Austin's new housing moves

The Austin City Council’s Phase 1 of the Home Options for Middle-income Employment (HOME) Initiative marks a significant step towards housing flexibility and affordability.  Most of Austin’s neighborhoods only allow either single family homes or large apartment complexes. The new initiative aims to create more homes that are in the middle, like the triplexes or Townhomes found in major cities like Austin, Chicago, and New York. Bringing a higher density option to some of Austin’s most desirable neighborhoods would in theory create more home options for middle income families. The key is that, according to University of Texas research, land accounts for over half the development cost for single-family housing. Therefore allowing multiple units to be built on one lot can make housing more affordable by reducing the average land cost per home. 

Key highlights include:

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  • Allowance for Multiple Units: Up to three units can be built on a single-family lot.
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  • No Restrictions on Nonrelated Adults: More adults can share a home, regardless of family ties.
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  • Support for Tiny Homes: The amendments facilitate the installation of tiny homes.
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  • Preservation Incentives: Encouraging the preservation of existing homes.
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  • Promotion of Starter Homes: Encouraging the construction of smaller, more affordable homes.
 

The HOME Initiative has garnered strong support for its potential to enhance housing affordability. However, it also faces concerns about possible negative impacts. Critics worry about the devaluation of property values, strain on infrastructure, and environmental effects. These conflicting viewpoints reflect the complexity of balancing housing needs with maintaining community standards and ecological integrity. The initiative symbolizes the challenges cities face in pursuing growth and inclusivity while safeguarding existing community assets and environmental health.

Support for the Initiative

We try to be open and balanced so here are some of the reasons people think the initiative is a good thing.

1. Increasing Housing Supply: The initiative aims to address Austin’s shortage of “missing middle” housing. By allowing up to three housing units on single-family lots, the HOME Initiative seeks to increase the city’s housing stock, which is crucial given the growing housing demand. 

2. Facilitating Diverse Housing Options: The HOME Initiative promotes a variety of housing options, including the usage of tiny homes. This diversification in housing types can cater to different needs and preferences within the community.

3. Reducing Restrictions: By eliminating rules that limit the number of unrelated adults who can live together, the initiative aims to provide more flexible living arrangements. This can be particularly beneficial for people looking for affordable housing options in a high-cost city.

4. Responding to Market Needs: Over recent election cycles, Austin voters have shown a preference for market-based solutions to the city’s housing crisis. The HOME Initiative is seen as a step towards these market-based solutions, making it easier to build all types of housing across the city.

5. Potential for More Affordable Housing: While the initiative does not include strict affordability requirements, the creation of smaller homes on smaller lots is likely to produce housing options that are relatively less expensive compared to median-priced homes in Austin. This could make them more attainable for a broader spectrum of the middle-income population. Cities like Houston have had some level of success creating less expensive, albeit still not necessarily affordable, housing through similar proposals.

6. Historical Context: Some council members view the initiative as a response to past government actions that led to the displacement of minority communities. The initiative is seen as a way to correct these historical injustices and provide more inclusive housing options. For more on this, you should absolutely listen to the KUT Podcast that examines how Austin evolved from a sleepy college town to a hot housing market 

7. **Aligning with City Development Goals**: The amendments brought in by the HOME Initiative are aligned with Austin’s broader development goals. These include enhancing the city’s unique character, ensuring an efficient development review process, and promoting economic development efforts.

The HOME Initiative represents a significant shift in Austin’s approach to housing and land use, aiming to address the city’s growing housing challenges while balancing the need for community integrity and inclusivity.

Opposition to HOME Initiative

The opposition to the HOME Initiative by Austin City Council Members Alison Alter and Mackenzie Kelly stemmed from concerns about the initiative’s potential impacts and effectiveness. Council Member Alter expressed doubts about the initiative’s ability to produce the kind of “missing middle” housing it aimed to incentivize. She worried that it could actually exacerbate displacement of Black and Latino Austinites in the city. Alter pointed out the absence of an affordability mechanism in HOME, noting that there was no requirement for a third unit to be income-restricted, which she believed was essential for ensuring affordability for public servants like teachers.  

Historically, even with good intentions, land use and development rules have created inequitable patterns. Often creating disadvantage within communities with fewer resources and communities of color. Some people argue that the new townhomes and triplets will still be really expensive and simply open up the market to more investors.

Alter highlighted that the initiative did not include any affordability requirements, like fee contributions to affordable housing. She emphasized the responsibility to do no harm and expressed her lack of confidence in the proposal’s promise to create units affordable to teachers and other public servants.

On the other hand, the overall reasoning for Council Member Mackenzie Kelly’s opposition was not detailed in the sources. However, it can be inferred that her concerns might align with those of Alter, focusing on the potential unintended consequences of the initiative, especially regarding affordability and displacement issues.

These concerns highlight the complexities involved in urban planning and housing policy, where initiatives intended to increase housing availability and affordability must also consider potential negative impacts on existing communities and the real estate market.

A Bit of Zoning History

Before the Home Options for Middle-income Employment (HOME) Initiative was passed in Austin, the zoning regulations for SF-1, SF-2, and SF-3 were more restrictive compared to the new amendments introduced by the HOME Initiative.

SF-1 (Single Family Residence – Large Lot): This zoning was designated for larger single-family residential lots. The specific regulations focused on maintaining the character of areas with larger lot sizes and often included stricter regulations on building coverage, impervious cover, and minimum lot sizes.

SF-2 (Single Family Residence – Standard Lot): SF-2 zoning was for standard-sized single-family residential lots. It aimed to balance density while preserving the single-family residential character. The regulations would typically include standard building coverage and lot size requirements.

SF-3 (Family Residence): This zoning category was more flexible compared to SF-1 and SF-2, often allowing for a wider variety of housing types, including duplexes. However, there were still restrictions on the number of units per lot and the overall density.

The regulations for these zones traditionally focused on maintaining the character of single-family residential areas, with specific limits on density, building coverage, and the types of housing units allowed. The emphasis was on preserving neighborhood character and ensuring compatibility with existing land uses.

The HOME Initiative, by contrast, introduces more flexibility and density in these zones by allowing up to three units on a single-family lot, reducing restrictions on nonrelated adults living together, and facilitating the installation of tiny homes. This marks a significant shift towards increasing housing density and diversity in Austin’s residential areas.

For more detailed and specific information about the previous zoning regulations, you would need to refer to Austin’s Land Development Code or city planning documents.

Sources:

City of Austin/UT report

For more detailed insights into the council members’ positions and the broader context of the HOME Initiative, you can refer to the Austin Chronicle articles here and here.

Jake Wegmann’s report, “Here Come The Tall Skinny Houses.”City’s Q&A report on the proposed land development code changes can be found here

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Timothy Powles and Adam Stanley work together on the Adam Timothy Group at Compass RA and manage AT Real Estate Group LLC, a rental and vacation property investment business. We are about building community. We believe a real estate transaction is an important and extremely significant event but relationships last a lifetime. Our clients, partners, and friends trust us to get to know their story and what is most important to them.  And we work tirelessly to retain that trust.

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