Austin Debates Density

One of the most interesting urban planning debates going on in the country right now is happening in Austin, Texas. In 2012, the Austin City Council adopted the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, a three-year effort that established priorities for the city’s growth and development for the next 30 years. Among the priority actions the plan identified were to invest in a compact and connected Austin, to grow and invest in the creative economy, and to develop and maintain household affordability. The next step in implementing the plan is to revise and modernize its zoning regulations. The city is now in the midst of that process, which it has dubbed CodeNEXT.

Austin, of course, is one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S.  From 2000 to 2017 the city’s population increased from 657,000 to 950,000, an annual rate of growth of 2.2%. It’s also gained a reputation as a fun place to live and has become a migration magnet for millennials; a Brookings Institution study found that Austin has the second-highest proportion of millennials in its population (27.2%) of the top 100 metro areas. With about 48% of its adult population holding a bachelor’s degree or higher, it also ranks among the nation’s most educated cities, comparable to Boston and Minneapolis.

Not surprisingly, Austin’s economic prosperity has entailed some costs. In particular, during this century it has had one of the fastest rates of housing price increase in the country. According to the Freddie Mac House Price Index, home prices in Austin have increased at about a 5.0% average annual rate since 2000, which is on a par with the Fresno, Salt Lake City and Washington D.C. metro areas. Since much of the city and the surrounding areas are zoned for single-family homes, growth has mostly taken the form of low-density sprawl. The developed land area of the metro area increased from just 53 square miles in 1970 to 372 square miles in 2016.

The City’s rezoning efforts are being managed by its Planning and Zoning Department. The primary consultant on the project is Opticos Design Inc., based in Berkeley, California.  The planning approach is to superimpose on the existing, traditional code the idea of rural-to-urban transects, a New Urbanist concept developed by Andres Duany.  The approach tries to encourage aesthetically pleasing, pedestrian-friendly urban environments by regulating building size and form while permitting more mixed uses than traditional zoning.

The first draft of CodeNEXT was released in January, 2017. That draft was generally seen by pro-growth interests and housing advocates as too tepid, and the second draft, released in October, 2017, increased the zoning development potential of many districts. Predictability, that generated a strong push-back by neighborhood preservationists, and the third draft, released in February, 2018, attempted to shift more of the increased density to mixed-use, commercial corridors. Affordable housing advocates see some positives in the third draft, such as more permissive rules for accessory apartments and reduced parking requirements, but overall they consider the most recent draft a step back from the earlier versions. Austin’s Planning Commission approved the staff’s third draft, with substantial revisions, in late May and forwarded both versions to the City Council for consideration.  The Council is expected to take up the CodeNEXT revisions in June.

Zoning and land use ordinances are notoriously complex and Austin’s CodeNEXT is no exception; the third draft totaled nearly 1,400 pages. I have spent too many hours flipping back and forth through zoning ordinances to think that I can provide a valid critique of Austin’s CodeNEXT on the quick and from afar. It is interesting, however, to look at data on Austin’s existing housing configuration in order to identify the shortcomings of its existing land use regulations. The chart below shows the total density of housing units per square mile, and the percentage of citywide housing units accounted for by single-family detached homes, single-family attached and 2-4 family homes, and structures with 5 or more units, for the country’s 25 largest cities.



The City of Austin has a land area of 298 square miles, not that different, say, than New York City’s 303 square miles. But Austin’s housing unit density, at 1,361 dwelling units per square mile, is only about one-ninth of NYC’s.  In fact, Austin is less dense than other notoriously sprawling Texas cities like Houston and Dallas. It is also only about one-sixth as dense as San Francisco, and significantly less dense than other tech-center cities such as Seattle, Denver, San Jose and San Diego.

With about 48% of its housing units in single-family detached structures, Austin is far above the proportion found in the large “superstar” cities like New York, Washington D.C., Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and even Los Angeles. Its proportion of housing in single-family detached units is, however, well below that of many other sunbelt cities, and even below that of San Jose. At the other end of the spectrum, about 39% of Austin’s housing is in multi-family structures with 5 or more dwelling units, not dramatically lower than in other, much denser cities.

What is glaring about Austin’s housing stock is that so little of it is in 1-family attached homes, like Philadelphia’s row houses, or in 2- to 4-family structures, like Boston’s triple-deckers. Among the 25 largest cities, Austin ranks only 17th in the proportion of its housing found in townhouses and smaller owner-renter buildings. The debate over CodeNEXT has been very much about this type of housing, which has been dubbed “the missing middle.”

We’ll have to see how the debate plays out but it strikes me that Austin can’t have it both ways. Some observers have quipped that Austin residents are opposed to density and opposed to sprawl. But the city also can’t aspire to be a world-class tech center and hub for economic growth without a willingness to accommodate that growth. The irony is that “missing middle” housing not only provides a wider range of affordability options than large-lot single-family development, it also creates neighborhood environments that people enjoy living in. In New York, Boston, D.C. and other thriving cities, relatively dense, low-rise, row house neighborhoods are among the most coveted. It’s not something that Austin should fear.