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Austin will now allow more homes to be built on single-family lots


Austin will now allow more homes to be built on single-family lots

Dec 08, 2023 | 12:32 am ET
By Joshua Fechter
Austin will now allow more homes to be built on single-family lots
The Mueller neighborhood in East Austin on Oct. 7, 2023. Austin officials on Thursday voted to allow multiple homes to built on single-family lots. (John Jordan/The Texas Tribune)

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Amid a housing affordability crisis, the Austin City Council voted Thursday to allow the construction of more homes on single-family lots in a major bid to put more housing units on the market.

The change will allow homebuilders to put up to three housing units, such as duplexes and triplexes, on almost any lot in the city where single-family homes are currently allowed, a move aimed at juicing the city’s supply of homes affordable to middle-income households. Like most major U.S. cities, most of Austin’s residential land has long been zoned for only single-family homes.

That restriction — housing advocates, real estate experts and developers say — has made it exceedingly difficult for the city to meet the rampant housing demand that has accompanied massive population growth. That lack in housing units has been a key factor in driving home prices and rents skyward.

“If you don't build more housing, then the price of existing housing is going to go up,” said Vicki Been, faculty director of New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. “If you want to keep the housing affordable, or make it more affordable, you need additional supply.”

Critics of the new policy argue that denser housing will ruin the character of existing neighborhoods and displace low-income residents while doing little to provide affordable housing.

“I'm super disappointed to see this trickle-down policy proposed with no empirical evidence that it actually does anything for the middle class, let alone the lower class,” Carmen Llanes Pulido, executive director of Go Austin/Vamos Austin, a community health coalition, told the council Thursday.

After several hours of often passionate and heated public testimony from hundreds of speakers, council members approved the measure — part of a package of reforms known as the HOME initiative — by a 9-2 vote late Thursday evening.

“I think we can celebrate this moment and the achievement tonight as we create more housing opportunities across the city,” said Council Member Leslie Pool, the proposal’s author.

The two council members who voted against the measure — Alison Alter and Mackenzie Kelly — expressed doubts that allowing duplexes and triplexes in single-family neighborhoods would result in greater housing affordability.

“I believe that my colleagues and I agree on the goal working to create housing opportunities for those who the market often leaves behind: our public servants and service workers,” Council Member Alison Alter said. “The devil truly is in the details and we have not gotten the details right as proposed tonight.”

The decision to allow more homes on single-family lots is the latest in a broader push by Austin officials to relax city rules and spur more housing construction.

Last month, Austin became the largest city in the country to end requirements that new developments have a set amount of parking, often referred to as “parking minimums.” That measure is intended to allow more housing construction as well as fight climate change. The council is also weighing a proposal to reduce the amount of land the city requires to build single-family homes.

Like in many cities across Texas and the U.S., Austin’s dire shortage of housing worsened during the pandemic, resulting in even higher housing costs. The Austin region as a whole needed about 35,000 more homes than it had in 2021, according to a recent analysis by Up For Growth, a nonprofit that focuses on housing policy. Even as the region was among the busiest in the country for housing construction in recent years, building hasn’t kept up with population growth.

Cities like Portland have found some success in blunting the rise of housing costs by allowing more homes to be built on lots. The idea is to spread the cost of the land across multiple households, lowering the overall cost of individual homes. Cities that have eased their zoning restrictions have also kept rent in check, according to recent research.

In Austin, a group of homeowners has proven adept at killing city efforts to relax zoning restrictions, winning court battles in recent years to stop an overhaul of the city’s land development code — which hasn’t been substantially changed since the 1980s. Organizers with Community Not Commodity, a group that has vehemently opposed city zoning reforms, said Thursday morning it had delivered more than 10,000 petitions from residents protesting the changes.

Critics have blasted the proposed reforms as giveaways to developers. Skeptics doubt that allowing more homes to be built will ultimately reduce housing costs — and worry that doing so will accelerate gentrification and displacement in low-income communities.

More than 300 people signed up to speak against the proposal, criticizing the idea as a “land grab” and “plundering” and holding signs that read “PEOPLE OVER PROFIT” and “DON’T LET DEVELOPER$ ‘SCROOGE’ US OVER!”

Allowing more homes on single-family lots “means nothing but gentrification, more displacement, more desperation,” Fran Tatu, outreach director for Austin Mutual Aid, told the council Thursday.

Research shows that adding more supply lowers housing costs — and may actually protect low-income areas from gentrification and displacement. Austin officials plan to study whether the initiative contributes to displacement of communities of color among other potential consequences.

And a recent poll by the Pew Charitable Trusts shows large bipartisan majorities support policies aimed at encouraging more housing.

In Austin, proponents have also thrown their weight behind relaxing zoning rules as a key albeit partial step to solving the city’s housing woes. That broad coalition of supporters includes homebuilders, historic preservationists, labor unions, business groups and the Texas arm of the American Association of Retired Persons. Some 194 people signed up to speak in favor of the change Thursday.

“HOME will expand housing opportunities, particularly ownership opportunities for those who do not have access to such opportunities today,” Awais Azhar, a member of the advocacy group HousingWorks Austin, told the council.

Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, said denser housing stock is necessary to fight climate change. Research shows that households in denser neighborhoods emit fewer greenhouse gas emissions than those in lower-density areas, in part because they’re not commuting as much by car.

“The HOME initiative gives Austin a golden opportunity to reshape how we develop for coming generations, expanding the areas within Austin where compact and walkable neighborhoods can be built, will reduce the pressure for further sprawl, protect our environment and enhance our quality of life,” Metzger told the council Thursday.

Disclosure: HousingWorks Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.