Intro to Austin’s Land Development Code

A brief introduction to Austin’s Land Development Code rewrite.

What is it?

Our land development code is the city’s rules for what we’re allowed to build – apartments, duplexes, restaurants, and offices – where we’re allowed to build them, and how much we’re allowed to build.

The current land development code, ie the rules we’re operating under today, was written in 1984. Alot has changed about Austin since then so the city is rewriting the code to do a better job guiding growth and development.

Why is it important?

First and foremost, the code will determine how much housing we can build in Austin, which determines how many people can affordably live in Austin.

Second, the types of homes we build and where we build them determine where and how people in Austin live. For example, if we can build more apartments in central Austin, then more people can live in central Austin with fast and affordable access to job centers like downtown. 

When is it happening?

City staff will release a draft of the code on October 4th. This is only a draft and will not take effect until City Council votes to approve the code, which will likely happen between January and March of 2020.

You can see the full timeline here.

What do we want?

Simply stated we want a land development code that lets us build more types of housing throughout Austin and particularly in central Austin where many people want to live, so our city can become affordable, environmentally sustainable, and full of opportunities for everyone.

Want to learn more?

News outlets

Official documents

If you like to get involved, joins us at one of our events or shoot us an email at info@aura-atx.org.

Proposed Hancock Historic District is Deeply Flawed

Over the past few months, a proposed plan to rezone the Hancock neighborhood as a Local Historic District has garnered significant community interest. While still in its nascent phases, this is a clear step in the wrong direction for the city, particularly as it struggles to address an increasingly acute housing crisis and encourage density and affordability in its urban core.

While historic preservation is often a laudable goal, historic district zoning like the one being floated for the Hancock area appears more about preventing new development by locking in single family zoning in perpetuity. The impact is two fold. First, homeowners subjected to these designations surrender significant property rights. If approved, the rezoned area instantly becomes subject to design standards set by the Austin Historic Landmark Commission, an unelected body that does not have established qualifications for appointment. Any exterior changes to contributing structures must be consistent with dictated design standards and are subject to review. Even so-called minor exterior changes such as new light fixtures require at least five business days for administrative approval.

Arguably worse still is the impact such poorly targeted rezoning proposals such as the one proposed for Hancock have on Austin’s livability. As Austin seeks to address the challenges caused by its growth, the Hancock proposal aims to freeze a low density, single-family model in place right in Austin’s urban core. The result is to ensure that economically disadvantaged Austinites are frozen out of the area, exacerbating the inequality in our city. Hancock’s specific characteristics make this problem especially acute. Hancock’s location near the university, downtown, and multiple major transportation corridors make it an ideal place for more dense and diverse housing options, students, and families seeking to access central Austin without using cars. However, without affordable housing, these groups will effectively be forced out to the periphery and likely into single occupant vehicles in areas with low walkability. That is a loss for us as sprawl and congestion increase as our lived environment is degraded.

While the problems with the proposed Hancock rezoning are legion, Austin’s process for enacting such restrictive zoning covenants unfortunately favors their proliferation. As the City’s recent Hancock Neighborhood District Discussion Q&A document makes clear, approval of such restrictive historic rezoning proposals requires 51% of either the individual property owners or the total land area in the restricted area. As such, a minority of large property owners could effectively foist such a rezoning proposal on the neighborhood even if a majority of the residents stand in opposition. In fact, in Hancock the city is one such landowner. Austin’s properties — parks and the Hancock golf course — are automatically deemed to support the restrictive rezoning. Given Hancock’s makeup, this likely means that up to one-third of the land in the area will immediately count towards the 51% approval threshold. That is to say, the deck is stacked heavily in favoring or restrictive rezoning efforts.

There are things we can do, however, to fight such restrictive rezoning covenants. At this stage, the most critical action is to simply stay engaged and make our voices heard. The city has committed to at least one additional facilitated meeting. It will be important for neighbors and friends who care about Austin, livability, and the environment to make our voices heard. Beyond advocating for a fairer future for the city, organizing through Austin’s petition rights process will be key. Under this process, when 20% or more of the area costs in the restrictive rezoning area submit a written protest to the zoning change, the change must be approved by a three-fourths majority of the City Council. Triggering this supermajority requirement may be a critical step to preventing Hancock from effectively becoming walled off from the rest of the city behind a fence of restrictive single-family zoning covenants and a moat of regulations. However, such a step will require organizing and perseverance to see it through.

