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Why We Must Support Density in Austin

September 23, 2015

In Austin, we often engage in political discourse that ignores basic truths about land use. Here are some of those basic truths that we almost never attempt to deal with realistically in that discourse:

1.  Austin sprawled worse than any other major American city from 2000 to 2010. That out of control sprawl has not lessened since 2010 and, if anything, is getting even worse. As a consequence, over the most recent 42 months, the median home price in the central core of the city (zip codes 78701 through 78705, inclusive), rose from $290,000 to $565,000, an increase of 95%. The only one of those zip codes in which we allowed significant densification and housing supply was 78701, the central business district, where the median price (mainly condominiums) did not rise at all, despite very strong demand. As recently as 1990 (before the advent of the oft-mentioned [but in many cases, illegal and density resistant] neighborhood plans), the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had declared Austin to be the most affordable major city in America. Just 24 years later, Austin was declared by Trulia to be the most overvalued residential market in America.

2.  Austin was also recently declared to be the most economically segregated large metro area in America. This shameful result is directly tied to our city’s drastic deterioration in housing affordability, and is therefore directly tied to our lack of density in the core of the city. Economic segregation can only be addressed by addressing housing affordability.

3.  Affordability = Density. Period. Terry Mitchell, one of the most experienced and capable homebuilders in Austin, who has been involved in the development and construction of thousands of homes in Austin selling at almost every price point, has publicly and bluntly stated for years (with no rational contradiction from anyone that I’m aware of) that he and other builders have only two major tools with which to impact affordability: density and square footage. Until recently, we have hardly dared to use the “D” word because it makes some people anxious. We are out of time for such political correctness. The affordability crisis is real, and it’s here NOW.

4.  During the Imagine Austin process, the public was presented with five different options for future density, and by a wide margin, voted for the densest option available to them, resulting in a preferred density approximately equal to that of Chicago by the year 2039. The public is clearly supportive of the major theme that runs through Imagine Austin of striving to make our city “Compact and Connected”.

5.  While we must, without question, redevelop and dramatically densify our corridors and activity centers, we cannot accommodate our population, nor address our lack of affordability solely or mostly through corridors and centers, as some would suggest. The math simply doesn’t work. In addition, any attempt to place new housing mostly in commercial corridors and high density centers will make affordability worse, not better, due to the fact that those areas will contain the most expensive land, and will require the most expensive construction types, mid to high-rise, with structured parking (at about $20K per bedroom). Corridors and centers can and should help support transit; they cannot solve our affordability problem on their own.

6.  Another mostly-ignored fact: the Texas Local Government Code and the Austin city charter require the council to make sure, in every land use decision they make (including all decisions as to the content of the new development code), that each decision is supportive of Imagine Austin’s policies and objectives. The law requires this regardless of the council’s personal preferences, and regardless of any contradictory provision of any neighborhood plan or other development regulation.

7.  Something else you never hear: Land use density is directly tied to taxpayer density. We must increase the taxpayer density in Austin in order to share the property tax burden among more property owners and bring down the tax burden on any individual taxpayer. Property taxes are out of control for individual property owners. We must have residential and mixed use zoning options available in the new code that allow for a range of densities (and taxpayer densities) in the city, including housing options and resulting densities such as those allowed by Chicago's typical residential zoning.

8.  Those who oppose density should not and cannot be placated or appeased. To do so would be to turn our backs on Imagine Austin, which would be neither legal nor politically appropriate. Those density opponents badly lost the debate over sprawl in the Imagine Austin process, failing to convince a single council member or even a single planning commission member to support their position. Those same density opponents must now lose the debate over whether to fully implement Imagine Austin. All of us need to make peace with the simple fact that we must densify and urbanize our city in order to regain some reasonable level of affordability. Imagine Austin, when read in a reasonable and holistic way, effectively mandates huge density increases throughout the city, and both state law and the city charter mandate that all land development decisions, including those of the City Council, must follow Imagine Austin. By doing so, those council members will be able to make significant progress in solving our biggest problems. Failing to do so would mean they are more interested in appeasing certain vocal constituents than in showing true leadership.

We should give the private sector the option to provide a wide range of affordable housing options in the core of the city, and let the market decide which of those options our residents want to buy or rent. Our past practice of prohibiting those choices through government regulation is not working, and has destroyed Austin’s affordability, as well as its ability to support economic fairness among those wanting to live here.

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