), and Residential-3 (R3) zones, development may not exceed a maximum impervious cover of:

(i) 45 percent, if the site contains two units;

(ii) 50 percent, if the site contains three units; and

(iii) 55 percent, if the site contains four units.

(2) Except as provided in Subsection (C)(1), development approved under this section must comply with all applicable requirements of this Title.

(D) Preservation Requirements. The preservation incentive established under Subsection (C) applies to proposed development only if the director determines that all applicable requirements of this subsection are met.

(1) Eligibility Requirements. The director shall approve a request to apply the preservation incentive established under Subsection (C) if:

(a) For at least 30 years, the structure has existed as the principal use on the site and has remained in the same location;

(b) All of the existing structures on the site of the proposed development were constructed in compliance with City Code; and

(c) The site complies with all applicable requirements of this Title, including Article 23-2H (Nonconformity); and

(d) The proposed development for which the incentive is sought will increase density on the site by at least one dwelling unit.

(2) Alterations to Original Structure. The preserved structure may not be modified or altered except as follows:

(a) Expansion of Structure. The preserved structure may not be modified or altered to exceed the maximum floor-to-area ratio allowed for the use in the applicable base zone.

(b) Wall Demolition and Removal.

(i) Except as provided in Paragraph (iii), no more than 50 percent of exterior walls and supporting structural elements, including load bearing masonry walls, and in wood construction, studs, sole plate, and top plate, of an existing structure may be demolished or removed. For purposes of this requirement, exterior walls and supporting structural elements are measured in linear feet and do not include interior or exterior finishes.

(ii) The exterior wall of the preserved structure must be retained, except that a private frontage, per Section 23-3D-5 (Private Frontages), may be added to a preserved structure that does not have a private frontage.

(iii) Structural elements, including framing, may be replaced or repaired if necessary to meet health and safety standards. A repair or replacement

Exhibit 2)

of a structural element is necessary to meet minimum health and safety standards when the repair or replacement is required by the building official, the code official, the Building and Standards Commission, or a court of competent jurisdiction.

(c) Roof Alterations.

(i) If the structure has a side-gabled, cross-gabled, hipped, or pyramidal roof form, the addition must be set behind the existing roof’s ridgeline or peak.

(ii) If the structure has a front-gabled, flat, or shed roof form, the addition must be set back from the front wall one-half of the width of the front wall.

(iii) Retention of the original roof configuration and pitch up to the greater of:

• 15′ feet from the front façade; or

• The ridgeline of the original roof.

(d) Alteration or Replacement of Foundation. Replacement or alteration of an original foundation may not change the finished floor elevation by more than one foot vertically, in either direction.

(e) Relocation Prohibited. A preserved structure may not be relocated.

(A) Purpose and Applicability.

(1) By providing development incentives for maintaining certain existing structures, this section encourages preservation of older housing stock while increasing opportunities for new housing.

(2) This section applies to all residential development on sites within a Residential Multi- Unit Zone.

(a) Exception.

This section does not apply to the Residential Multi-Unit 1 (RM1) Zone.

A property zoned RM1 that participates in the preservation incentive must comply with Section 23-3C-3060 (House-Scale Preservation Incentive).

(B) Administration and Enforcement.

(1) To request the development incentives established in this section, an applicant must submit a request on a form provided by the director concurrent with submittal of a development application. The request must include information required by the director to determine whether the proposed development and the existing structure sought to be preserved comply with all applicable requirements.

(2) The director may establish requirements for administering and enforcing this section, including procedures for:

(a) Determining whether an existing structure meets the requirements for preservation under Subsection (D)(1); and

(b) Monitoring compliance with limitations on altering or expanding a preserved structure under Subsection (D)(2).

(C) Preservation Incentives.

(1) If the director approves a request to preserve an existing structure under Subsection (D), the following incentives apply to development located on the same site as the preserved dwelling units:

(a) Development may exceed the maximum number of units allowed in the base zone by 50 percent; and

(b) The structures that contain the preserved dwelling units do not count towards the maximum site-level floor area allowed in the base zone.

(2) Except as provided in Subsection (C)(1), development approved under this section is subject to all applicable requirements of this Title.

(D) Preservation Requirements. The preservation incentives established under Subsection (C) apply to proposed development only if the director determines that all applicable requirements of this subsection are met.

(1) Eligibility Requirements. The director shall approve a request to apply the preservation incentives established under Subsection (C) if:

(a) For at least 30 years, the principle use of the site of the proposed development has been residential use;

(b) At least one or more of the existing structures on the site was constructed at least 30 years prior to the application date;

(c) The proposed development will retain a minimum of 75 percent of:

(i) The existing dwelling units; or

(ii) The dwelling units that existed on site five years preceding the application date; and

(d) All of the existing structures on the site of the proposed development were constructed in compliance with City Code;

(e) The site complies with all applicable requirements of this Title, including Article 23-2H (Nonconformity); and

(f) The proposed development that will receive the incentive will increase density on the site by at least 10 percent.

(2) Alterations to Original Structure. Each existing structure with preserved dwelling units may not be modified or altered except as follows:

(a) Expansion of Structure.

