February 29, 2016
Right now, it’s almost impossible for a family making the median income in Austin to qualify for a loan to purchase the median-priced home. That one fact alone is enough to illustrate the depth and intensity of our current affordability crisis. The “new normal,” for hundreds of thousands of Austinites, does not include, and may never include, the opportunity to own a home in one of our city’s many wonderful single-family neighborhoods.
There are plenty of reasons for the market challenges that have been spawned by Austin’s continued growth and prosperity. But one of them, clearly, is the City of Austin’s own broken land development code and process, which makes it impossible to produce housing quickly enough, and in enough places throughout the city, to meet market demand. That’s not just our opinion at RECA — it’s the official policy of the City itself, embedded in its Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan.
The city is trying to remedy these issues by reforming its development services shop (responding to the scathing Zucker Report) and rewriting the obsolete code via the CodeNEXT initiative. In both cases, the city is facing stiff opposition from a vocal minority of existing single-family homeowners who seem to view any change to the status quo as an existential threat to their “quality of life.” Meanwhile, the rest of the city sees its quality of life diminishing by the minute, as rents rise, commutes grow longer and uglier, and people are displaced and driven farther and farther away from the parts of Austin they love.
Recently, as we’ve moved closer to the next milestone in the CodeNEXT process, we’ve started hearing that RECA itself, and the commercial real estate industry we represent, are using the code rewrite as a tool to eliminate single-family zoning entirely and open up every Austin neighborhood to the depredations of “evil developers.” We find this puzzling, since we understand as much as anyone that people value these neighborhoods and want to live in them. That’s why they’ve become so expensive! Destroying them would make no sense.
The best opportunities to produce the housing Austin needs, at the price points and in the places where it’s needed, are in the centers and corridors identified by Imagine Austin, most of which aren’t zoned single-family at all. (Less than one-quarter of the land in Austin is zoned single-family; only 11 percent has the SF-3 zoning most commonly found in urban-core neighborhoods.) But Austin’s code and process defers so heavily to the interests of single-family homeowners that even common-sense projects that match up with the city’s own plans fall victim to protracted negotiations and political battles.
Within the neighborhoods, we have opportunities to incrementally increase the number of housing units — such as by developing the often-discussed “missing middle” housing types — in ways that do nothing to change the character of these neighborhoods or harm the interests of their existing homeowners. Yet these projects are also in the sights of the vocal foes of Imagine Austin and CodeNEXT, who claim that increasing density in their neighborhoods has done nothing, and will do nothing, to make them more affordable, so it shouldn’t be allowed.
This increasingly common argument completely misreads the scale of the crisis Austin faces. Certainly, a new duplex or townhome project in a single-family neighborhood looks like a big increase in density to the people who live there, who may oppose it for that reason. But it only represents a handful of new units, whereas RECA believes Austin needs up to 15,000 new units every year for the next decade to keep up with demand and stabilize the market.
Do all those units need to be built in existing single-family neighborhoods? No, but that’s the size of the challenge we face, so it’s ridiculous to argue that we’ve tried density and it didn’t work. And we also must be honest about the consequences of trying to maintain the status quo. If nobody can afford to live in them, Austin’s great neighborhoods aren’t going to remain great for long. CodeNEXT and Imagine Austin can provide tools that, far from destroying the neighborhoods, will help them survive and thrive as the city continues to grow and change.