Austin Needs More Neighborhoods like North Campus

I moved away from the North University neighborhood earlier this week and I already miss the area. I lived near the intersection of 38th and Guad in a granny flat nestled in a former church complex. The collection of buildings was converted into residences but continues to share common spaces, which creates an intimate sense of community. College students, retirees, and families live in close proximity, making the neighborhood a more open and enjoyable place. I loved this home and the surrounding neighborhood. 

North University has a higher density than much of Austin and the location within central Austin allows for easy access to excellent dining options, retail, and services. Bounded by Guadalupe to the west, 38th to the north, Duval to the east, and UT Austin to the south the neighborhood is smack dab in the middle of central Austin. North University dwellers can hop on the 7 bus along Duval or any of the Guadalupe busses to reach any part of Austin they desire. Or they may stay in the area for their activities. 

Residents have easy access to the retail area just north of campus along San Jacinto and the Speedway curve. Guad is a quick walk, scoot, or bike ride away and the Central Market/Park area connects North University to Lamar. The delights of Hyde Park are a quick jaunt across 38th and the Hancock HEB combines with Central Market to keep North University fueled. 

One of the greatest features of North University is the abundance of green space. Adams-Hemphill Neighborhood Park, Sparky Pocket Park, Central Park, the Hancock Golf Course, and Eastwoods Neighborhood Park are all easily accessible from North University. The access to green space, retail, and services increase the quality of life for North University residents. With close proximity to so many activities residents may walk to dinner instead of hopping in a car, and along the way they may say hello to neighbors or stop in a park, adding to the sense of community in North University.

I moved to an area far away from central Austin. The houses are far apart, places to eat, shop, or find services are all a far-away along roads that make walking or biking unpleasant. There is a park, but its location within the neighborhood is not easily accessible by foot, pedal or scooter. This neighborhood is much less desirable than North University.

Austin needs more neighborhoods like North University that are dense, diverse, and close to amenities. However, the same things that make North University great force people away from the neighborhood. The central location, access to reliable transit, and proximity to activities causes the land values to rise which renders the neighborhood unaffordable to most of Austin’s population. We as Austinites must create more neighborhoods like North University and keep similar neighborhoods affordable and accessible for all.

Life in Mueller’s Mixed-Use Neighborhood

I’m a relatively recent arrival to the Mueller neighborhood, but the more time I spend here, the more I come to appreciate the unique blend of livability, amenities, and proximity to downtown that the area offers, as well as the genuine sense of community I feel here.

As a renter in Austin, I’ve sometimes felt disconnected from the neighborhoods in which I live. Renters and homeowners living in the same neighborhoods do not always share the same public space or communicate regularly. Here in Mueller, though, I feel like the neighborhood itself has been designed in a way to encourage meaningful everyday interactions among residents of all backgrounds and visitors.  

The mixture of residential, retail, and office spaces in Mueller means I have an incredible array of options for entertainment and food within walking distance of my apartment, and it also ensures that there is a sense of vitality and a human presence in the neighborhood at pretty much any time of day. A typical week for me, for instance, might involve studying or working remotely at Halcyon, grabbing a beer at WhichCraft or a pastry at Quack’s, and catching a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse. The energy at the heart of Mueller and the sheer array of options of things to do immediately made an impression on me when I first visited the neighborhood.

A fundamental part of Mueller’s vibrancy and its sense of place – something around which all the life of the neighborhood revolves – is the amazing infrastructure of public parks that the neighborhood boasts. First and foremost, there is Mueller Lake Park, which is the shared gathering space of residents of all stripes and visitors alike and home to regular farmers markets and concerts. On pretty much any given evening, you’ll see parents out strolling with their children after a visit to the Thinkery, couples enjoying a quiet moment overlooking the lake, teenagers taking photos to commemorate a quinceañera or their prom, and Austinites of all ages playing sports or exercising. This focus on welcoming, well designed public spaces is echoed in the wealth of smaller parks and public squares that dot the Mueller area, as well as the extensive Mueller greenbelt trail, and it’s one of my favorite things about living here.