The structure may not be modified or altered to exceed the maximum floor-to-area ratio allowed for the use in the applicable base zone. 

(b) Wall Demolition and Removal.

(i) Except as provided in Paragraph (iii), no more than 50 percent of exterior walls and supporting structural elements, including load bearing masonry walls, and in wood construction, studs, sole plate, and top plate, of an existing structure may be demolished or removed. For purposes of this requirement, exterior walls and supporting structural elements are measured in linear feet and do not include interior or exterior finishes.

(ii) The front exterior wall of each existing structure that faces the primary street must be retained, except that a private frontage may be added to a existing structure that does not have a private frontage.

(iii) Structural elements, including framing, may be replaced or repaired if necessary to meet minimum health and safety standards. A repair or replacement of a structural element is necessary to meet minimum health and safety standards when the repair or replacement is required by the building official, the code official, the Building and Standards Commission, or a court of competent jurisdiction.

(c) Roof Alterations.

(i) Retention of the original roof configuration and pitch up to the greater of:

• 15′ feet from the front façade; or

• The ridgeline of the original roof.

(d) Alteration or Replacement of Foundation. Replacement or alteration of an original foundation may not change the finished floor elevation by more than one foot vertically, in either direction.

(e) Relocation Prohibited. A preserved structure may not be relocated. 

Project Connect Media Release (2020-03-09)

Press Statement
For Immediate Release
3/9/2020

AURA is enthusiastic about Project Connect’s recommended Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA). The proposed light rail lines will run through dense neighborhoods — where lots of people live — and run to downtown, the Capitol, and UT — where lots of people want to go.  

In 2014, AURA argued for rail on the city’s highest ridership transit corridor, Guadalupe-Lamar, and opposed the Proposition 1 bond that failed to include this rail line. We built our reputation by demanding good rail for Austin, not just any rail. The 2020 LPA promises to deliver the rail system Austin deserves. Today, Capital Metro and city officials proposed a system plan, the “spine” of which is the Orange Line, serving Guadalupe-Lamar-South Congress, a carbon-free, pollution-free, congestion-free “highway” for transit that will carry tens of thousands of people daily on the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. AURA Member and Project Connect Ambassador Network member Susan Somers says: “Capital Metro’s plan is big and bold. It will capture the imagination of Austinites and, when realized, give us a new freedom of access to our city, and an alternative to sitting in traffic.”

Recently, we’ve seen news about a proposal for a $7.5 billion expansion of 8 miles of I-35. Further highway expansion is the wrong direction for our city. Light rail running in dedicated transit ways uses less land to carry as many or more people. Light rail pollutes less and emits less carbon than cars on highways. Transit riders walk more and interact with their fellow Austinites more. The proposed Project Connect LPA is the right direction for getting around Austin. 

There are elements of the plan that deserve scrutiny. Given scarce dollars for transit operations, relatively low ridership lines like the Green Line should not be a high priority for construction. 

We call on City Council to remember that public transit is a system. Trains may make the headlines, but we need a complete network to ensure access for all. Project Connect calls for a historic expansion of our MetroRapid bus lines, serving all parts of the city. We need to ensure that all buses have a fast connection to the train. AURA Transportation Working Group Chair Mike Nahas says, “We would like to see shade and trees at stations, to cool those standing in the summer heat. We encourage CapMetro to continue making stations convenient for bike and scooter riders. Lastly, Austinites must be able to walk to transit and that means building sidewalks, not just near train stations but for the whole transit system.”

AURA is a grassroots, all-volunteer organization that advocates for an Austin that is inclusive, open to change, and welcoming to everyone.

CONTACT:

  • Susan Somers, AURA Transportation Working Group member, somerss@gmail.com

I Moved from Houston and My Rent Doubled

Last May, I moved from Houston to Austin for work. I lived in Houston’s Heights neighborhood, one that shares a lot of similarities with many of the neighborhoods in central Austin under intense discussion with the land development code rewrite. The Heights, as it’s called, is located close to downtown, has longstanding housing stock dating to the earliest part of the 20th century, and has enviable walkability, restaurant scene, and culture. 

I paid $1250 a month and lived in a duplex a block away from White Oak Boulevard, a street brimming with bakeries and restaurants. A couple of blocks in the other direction lies the Woodland Heights Historic District – a pocket of protected homes. Houston’s approach – the occasional historic district to preserve neighborhoods with rich histories and charm, set amidst streets that allow a diverse mix of housing options, enriches the city for everyone, providing a full range of choices. 

Houston’s zoning allows missing-middle housing to fit the lot – garage apartments discreetly tucked behind historic houses, freestanding 3-story units sharing a central driveway on deep lots, shoulder-to-shoulder townhomes on wide but shallow lots. I was quite surprised when arriving in Austin that these housing types weren’t around – you would think that, given the high land costs, they’d be a logical way to meet housing demand. In Houston, they’ve proven quite popular amongst young families who want affordable two- or three-bedroom homes without having to move to the suburbs. 

