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 The LDC is outdated, very restrictive, and widely recognized as a major contributor to the housing crisis.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?