In Texas, zoning is rarely about helping the poor

As is the case in many other big cities, affordability has become a staple of the debate over zoning and development in Austin. The impact that a development will have on the city’s affordability is often the central question that activists for or against the project are debating, even if any many cases that’s probably not what actually led them to their positions on the matter (traffic, neighborhood character, etc.) And of course, affordability is front-and-center of the debate over CodeNEXT, the proposed overhaul of the city’s land development code.

The funny thing is, the state law that set up the zoning scheme that Austin and most other Texas cities rely on says nothing about affordability. Here are the things that a city’s comprehensive plan should do, according to state law:

(1) lessen congestion in the streets

(2) secure safety from fire, panic, and other dangers

(3) promote health and the general welfare

(4) provide adequate light and air

(5) prevent the overcrowding of land

(6) avoid undue concentration of population

(7) facilitate the adequate provision of transportation, water, sewers, schools, parks, and other public requirements

One could argue that housing affordability is covered by the reference to “general welfare” in (3). I certainly don’t think there are too many things that are more relevant to the general welfare than access to housing. But I doubt the authors of the state code had affordability in mind when that clause was written, particularly since the other goals listed appear largely aimed at empowering the wealthy to block the construction of apartment buildings or other forms of housing that the poor are likely to rely on, in order to “lessen congestion in the streets,” “prevent the overcrowding of land” and to “avoid the undue concentration of population.”

In recent years the state has taken an even more explicitly anti-affordability position. The legislature has banned inclusionary zoning and just last year barred cities from levying “linkage fees” on developments to fund affordable housing.