By Riki Markowitz
For Austin’s affordable housing advocates, February 12th wasn’t the greatest day. That’s when the city released Draft 3 of CodeNEXT. This most recent version of the land development code was supposed to be presented for review back in November. But rather than unveiling the latest and final version on the originally scheduled day – including all the changes suggested by the public, housing advocates, and planning commissions – the city manager’s office released a memo, “Subject: CodeNEXT Update – Revised Timeline.”
It was difficult to gauge if the postponement was a good sign or a bad sign. It depends on whom you asked. Draft 3 was finally released a few weeks ago. For anyone working to increase income-restricted housing stock, it was an extraordinary disappointment. It’s also the last draft. There’s only one chance left to get CodeNEXT right. The only problem with the document is that it doesn’t achieve any of the goals advocates have for reducing the housing affordability crisis.
City leaders are worried. After incorporating comments and suggestions for Draft 2, everyone hoped the controversies would be addressed. Even Mayor Steve Adler said in his February 20th State of the City address that version 3 is only “closer” to a solution that everyone will be happy with.
The latest draft of the land code relies on heavy development in some neighborhoods and too little in others. Homeowners are worried about gentrification and some city council representatives are asking why their districts will see so much new development and congestion (primarily East Austin) while there will be so little in other zip codes (primarily the west side). One thing everyone agrees on, though, is that Austin is stuck in a housing affordability crisis.
It’s not all bad news. The revised regulations do call for coding and permit leniency on accessory dwelling units (ADUs), such as garage homes and backyard “granny” flats. Reduced restrictions on ADUs are certainly a step in the right direction for those worried about compromising Austin’s character.
Even for good news, there’s rebuttal: “Austin doesn’t have a neighborhood character crisis. We have an affordable housing crisis,” says Wayne Gerami, Habitat for Humanity (HFH) vice president of client services. Gerami goes on to say, “to move the needle and do something about the affordability mess, Austin needs more types of housing in more parts of the city.”
If the bad press surrounding the release of Draft 3 sounds intense, that’s because it is. Gerami says CodeNEXT a “once-in-a-generation opportunity.” When the land development code passes, it will be in place for decades to come. In his speech, Adler said that managing Austin’s growth while also preserving “the spirit and soul of our city will be difficult, if not impossible, if we don’t get CodeNEXT done right.”
One of the biggest points of contention for housing advocates is that earlier in the process, consultants for the city proposed scenarios that would allow for some 18,000 new affordable units, which is much less than the 60,000 units that Austin City Council previously set a goal to create over the course of a decade.
One of the scenarios was to upzone main corridors, specifically those served by public transportation – think South Lamar and Burnet. But then, at the Feb. 12 press conference, Draft 3 maps showed recommendations for just a third of the 18,000 number. What happened?
According to Alina Carnahan, a public information specialist for the city and CodeNEXT, “The staff recommendation has to juggle many different policy directives and city priorities. To only focus on increasing the number of affordable units would require deprioritizing other directives.” And unlike states that have laws on the books “requiring” builders to dedicate a percentage of projects to affordable housing, in Texas, builders can only be “incentivized” to create affordable units.
Evolve Austin is a coalition of organizations that supports a progressive land development code. Co-founder Francisco Enriquez says Draft 3 “doesn’t achieve any of the goals” they’ve suggested to the planning commission and city council. Evolve Austin represents the Alliance for Public Transportation, Austin Board of REALTORS (ABoR), Home Builders Association (HBA) of Greater Austin, the Downtown Austin Alliance and several other organizations.
In an interview with Realty Line, ABoR’s director of public affairs, Amy Everhart, said “More work needs to go into ensuring the Code establishes incentives that will actually lead to greater missing-middle and workforce-housing options throughout the city.” Now, ABoR is working on a response to version 3 for the planning commission. Everhart says that the association is “developing amendments that will allow for a greater variety of housing options and also help restore Austin’s workforce housing options.”
At a press conference, Habitat for Humanity and the Austin Housing Coalition – both Evolve Austin partners – handed out to attendees a list of “bold changes” for the final version of the code. First, they identified four main culprits causing the city’s worsening housing crisis: “skyrocketing home prices, gentrification, segregation and displacement.” Urban leaders fighting for affordable housing in Austin are demanding deliberate and meaningful strategies for addressing the crisis. Some of their bold changes include: More of all types of housing built in more parts of town, increased density on corridors near robust pubic transportation for non-car-owning residents, create more affordable transition zones in neighborhoods close to major corridors, provide incentives for building income-restricted housing and make it easier to build faster at lower cost.
Individuals, organizations and associations Realty Line spoke with – plus many others quoted in the Austin-American Statesman, Austin Business Journal and more – are committed to getting the code right. Habitat for Humanity and the Austin Housing Coalition says, “The affordable housing community continues to support the CodeNEXT process.” Mayor Adler stressed, “We cannot afford the cost of not getting CodeNEXT done right.” And speaking on behalf of nearly 30 local non-profits, social enterprises, and urban-living advocates, Enriquez says the Evolve Austin coalition “remains committed to working on this process with the planning commission and we have clear expectations for creating the best version of CodeNEXT.” Austin’s future depends on it. RL