These sorts of enriching human interactions are all made possible by the neighborhood’s embrace of a diverse array of housing types that make it possible for Austinites of different means and backgrounds to share a life together in this community. Walking block to block in Mueller, you’ll see apartments next to modern single-family homes next to duplexes and townhouses. This diversity of housing stock and an emphasis on density contribute to a dynamic urban fabric that makes Mueller feel at once energetic yet human in scale, modern yet still unmistakably part of Austin.

There’s no reason why the rest of Austin can’t be more like Mueller if we get the current Land Development Code rewrite right. By focusing on applying the kind of density, diversity in housing, mixed-use zoning, and public amenities that I see here in Mueller in all parts of Austin, all Austin residents will be able enjoy the kinds of benefits open to the residents of Mueller today.

West Campus Best Campus

West Campus. Wampus. Hell on Earth. Heaven on Earth.

Whatever you choose to call it, West Campus is a predominant feature of the University of Texas.

On any given day, one can see an abundance of students bustling around the area; walking home from class, mingling with their friends while grabbing a bite of well-deserved fried chicken, or racing to their study session on a scooter. 

It is an area full of life, activity, and community.  It is also an area that has one of the highest densities in Austin. 

This is unsurprising to those who have visited West Campus recently. Towering, luxurious apartment buildings dominate the landscape and the many construction sites promise more to come. However, this was not always the case.

Prior to 2004,  West Campus was filled with small-scale buildings and homes converted into rental properties for students. While this supported the student population during the University’s formative years, iit was not sufficient enough to accommodate the growing population of students.  Due to the lack of availability of housing and the increasing price of rooms as demand increased, students were forced to occupy other areas of Austin such as Riverside and commute to school.  

Though some students prefer to commute to school, studies have shown that location is central to a student’s experience at college. Commuting students are less likely to feel that their school wants them to thrive, to identify with the school, or to report a ‘sense of belonging to or feeling wanted by the institution.’ Students  also report lower levels of involvement in extracurricular activities (59% of commuting students vs. 75% of residential students) and less social connection to the school. These statistics are intuitive to students; it’s more challenging to attend a last minute study session with your peers at the PCL, stay late working an extracurricular event, or attend a late-night party with your friends when you have to plan your commute and carefully consider time, money, and safety. 

University Neighborhood Overlay (UNO) set out to ensure that students could have the choice to live in West Campus, and wouldn’t be forced to live off campus due to availability or affordability. Finalized/Legalized in 2004, it’s expressed purpose was to:

 “promote high density redevelopment in the area generally west of the University of Texas campus, provide a mechanism for the creation of a densely populated but livable and pedestrian friendly environment, and protect the character of the predominantly single-family residential neighborhoods adjacent to the district.” 

In short, it allowed for more, and higher, development in West Campus. Pictured below is the UNO overlay for the area.

UNO was quite controversial at the time as many wondered how it would affect the area’s character, or if it would increase noise and traffic. Though these concerns are legitimate, UNO has shown to be a net positive for the area. Improving density has:

  1. Increased the number of students who can live near campus
  2. Improved affordable housing for students
  3. Increased diversity of West Campus Residence
  4. Decreased reliance on cars

Increased the number of students who can live near campus

Over the past 15 years, more than a billion dollars  has been invested into developing West Campus (which has provided more than 25 million in annual tax revenue) and has added over 10,000 new rooms to the area. At a school where the undergraduate population stands at 40,804 students, this represents adding housing that could support an additional 25% of the undergraduate students. 

Improved affordable housing for students

UNO’s zoning laws enable lower-income students to find a home in West Campus. Because of the new laws that stipulate that developers are required to set aside a certain number of units for eligible people, West Campus is now home to one of the largest concentrations of affordable housing developments in Austin.

