The Time Is Now
The Code Is Broken and Fixing It Is On Us
Recently, a gentleman came to an Austin City Council meeting to address regulatory roadblocks he faced in building two homes for his sons, on his own large 17,000+ square-foot lot. Under Austin’s current code, this project is considered illegal unless the residents of one of the homes are “employed on-site for security, maintenance, management, supervision, or personal service” of the main house.
Let that sink in for a moment. In 2018 we still have laws that include segregation-era concepts. And study after study has shown that our rules are making our city more segregated and more unsustainable. We can do much better.
While this case illustrates how antiquated and out-of-touch our current land use code is, the real issue is that a family’s pursuit of happiness was trumped by outdated and poorly written regulation. This man just wanted to build homes for his sons.
We all know or have personally experienced how our current land regulations aren’t working for our community. Whether it’s
- the mom who can barely afford an apartment close to her kids’ school because of a lack of options in a landlords’ market
- the couple pushed to a town just outside our city limits to buy a home within their means
- your new next-door neighbor tearing down the existing single family home and replacing it with a much larger and more pricey single family mansion
- or one of our very own council members struggling to build a granny flat under the City’s prolonged permitting process and another competing with five other contenders for a duplex rental due to Austin’s unreasonably competitive and dwindling rental inventory…
We all know our current code is broken. Something has to change.
How Did We Get Here?
Land-use regulations should strive to balance private property rights and the public good. In its current dysfunctional state, Austin’s code fails at both.
Austin’s Land Development Code was adopted in 1984. The population at that time was only around 390,000. Our current population is over 930,000 — the 11th highest in the U.S. Over the course of three decades, shortsighted policies were layered atop each other on a case-by-case basis, with no governing, holistic vision for Austin’s future. The current broken land use code was created and amended under the at-large system, where many communities were denied a seat at the table in our city planning.
In years past, the more politically organized and affluent segments of Austin were better positioned to protect their own interests and push development into someone else’s backyard.
The current convoluted code offers around 40 different categories. When conditional overlays are added, we are looking at approximately 4,000 unique zoning types. Without one overarching, streamlined plan, we’ve got ourselves a Frankenstein monster of regulations, resulting in sprawling suburbs, a few large apartment buildings, and McMansions. You only have to look around to see the failures of our current code.
Short-term interests were given priority over the long-term sustainability of our city. The cascading negative effects of years under this status quo have impacted all of us.
In 2012, the city and community came together to adopt a 30-year vision called Imagine Austin, which calls for a complete rewrite of the land-use code. Hence, the launch of CodeNEXT in 2013. At the same time, a big shift happened: Austin voted to move from the at-large system to the current 10–1 system of representation, with one mayor elected citywide and 10 council members elected from each of the city’s newly drawn geographic districts. This provided an opportunity for new voices to be heard and for underrepresented communities to finally have a seat at the table.
The move to 10–1 is an important factor in any conversation about CodeNEXT and how long it’s taking to complete. This shift in City Council structure also highlights the crumbling relevance of our antiquated land-use code — created and amended under the at-large system.
The time has come to create a new code for all Austinites.
Remember the single mom trying to keep her kids close to school? And the soon-to-be homeowner priced out of our market? They are left only with choices in Kyle, Cedar Park, Buda, Manor, or Pflugerville. But guess where the jobs still are? Right here in Austin — and in many cases, Central Austin, adding to our traffic. And guess who’s stuck in traffic with them? We are. And guess who pays for the roads and lights essential to their commute from outside communities? We do, while losing their contribution to our tax base which funds and maintains our infrastructure, public safety, and public spaces, and provides services like affordable housing to those in need.
All parts of town are deserving and desperate for things like transportation connections, environmental protection, functional pedestrian and bike routes, and living close to work, school, grocery stores, medical clinics, banks, and other elements essential to creating complete communities.
If we don’t make room for people centrally, we inevitably sprawl. And as we sprawl, we are pushing working class and middle class families out of the city. But with smart, efficient, consistent, and fair regulation, we can direct the market to do better. We can encourage more affordable housing types in attractive parts of town — rather than ban those cheaper housing units. It’s about building activity centers and corridors so that downtown isn’t the only option for people to live, work, and play.
A burden shared is a burden halved. We are not trying to put the weight of our growth unfairly on any one area of town, rather, we are trying to regain balance. This is a city-wide problem that requires a city-wide solution.
Encouraging a diverse mix of housing across the city, not only in undeveloped parts of town, begins to bridge the gaps — not just between haves and have-nots but between homes and grocery stores and museums and bus lines and jobs.
Making a fair and just code also begins to address the disparity of opportunity. Decades of operating under a broken code have created an environment where larger developers and affluent landowners and homeowners (who can afford the best lobbyists and contractors) may “game the system” and enjoy opportunities — in home buying, home renovation, and rental properties — that the average homeowner and renter cannot.
A shortage of available housing, created in part by our land use code, has created an unfair system of winners and losers. People are moving here and many people are being born here. And whether families arrived 20 years or 20 days ago, they are having a tough time finding a place to call home. Unless we finish creating a code that envisions an equitable and sustainable city, we are playing a dangerous game of “kick the can,” insuring that future generations will have to clean up an even bigger mess than we have right now.
More Than a Reset, a Total Rewrite
Small tweaks and revisions to our land-use regulations become counterproductive. That approach has only compounded our problems. Ultimately, what we need is a complete overhaul to rethink the entire culture of how we make these decisions, holistically. CodeNEXT can be that opportunity, if we take it.
Now is the time to fix the failed status-quo policies of the past and to create a land-development code for all Austinites. Now is the time for us to put aside community divisions, look at the big picture, and focus on our shared future.
The four of us stand committed to improving this city. Austin must do better than an outdated land-use code that discriminates, excludes, and holds us back. We’ve listened and will continue to listen to the community. As we move forward, we need your insight and support as we continue to implement solutions based on our shared values. We are dedicated to ensuring CodeNEXT prioritizes affordability, inclusion, and sustainability in transportation and housing. Together we can create a more equitable and sustainable Austin that not only strives but thrives — an Austin for all, not just for the privileged few.