The missing-middle housing enriches the neighborhood – with more neighbors strolling the streets, more support for local businesses, thriving neighborhood associations, parks with children playing in them, and rich local traditions like White Linen Night or Lights in the Heights. 

It’s hard not to tie Houston’s liberal zoning laws to its enviable affordability. Despite being the fourth-largest city in America with a booming economy and a growing population, Houston has a lower share of minority renters moderately or severely burdened by rent than Austin. Though Houston certainly has issues with gentrification, the ability to subtly densify central neighborhoods has limited its velocity—middle-class or higher-income residents can find an option that meets their needs without having to push into low-income neighborhoods (look no further than east Austin’s $700k tear-downs). 

Austin has so much going for it – a thriving economy, a beautiful setting, a bright culture. Houston’s lesson is that legalizing more housing can be better for everyone – for historic neighborhoods with character, for new arrivals, and for longtime residents holding out hope for affordability. 

Proposed Compromise for a Better Land Development Code

Much of conflict over Austin Land Development Code rewrite occurs over the “Transition Zones”. 

During the city council meeting on February 12th, Mayor Adler and Council Member Tovo discussed the possibility of reducing the size of these Transition Zones to two-lots off the corridor across the city.

Of course, simply doing so without making other substantial changes to the second draft of the code rewrite would significantly decrease housing capacity, putting us even farther away from our unanimously council-approved goals in the Strategic Housing Blueprint and Austin Strategic Mobility Plan

By our estimates, doing so would result in a loss of 4,500 to 6,800 units of missing middle capacity and, via compatibility, would prevent multifamily housing from being built along transit corridors, thus further reducing capacity.

However, if the Council is genuinely concerned with reducing transition zones while creating a code that makes our city affordability, environmentally sustainable, and equitable, (not mention walkable, weird, original, progressive, and cool) we believe there is a compromise-code that could satisfy all of these concerns.

Such a code would, in addition to reducing the size of these Transition Zones to two-lots off the corridor across the city, would:

Eliminate compatibility requirements. 

We simply must unlock the corridors. If there are no Transition Zones, then compatibility requirements would prevent multifamily apartments building along the corridor. Thus, without significant Transition Zones, we have to eliminate compatibility requirements.

  1. Put Imagine Austin and years of consensus planning into action.

Minimum R4 zone across the city 

The code originally planned on creating missing middle housing supply almost exclusively in Transition Zones. By further reducing the Transition Zones, we lose even more of this entirely sensible form of housing. However, allowing a minimum of R4 zones everywhere would provide more missing-housing than even the first draft’s Transition Zones, while simplifying the code and distributing development across the city.

  1. Shift development pressures away from finding the cheapest lot zoned with a certain intensity, and back to where the highest demand is (high opportunity, walkable and transit connected areas).
  2. Give small-scale developers and property owners a real opportunity to compete and deliver products in a competitive way, this could do the most to reduce speculation, drive up competition for building missing middle infill and lead to lower priced units for all
  3. Stand up and lead for the region, the state and the nation. Do what California can’t do, and beat Portland and Minneapolis to the punch
  4. Step up to be sustainable, equitable and connected (to support even bigger investments in public housing and transit)
  5. Fight back against the state and revenue caps by controlling your own destiny with a model that’s more efficient to serve/support, and will deliver more revenue all while reducing the proportional tax-burden on single-family homeowners

Reduce Minimum Lot Sizes to 2500 SF in All Zones and Simplify subdivision

By mandating a minimum lot size we make people pay for land they don’t want or need, making all forms of housing less attainable for non-wealthy Austinites. 

Reducing minimum lot sizes while simplifying the subdivision process allows all kinds of housing for all kinds of people in all parts of town.

  1. Make fee-simple ownership more affordable and realistic for more Austinties 
  2. Help facilitate the creation of the exact supply we need (Re-legalize traditional development, Re-legalize Hyde Park)
  3. Give residents the tools to make flexible and creative solutions work and ignite truly affordable options to subdivide, build and deliver supply

Gentle Mixed-Use By-Right

Limiting residential-scale mixed-use development prevents exactly the kinds of neighborhoods people love (Mueller, Hyde-Park)

Allowing residential-scale mixed-use development makes neighborhoods walkable, weird, family-friendly, less car-dependent.  

  1. Improve quality of life for all, across the city.
  2. Unlock dreams for small/independent businesses
  3. Create walkable/lovable places using proven wisdom with zero public subsidy or massive infrastructure investments
  4. Reach our mode-shift and mobility goals 

Appendix – Capacity Estimates

Draft 2 took: 

R4 from 1.96% of city

To 1.47% of city

25% decrease

RM1 from 1.31 to .89% of city 

32.1% decrease

Resulting in 5087 decrease in missing middle capacity 

5087/16,461

31% decrease in city-wide missing middle capacity

Taking transition zones down to two-lot equivalent citywide would result in somewhere between a 40-60% further reduction in transition zoned area: 

A further 40% decrease in both zones

40% of 11374 

4550 more mm capacity lost

50% of 11374

5687 more mm capacity lost

60% of 11374

6824 more mm capacity lost