Increased diversity of West Campus Residences 

Improving West Campus’ density has not only increased the availability of housing and affordable housing for students, but it’s also improved diversity in West Campus. Census Tracts 6.03 and 6.04 reported the following numbers from 2000 to 2010:  

 Census Tract 6.03

  • Non-hispanic white: declined from 70.3% of the population to 59.1%
  • Hispanic:  increased from 9.4% to 13.1%
  • Black or African-American: increased from 2.0% to 2.6%
  • Asian: increased from 17.3% to 25%

Census Tract 6.04

  • Non-hispanic white: declined from 75.4% of the population to 65.7%
  • Hispanic: increased from 9.3% to 12.5%
  • Black or African-American:  increased from 1.6% to 2.4%
  • Asian:  increased from 13% to 19.3%

Decreased reliance on cars 

UNO has not only helped to improve UT’s community, but has helped the environment and reduced transit issues. The migration of students to West Campus has eliminated the need for students to drive to class, and therefore has reduced the student body’s car dependency. Additionally, parking per person has decreased in West Campus as well. The number of parking spaces per bedroom in West Campus decreased from .9 parking spaces to about .6 parking spaces per bedroom from 2004 to 2016. This is likely due to a number of factors that stem from improved density including the walkability of the area, the addition of nearby grocery stores, and the improvement of public transit.  

Looking at the Future 

From fighting environmental and transit issues to increasing affordable housing, UNO has helped to improve West Campus and its community. 

Community, however, is not just for college students. From a new young professional moving to Austin for the first time, to a family looking to make connections in a new neighborhood, or an Austinite who has been in the city for 20 years, everyone is looking for and needs a community just as much as a student coming to UT from cities or states away. West Campus has shown that density can create this community, and it should be looked towards as an example for the future of Austin.

Electrical Cars Won’t Save Our Environment – Density Can

Electric cars alone will not save us. 

Yes, they are much better than regular, fossil fuel-burning cars, but even if we replaced every single car in the world with an electric car, it wouldn’t save us. We must drastically reduce car usage in our daily lives.

It is hard to get rid of your car when you live in a single-family house in the suburbs, especially when there isn’t much to walk or bike to. It is hard to get rid of your car when you have to commute an hour each way to work in downtown because you can’t afford a single-family home near downtown. It is hard to get rid of your car when you have a family and you have to drop your kids off at daycare or school, go to work, run errands during lunch, pick up the kids, and go home. Especially if your daycare or school are nowhere near your home or your office. 

This is where upzoning and increased density come into play as a solution to help people either reduce their car usage or get rid of their cars entirely. I’m not saying that single-family homes should be banned or that people shouldn’t be allowed to build them. I’m simply saying that we should allow for a variety of uses all across the city – so that you can live, work, and have your kids go to school or daycare, all within a 15 minute walk or bicycle ride in your neighborhood.

Research strongly correlates increased density with decreased carbon emissions. As one example of this research, Paul Hawken created Drawdown, a comprehensive list of specific actions that we can focus on to reduce carbon emissions by 1,034.75 gigatons by 2050.

On that list:

  • Electric vehicles are #26:  “If EV ownership rises to 16 percent of total passenger miles by 2050, 10.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide from fuel combustion could be avoided.” 
  • Walkable cities is #54: “As cities become denser and city planners, commercial enterprises, and residents invest in the “6Ds,” 5 percent of trips currently made by car can be made by foot instead by 2050. That shift could result in 2.9 gigatons of avoided carbon dioxide emissions and reduce costs associated with car ownership by $3.3 trillion.” 
  • If we invest in bike infrastructure (#59) at the same time: “We assume a rise from 5.5 percent to 7.5 percent of urban trips globally by 2050, displacing 2.2 trillion passenger-miles traveled by conventional modes of transportation and avoiding 2.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions. By building bike infrastructure rather than roads, municipal governments, and taxpayers can realize $400 billion in savings over thirty years and $2.1 trillion in lifetime savings.”  
  • Finally, if we also invest in mass transportation at the same time (#37):  “Use of mass transit is projected to decline from 37 percent of urban travel to 21 percent as the low-income world gains wealth. If use grows instead to 40 percent of urban travel by 2050, this solution can save 6.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions from cars.” 

By investing in these three solutions while also investing in electric vehicles, we could save roughly 11.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions – more than the 10.8 gigatons from electric vehicles alone. By investing in all four solutions at the same time, we could save roughly 22.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions. 

How do we go about increasing density within our city? One of the easiest ways to create a more walkable and environmentally friendly city is to legalize fourplex buildings on every single lot- that is, buildings with at least four units. Again, this is not banning single-family homes – just making it possible to build a fourplex anywhere in the city where single-family homes are also allowed. 

