CodeNEXT: Removing Austin's Barriers to Affordability
By Nicole Joslin, Executive Director of the Austin Community Design and Development Center
The CodeNEXT rewrite of Austin’s outdated Land Development Code (LDC) isn’t a magic cure for our affordability challenges, but it is a critical tool.
Simplifying our code to bring down construction costs and remove barriers to the housing we need is critical to stabilizing home prices, adding more affordable housing options, and attracting more private dollars to fill the growing gap between the need for subsidized housing and the limited public funding available.
From exclusionary zoning to expensive administrative requirements, Austin’s current LDC works at cross-purposes with the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan and the City of Austin’s housing goals.
Our affordable housing crisis has been decades in the making, and there is no single solution.
As Will Rogers used to say, “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”
CodeNEXT alone will not deliver or subsidize a single new home, but it can remove the regulatory barriers that make it so difficult and expensive for the market and non-profits to build the housing we need.
Specifically, CodeNEXT can:
Legalize Missing Middle Housing
Austin’s current LDC favors the most expensive type of housing — large lot single-family homes – in large swaths of the city. This makes it impossible to build and preserve housing affordable to middle-and-lower-income families in neighborhoods where lot costs alone are beyond their reach financially.
Garage apartments, small apartment buildings, duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes have long provided the most affordable housing options in our central city. Construction was largely prohibited in the 1980s code rewrite, but these housing types are the cheapest to build —dense enough to spread out land costs, but low-scale enough to use inexpensive, wood-framed construction and avoid elevators, parking garages and other expensive features of large apartment buildings.
Local non-profit housing providers are shifting toward Missing Middle housing in order to serve more families with limited dollars and land, but feasible projects are difficult to find when regulatory requirements and expensive fights with neighbors at City Hall make many such projects cost prohibitive. This type of infill development is also the easiest way to our preserve existing housing stock while adding more housing options in our neighborhoods. If there is more flexibility in how to utilize the land we have with housing types like Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) there will be more opportunities to incorporate new housing while preserving existing homes.
Hands down, we should be making it easier for non-profit home builders to build more income restricted housing with what they have - funds, land, and capacity - through the land development code. We should also find ways to help them increase their capacity further through supportive policies and programs.
Reduce or eliminate lot size requirements
Minimum lot size requirements encourage developers to build large expensive homes and limit the number of homes that can be built on a site.
Reduce Parking Requirements
“Free parking” isn’t free. In fact, it’s quite expensive both in terms of the cost to build parking structures and the opportunity cost of using valuable land to house cars instead of people. Austin should reduce or eliminate parking requirements for projects that include income-restricted housing and are on or near major transit corridors. This would reduce home prices and rents and create more housing opportunities in the central city.
Improve and expand Austin’s Affordable Housing Bonus Program
The City of Austin’s Strategic Housing Blueprint calls for 60,000 additional units of income-restricted housing in the next 10 years but acknowledges that the city is billions of dollars short of the money needed to meet even the lowest income need. Non-profits also have limited funding. Austin must find ways to leverage more private dollars for income-restricted affordable housing, which means it must provide them with incentives that better align with the real cost of providing affordable housing.
Specifically, the City should consider waiving more fees through its S.M.A.R.T. housing program and contributing more toward infrastructure improvements for projects that include affordable housing. It should also expand the Affordable Housing Bonus Program to more areas of the city.
Allow ADUs throughout Austin
Accessory Dwelling Units can provide affordable housing and additional income for property owners struggling to stay in their homes. CodeNEXT should allow detached and attached ADUs throughout Austin without restricting tenants by age, disability or relation.
This list is only the beginning of what we can do through CodeNEXT to make it cheaper and easier to build the housing we need. The Austin Housing Coalition, which the Austin Community Design and Development Center is a part of, is a strong proponent of this collaborative process and continues to work to improve CodeNEXT from an affordability perspective.
The affordability problems we face are enormous, and the City needs a wide range of tools and policies to solve them.
The AHC is working on a list of additional policies that the City should consider outside of CodeNEXT to further its housing goals.
More details on that effort coming soon.