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Density is Not a Dirty Word

October 17, 2014

You’ve probably seen or heard the phrase “Don’t Dallas My Austin,” a popular slogan among Austinites anxious about the pace of growth and change in our city.

I have to shake my head at the implication that Austin could one day become a sprawling city. The truth is that when it comes to sprawl, Dallas has nothing on Austin.

Sure, Dallas covers more miles, but did you know Austin is the least densely populated of Texas’ four major cities, housing fewer people per square mile than Dallas, Houston or San Antonio?

A comprehensive housing market study sponsored by the City last summer shows that Austin’s population has grown 150 percent since 1980, but our average density has actually fallen slightly.

Density is a dirty word in many areas of our city, but that must change if Austin is to remain affordable and livable as we continue growing.

Too many working and middle class families are already priced out of Austin, and it’s not hard to understand why home prices are steadily rising.

The city’s study shows that from 2000 to 2012, Austin added more than 186,000 new residents in the city limits but only added about 84,000 new housing units.

With this rapid growth, we must increase the housing supply to keep prices affordable. How we choose to accommodate so many people will have lasting implications on the health of our city, and there are really only two choices: increase density or increase sprawl.

For too long Austin’s default has been to increase sprawl as we’ve continued to follow a post-war suburban development pattern farther and farther away from the urban core in search of cheap, wide-open spaces.

Developers seeking to build infill housing in the city’s core face a development code biased against “middle density” housing types such as townhomes, duplexes and garage apartments that have long been part of Austin’s urban fabric. Strong resistance from well-organized neighborhood groups makes it even harder.

The city’s study also shows that only 4 percent of homeowners lived in duplexes, triplexes or fourplexes while just 5 percent lived in condominiums. Only half of renters lived in apartment buildings.

It’s not because there isn’t a market for cheaper, smaller housing. From single Millennials to downsizing Baby Boomers, plenty of people these days are willing to sacrifice extra space and a yard for walkable amenities, shorter commutes, and affordable prices in the urban core. So why do we make it so difficult to provide these choices?

Relying almost exclusively on single-family development impacts our city’s overall affordability beyond housing prices. Building at higher densities reduces the cost of new infrastructure and public services while also providing the city with far more taxable value per acre. Single-family developments also consume far more land in a city that treasures open spaces.

The Austin area is projected to add 595,135 people from 2010 until 2020. Assuming an average of 2.6 people per household, we’ll need to add 228,898 more housing units to accommodate this increase.

Built at a typical suburban density of 3 units per acre, 119 square miles would be consumed to accommodate those houses. Add to that enough streets and utilities to stretch to about Seattle, Wash. and you begin to understand the costs to all Austin residents.

Compare that to townhomes with an average density of 10 units per acre, which would consume nearly 36 square miles. New streets and utilities would still reach almost to Oxford, Miss. but that’s a lot closer (and cheaper) than Seattle.

Single-family neighborhoods will always play an important role in the way we live and grow, but just as our population is becoming more diverse, so should the housing we live in.

We simply can’t afford to continue only growing outward as we have been, and we must think beyond single-family homes. Preserving our urban housing stock exactly as it is today only preserves our problems.

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