In one hypothetical, Michael Anderson had three imaginary homes torn down on one block and rebuilt as three new single-family homes; on another block, those same single-family homes were torn down and replaced with a fourplex, a duplex, and a triplex. He found that “the housing-related carbon emissions per household of the Plex Block will be about 20 percent lower” than the block with the three new single-family homes. This is because the units inside the duplex, triplex, and fourplex are smaller than the single-family home units – so the spaces in the unit are being used more efficiently; there aren’t as many empty rooms being heated and cooled even when no one is using them. Another researcher from the Sightline Institute found that “boosting the number of homes on residential blocks by one third (as on the Plex Block) correlates with a drop of about 1,000 miles driven per year per household.” This is because denser blocks will typically attract local shops within walking distance, frequent bus lines, reliable ride-sharing – but would probably attract protected bicycle infrastructure and micro mobility options as well, simply because there would be more people who could take advantage of these benefits. 

Increasing density has the added benefit of supporting robust and high-quality mass transportation as well. According to Capital Metro, residential densities of 16 persons per acre within a quarter mile of bus lines are a good minimum baseline for transit-supportive dense neighborhoods. For employment, their guidelines call for densities of eight employees per acre. Remember, we have to invest in mass transportation in addition to walkable neighborhoods if we want to save roughly 22.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions (though more is better!) by 2050. 

I imagine a world in which I can choose to live near my office – because the neighborhoods have an abundance of fourplexes or apartment buildings nearby – within a 15 minute walk. I can walk to and from work in 15 minutes every day, which saves me two car trips every day. Because my home and my office are located near a grocery store, I can also choose to shop more often, buying less groceries, and walk to and from the grocery store, saving two car trips. My home and office are also located near a bus line, which I can use to get downtown or to other places to see friends, run errands, or go out on the town, saving me car trips. Even better, because I live on such a dense block, I know several people in my neighborhood who have become my friends and I can walk to their homes to visit them or baby-sit their kids if needed. My neighborhood also has doctors’ offices, shopping, gyms, parks, activities, and other important facets of life – or easy access to those things, whether through robust public transportation or protected bicycle infrastructure. 

Electric vehicles are a solution, but cannot be the ONLY solution. We must allow more people to live on smaller areas of land. We need to allow people to reduce their carbon footprint by living in smaller homes and living in walkable and transit-rich neighborhoods. Not everyone wants to live in a single-family home and have a yard they have to maintain; have empty rooms that are being wastefully heated and cooled; or have a car that needs to be maintained in order to commute because there is a lack of high-quality pedestrian, bicycle, and transit infrastructure. We should be doing everything we can to reduce our carbon emissions and slow the effects of climate change. We need to change for a future that will impact us all. Continuing our current culture of sprawling land use, which enables car dominance and carbon emissions, will only accelerate our headlong rush into our terrifying future. 

For additional research on why density is so important for fighting climate change, check out this comprehensive report by Environment Texas.

How many affordable old houses are there in Central Austin?

As of June 20th, 2019, the Austin Board of Realtors (ABoR) reports that the median price for single-family homes in Austin has hit an all time high of $400,000.

We often hear from City Council  that we need to save the “affordable” old housing stock in the urban core from demolition and redevelopment. Typically, they are referring to single family homes. Given this perspective, it’s worth asking how many affordable single homes are there in Central Austin?

For the purposes of this analysis, we will define the urban core as the area bound by MoPac to the West, 290 to the south, and 183 to the north and east. The year defining “old” housing is homes which were built in or prior to 1970. Affordability is based on the 2018 Austin median income for a family of four of $86k per year. Data is compiled using the Austin Board of Realtors Multiple Listing Service.

For starters, below is a broad overview showing the median and average prices for homes in the urban core built before 1970 as of May 1, 2019.

120 homes in urban coreMinimumMaximumAverageMedian
Current home prices$229,900$8,500,000$825,318$546,500

Using the rule of thumb that no more than 30% of gross monthly income should be used on housing, a family of four earning the median family income can afford to buy a $360K house (according to the mortgage affordability calculator) or rent one at $2150/month.

