As Austin residents struggle to afford housing, a familiar conflict erupts over land rules

Hundreds of people packed Austin City Hall on Thursday, fighting over proposed changes to building codes that supporters say will allow more people to live in the city’s central neighborhoods, but opponents say will sacrifice appearance and people living in those same buildings.

These battles have been fought before. In the past, opponents drowned out supporters. But if Thursday’s public hearing is any indication of a shift in the city, it’s clear that people are tired of rising housing costs and are demanding something new to fix them.

“There’s this idea that if we don’t build it, they won’t come. News flash: They’re coming. Whether we build it or not,” said Ty Hovanke, a programmer and one of about 400 people who signed up to testify before council members and city commissioners. “The lack of “New housing options basically mean prices will continue to rise forever.”

Thursday’s session, which lasted seven hours and continued into the night, is part of a campaign by council members to reduce the high cost of housing. Home prices in Austin have risen significantly in the past decade, but perhaps no more than in the past two years. From 2021 to 2023, the median home sale price in the Austin area rose 45% and now stands at just under half a million dollars, according to Austin Board of Realtors figures. Renters have seen a similar rise in prices, according to local data firms, with average rents rising 29% over the same period.

Elected officials, like their predecessors, have devised a simple but controversial solution: build more housing. In most places in the country this involves changing land use rules. These rules, which can span hundreds or thousands of pages, dictate anything from how far a house can be located from the property line, to how high a building should be, to how many houses you can put on a single lot.

In Austin, these laws make it difficult to build anything other than a single house with a front yard and a backyard or a large apartment complex. Those who support reviewing these rules say allowing more duplexes or townhouses to be built could create different and hopefully cheaper housing options for people.

“The status quo of limited options is not sustainable, with middle-income earners choosing between one type of single-family home on a large, expensive lot or a luxury condo on the driveway,” Council Member Leslie Paul, who represents Northwest Austin, told KUT. Earlier this year. “We can do so much better for teachers, first responders, small business employees, government workers and nurses, who all have great jobs but can’t afford to invest in our city.”

Paul is the elected official behind many of the proposed changes. One of the most controversial of these proposals, if approved by the council in December, would be to allow landowners to build three homes on a plot of land where historically only one or two homes have been allowed. Other revisions would allow people to live in recreational vehicles, or RVs, in more places around the city, eliminating rules that limit the number of people who can live in one home and reducing the amount of land needed to build duplexes and triplexes.

Additional changes are scheduled to go before the public early next year, including a proposal to significantly reduce the amount of land required to build a single home.

The goal, again, is: build more housing. The majority of research on this topic shows that building more housing reduces or reduces price increases. Researchers at New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy looked at studies published over the past four years and concluded: “Significant new evidence shows that new construction in a variety of settings reduces or slows increases in rents for located apartments.” Close to new construction.”

But in Austin, any attempt to change the rules governing what can be built and where is met with stiff opposition. In 2020, a successful lawsuit filed by nearly two dozen homeowners effectively ended the city’s decades-long process of rewriting the city’s land use rules.

Earlier this year, the same homeowners asked a judge to enforce a 2020 ruling against several changes to the city’s housing rules. Most of these changes were intended to stimulate the construction of homes for low-income residents.

But opposition to the building rules extends beyond this small group of property owners. People who came to speak at Thursday’s hearing said they feared changing the rules to allow developers to build more on their blocks would increase traffic, worsen flooding and destroy the aesthetic appeal of their neighborhoods.

“This plan, to me, looks at and values ​​the people moving to Austin over the people who live here,” Susan Spataro told council members. “New people want to move in, so if you’ve owned a house for 30 years…we need to change everything because they want to move in.”

Members of the Planning Commission, Austin City Council and residents listen to public comments during a joint hearing on changes to the land use code Thursday at Austin City Hall.

Members of the Planning Commission, Austin City Council and residents listen to public comments during a joint hearing on changes to the land use code Thursday at Austin City Hall.

Others said they feared that encouraging people to build more housing in existing neighborhoods would displace existing residents, especially low-income people. Research on the effects of new housing in historically low-income neighborhoods is mixed. Researchers in California found that when new housing is built on a block, there is an uptick in the number of people of all incomes moving in and out of that neighborhood, and while they noted an increase in moving among low-income people, they wrote: “It is not as high as commonly feared.” “

But that concern prompted several people Thursday to call for affordability requirements in the changes. They demanded that anyone who builds new housing be required to set aside some of that housing for low-income people.

“I support this initiative on the surface, not because I think it will solve our city’s affordable housing crisis, but because I think it’s a step in the right direction,” said Edwin Bautista, who works for Texas Housers, a nonprofit working to support the initiative. . Research and advocacy on low-income housing. “I strongly urge Council and Commission to consider all municipal tools to mitigate the inevitable displacement pressures.”

What was most evident at Thursday’s hearing was that the previously documented generational divide over housing persists in this city. Many of the people who spoke against approving the changes said they had owned homes in Austin for decades, while those who spoke in favor identified as college students or recent graduates.

“I’m tired. We have a lot of practice as students struggling with housing insecurity,” said Isabelle Webb Curry, a student at the University of Texas at Austin. “We’re tired of the anti-density rhetoric, we’re tired of the desperation and nothing happening. And if that means affordability, we’re happy to live on top of each other.

At some point during the night, the conflict over these changes came to a head. It came as advocate and advocate Bill Bunch, who heads the Save Our Springs Alliance, spoke out against the housing changes.

His organization has long been credited with keeping Barton Springs Pool swimmable thanks to a battle he and others waged over development and resulting pollution in southwest Austin in the early 1990s. But recently, other environmentalists have questioned the group’s positions on housing issues, especially opposition to building more homes downtown, which environmentalists say is important to combat urban sprawl and residents’ dependence on cars.

After speaking out against the proposed changes on Thursday, Bunch also questioned the motives of some people who spoke in support, including Nicole Nosek, the wife of Luke Nosek, a co-founder of tech giant PayPal. When Bunch’s time was up, he refused to leave the stand and continued to shout his testimony. Mayor Kirk Watson invited him to sit down.

“Mr. ‘Hey, you’re out of the system now and you know better than that,'” the mayor shouted from the podium. Some in the audience booed, while one of them pointed to the value of the Bunch house as an example of the wealth that enabled those who were able to afford a home. Decades of collection.

When a security officer approached Bunch, he returned to his seat and the session continued.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *