Austin’s current land development laws incentivize the construction of large single-family homes and discourage density, the homebuilder says

AUSTIN, Texas – Building a home in Austin can sometimes be like putting the pieces of a puzzle together for builders like Scott Turner, owner of Riverside Homes, LLC.

Turner builds new homes within existing neighborhoods in Austin.

In 2019, Turner purchased a corner lot off Jester Drive near St. David’s South Austin Medical Center. He demolished the existing house, divided the land, and built two houses on each plot of land.

So what was one house is now four, adding three more houses to the city’s housing supply.

“They’re very similar to all the other homes here in terms of their function. They’re freestanding. They have separate yards. They have driveways, garages, etc.,” Turner explained.

But it wasn’t easy. Turner says the project took four years, three-quarters of which was in the zoning process. After dividing the space into two single-family lots, Turner says it took about a year to complete the city’s permitting process and build the homes.

Turner had to work around some existing trees, the removal of which Austin’s land code prohibits. He had to create enough parking for everyone and maintain enough space between homes to meet land and fire codes.

Houses are not cheap. While the final sale price for the homes in Texas is private, Turner said he listed the two larger homes, at 2,000 square feet each, for $900,000. He said he listed the smaller, 930-square-foot homes at $600,000.

The average home price at the time was $550,000. As of November 17, that price has dropped to $540,000.

Next door, another builder was building a new house on a similar sized plot of land. Turner says his neighbor’s house will sell for more than $2 million, evidence to Turner that dense housing can drive down the price of a home in Austin.

“It would be great if you could get three smaller homes on one of these lots that would be closer to the average home price,” Turner said.

It would be illegal for Turner to build those three homes on one single-family lot. In Austin, a single-family lot must be at least 5,750 square feet. In certain areas close to jobs, schools and city transportation, additional restrictions intended to limit larger homes also limit duplexes and townhomes.


Credit: City of Austin



In those areas, Austin’s development standards put a fairy tent above anything built here.

The elevation of a new home or duplex is between 32 and 35 feet depending on the flood plain. In addition, developers must make room for front, side and backyard setbacks.

“This is essentially exclusionary,” Turner said.

Exclusionary zoning laws place restrictions on the type of homes that can be built in a neighborhood.

Turner knows Austin needs more affordable housing and says Austin’s land development code prevents dense developments and makes it difficult to build entry-level homes at an affordable price.

“I don’t think anyone would say that the average home price in Austin right now is affordable, certainly not for the average Austin citizen, but nonetheless, these three smaller homes will sell for less than a large single-family home with a single family living in it,” he said. Turner in it.

Although there is no standard size for a starter home, a 2021 analysis by government-backed bank Freddie Mac defined a starter home as one 1,400 square feet.

The Austin Data Portal shows the amount of homes no larger than 1,400 square feet built in Austin in the past 15 years. Data indicate that fewer than 300 homes are built annually, most of them along the west side of the city.


Credit: KVUE

This is a graph of the number of single-family homes and duplexes up to 1,400 square feet built in Austin from 2008 to November 11. 2023.



Compare these numbers to the thousands of large single-family homes larger than 1,400 square feet built over the past 15 years.


Credit: KVUE

This is a graph of the number of single-family homes and duplexes 1,400 square feet and larger built in Austin from 2008 to November 2008. 2023.



Turner says this disparity is one reason for Austin’s ongoing affordability crisis.

“The simplest and easiest thing for me is to build a large single-family home on a large single-family lot. The code motivates me as a home builder to do that,” Turner said.

But this may change soon.

Austin City Council members will soon vote to change some development laws, including the number of homes allowed on a single-family lot could be raised from two to three. Also, the city may lower the space requirement for a single family from 5,750 square feet to 2,500 square feet.

City records show 297 people expressed their opinions during the joint City Council and Planning Commission meeting on Oct. 26. Dozens more submitted new comments during the Nov. 14 Planning Commission meeting. Overall, most people said they wanted smaller lots, smaller homes and denser neighborhoods.

Monica Bhatia, a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, told council members and city planning commissioners that she wants to ease restrictions on who can live in a house.

Bhatia lives in a co-op, where residents own shares in the house.

“The code as it stands now has already been a huge impediment,” she told KVUE Defenders.

Bhatia also told city council members zoning rules about who can live in a house that limit housing opportunities.

“Housing co-ops are some of the most affordable housing options available in Austin,” Bhatia said at the Oct. 24 meeting.

In Austin, no more than four unrelated people can live in a single-family home or duplex unless it meets certain exceptions under § 25-2-511 – dwelling unit occupancy limit.

“We’re a lot of people who choose to share our lives together and get the benefits of having a community, having people come home and ask you about your day or that you’re having a crisis, or someone to support you. But it feels a little different than the trend,” she said.

Not everyone is on board. During the Oct. 26 meeting, more than 100 people spoke against the proposed changes.

“I know we need affordable housing. I’m not against it. I’m not for this plan,” Anne Budroni said at the meeting.

“This is a land grab for investors,” Arlington Helbing said at the meeting.

“Density does not equal affordability,” Sean McCarthy said at the meeting.

Even if the city decided to change the number of homes that could be on one lot, reduce the lot size requirements, and change the number of unrelated people who could live on one lot, not every neighborhood would be affected.

Homeowners’ associations and deed restrictions may carry special covenants that are stronger than the city’s zoning code. So those areas will not change without a legal battle.

In 2012, a report by the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin showed dozens of properties across the city with restrictive land use covenants. While some have been challenged and removed by court order, Turner says it is the builder’s responsibility to research each property before purchasing.

“Without that kind of change, without offering more types of housing options like this, homeowners are really going to have to drive further out of town to find a place to live. We’re seeing that happen today,” Turner said.

Turner says he will continue to build denser housing, working on each land puzzle, and hopes the laws will change soon.

The Austin City Council will hear more public testimony on December 7. Members of the public are also encouraged to leave their comments online at talkupaustin.org.

Boomtown is a KVUE series covering the explosive growth of Central Texas. For more Boomtown stories, head to KVUE.com/Boomtown.

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