Let’s take a look at homeownership first.

As of May 1st, 2019, there were a total of 35 single-family homes built before 1970 available for sale for $360K or less and only two of those were west of I-35. The map below shows the distribution of available single-family homes at this price point. Notably, none of these homes have been updated for today’s energy efficiency and the status of the wiring, plumbing, and foundation is unknown. See Fig. 1

Fig. 1

If we consider that a family of four would likely need at least three bedrooms, the number of available homes drops to 22, all of which are concentrated on the fringes of the urban core mostly east of I-35.

Fig. 2

Of these houses, only 13 are outside the identified FEMA flood zone…

Fig. 3

and only 15 have Central A/C.

Fig. 4

The situation for single-family house rentals is very similar. Given a family of four earning the median income, the maximum suggested monthly rent should be no more than $2150/month. As of May 1st, 2019, there are 36 single family homes with at least two bedrooms available for rent in Austin’s urban core.

Fig. 5

However, there are only 14 three-bedroom houses available at the rent level affordable for the median family income.

Fig. 6

Finally, the multi-family affordable housing is becoming less and less available to families of 4 at the median income level. As of May 1st, 2019 45 apartments with at least two bedrooms are available across the urban core of Austin.

Fig. 7

And only four of these have a minimum of 3 bedrooms.

Fig. 8


Given that the Austin metro area is adding 105 people a day, preserving older single-family homes will not meet our housing needs in a way that is accessible or affordable for even the median income Austin family. A far more sustainable strategy for enhancing affordability in the urban core would be to add new homes with more units, like fourplexes, townhomes, and other missing middle housing types.

How Multiple Business Districts Can Hurt Dual-income Families

Activity Centers as described in Imagine Austin are akin to the Multiple Nuclei Model for a city layout created by Chauncy Harris and Edward Ullman in the 1945 article The Nature of Cities.  Harris and Ullman argued that cities do not grow a single nucleus but several separate nuclei. Each nucleus acts as a growth point.  Because of increased car ownership, people can live in less-dense single-family style neighborhoods near the nuclei containing their job and thus avoid unreasonably long commute time.

Many cities have intentionally or unintentionally developed according to the nuclei model, Houston, in particular, comes to mind. However, while these cities do indeed have multiple growth points and relatively low-density housing, these features have not resulted in the expected reasonable commute times for several reasons.

Most important, typical households today consist of two earners, often in different fields, ie both spouses have different jobs in different locations but live in the same house. Because the two partners will have different jobs in different fields they will likely have to commute to different business centers from the same house. This couple will have to choose which job will be closer to home and likely require the other to have a much longer commute, with all the impacts to quality of life and the environment that follow.

It’s not surprising that Harris and Ullman missed this now obvious fact while writing in 1945 when the idealized and typical household was a single-earner family, ie the husband had a job and the wife stayed home. But that fact should give us pause if we intend to rely on separate job centers to solve our housing shortage and transportation issues. These separate job centers will be unlikely to provide both earners the opportunity to work and live one area and enjoy the access to jobs and amenities like daycare within the short commutes that are necessary for cultivating a successful career and raising a family today. Unfortunately, today that is still most likely to disproportionately impact working mothers.

The activity centers described in Imagine Austin are an important part of our growth plan, but cannot serve as the only or even the essential part of housing and transportation solutions we create in our new land development code. If we really do want to open up opportunities for everyone to grow both a career and a family, we have to ditch the multiple nuclei theory of cities and instead encourage and allow dense concentric development, especially missing middle housing and transitive supportive density close to downtown as the most efficient and environmentally sustainable way for a city to grow.

Rewriting The Land Development Code

As we write a new land development code we are not merely choosing which buildings we’re allowed to build and where we’re allowed to build them. We are making a choice about what kind of city we want Austin to be. Do we want to be a city that looks backward to an imagined golden past, while becoming increasingly more expensive, environmentally destructive, and exclusionary? Or do we want to be a city that looks forward to a better future? One that’s affordable, environmentally sustainable, and full of opportunities for everyone?

In this past year’s election, Austin’s voters firmly resolved on the latter. Therefore, to create an affordable and sustainable Austin with opportunities for everyone, this council must pass a land development code that supports our values by allowing and actively encouraging abundant, transit-oriented housing with walkable access to community needs everywhere in the city and especially in the urban core.

First, for housing costs to go down, we must build enough housing not only to meet current demand but also to meet any future demand.  Over the next ten years, 635,000 new people will move to the Austin Metro region, while 128,000 new Austinites will be born here. To make sure all of these people have somewhere to live, we will need to build over 300,000 additional homes. And if we want housing costs to go down, we’ll need to build even more.

Next, unless we want to force all of these people to constantly drive on I-35 or Mopac, we must build the majority of this new housing compactly in the urban core. Today an average metro-resident travels over 180 miles in their car every week, which is why transportation causes 36% of Austin’s 13.5 metric tons of CO2 emissions. To reduce these numbers and prevent paving over the Hill Country and the consequent flooding and water quality concerns, we must create new public transit options. However, for any new mobility plan to work, we must build far more new housing in core neighborhoods and along major transit corridors.

Finally, to build integrated, diverse, complete and accessible communities with opportunities that are open to everyone, we must build a variety of housing, amenities, and businesses for everyone in every neighborhood in Austin. Today Austinites have to travel all over the city to drop off their children at daycare centers and schools, to shop for groceries, and to take care of elderly parents, all on top of driving just to get to work. To lessen these burdens we must build essential services within neighborhoods where people can easily walk to them.

To support these values and achieve these ends, AURA proposes that the three policies set out below must be adopted in our new land development code.

First, we must allow missing middle housing such as six-plexes, row homes, townhomes, and accessory dwelling units by-right everywhere in Austin. As we allow more missing middle housing, we divide the cost of land between more people. That, in turn, lets more people, and especially families, live in Central Austin and enjoy the walkable access to transit, small businesses, jobs, opportunities, and communities that come with that.

Furthermore, development under the current code has restricted the potential for truly affordable units in the urban core and has pushed new market-rate housing into areas the city has traditionally neglected, putting disproportionate pressure on Austin’s poorest residents and communities of color in particular. To combat the displacement resulting from our current code, we need to open up the urban core, and west Austin in particular, to far more market-rate and Affordable housing. Missing middle housing provides the best way to do that.

Second, we must design transition zones that allow for dense, mixed-use, and transit-supportive housing within a ten-minute walk of major corridors. The only way to reduce traffic and CO2 emissions is to get people out of their cars and onto bikes, scooters, buses, and trains or walking – whether that’s for getting to work, taking care of children and elderly parents, or running errands. But people cannot bike, scoot, or walk from Round Rock to downtown Austin. Nor can buses or trains develop the ridership necessary to grow and sustain a public transit system without more people living within walking distance of transit routes.

To achieve this transit-supportive density, we must eliminate minimum parking requirements along corridors to ensure valuable corridor space is not taken up by unnecessary parking. We also either need to relax compatibility standards to allow maximum-density apartment complexes along major corridors or we need to eliminate separate compatibility standards altogether and “zone for compatibility” by mapping high-density, mixed-use zoning on corridors, moderate density within a third of a mile of corridors, and lower missing middle density for residential cores.

Third, we need to relax residential-only restrictions so essential services such as daycares, grocery stores, pharmacies, and doctors can develop within walking distance of where people live. People need convenient access to these services without having to get in a car. Relaxing residential-only zoning restrictions will also give members of different communities the opportunity to start small businesses that help their neighbors live, work, and play in their neighborhood.

Today, Austin is the most segregated city in America by both income and race. It is also one of the most car-dependent and fast becoming one of the most expensive. Our antiquated, woefully inadequate, land development code exacerbates all of these challenges.

We all love Austin despite these problems. To solve them we need a new land development code. We need a code that allows missing middle housing everywhere in Austin. We need a code that creates transit-friendly corridors in every part of Austin. And we need a code that provides complete, walkable communities with essential services in every neighborhood in Austin.

In short, we need a land development code that reflects our values of affordability, environmental sustainability, and opportunity. Only then, can we create an Austin that is truly for Everyone.

AURA Land Use Working Group
Kevin McLaughlin – Chair
Caroline Bailey
Josiah Stevenson
Liza Wimberley
Jordan McGee
Timothy Bray