Responding to Austin's Housing Emergency. Housing Options, Mayoral Candidate Kirk Watson thinks ATX should consider
Everyone knows it: Austin is in a state of emergency. The cost of housing in our community has spiraled out of control, threatening to fundamentally change the character of the city we love.
For generations, people have come to Austin, and stayed in Austin, because we’ve enthusiastically embraced those who dance to a different beat. Artists, musicians, students, entrepreneurs and risk takers of every stripe – alongside many others simply seeking to be themselves, build a career and a raise a family – have found not only a spiritual home in Austin, but also an actual home, thanks to a wealth of affordable housing options and a low cost of living.
But over the past ten years in particular, we’ve seen a dramatic shift that today threatens to rewrite our story. Perhaps predictably, the very qualities that drew so many people to Austin for so long – an ethos of acceptance, and an economy of abundance – are now jeopardized by the incredible growth they produced. At the same time, in the wake of the COVID pandemic, economic forces far beyond our control have further compromised Austin’s affordability, with rising housing costs as the central cause and effect.
I worry that if we fail to act with urgency to control the factors we can, we risk watching our beloved city transform from a diverse and inclusive place of opportunity into a homogenous playground for only the very wealthy.
My greatest concern may be generational inequity. If housing costs in Austin put home ownership – typically the basis of long-term financial stability – out of reach for our children and grandchildren (or young people already here and working to build their future), we’ll be undermining our city’s promise in a way that negates every other step we may take to protect it. Our progressive rallying cry must be that we will prevent this. We simply cannot be the generation that denies subsequent ones the same opportunities that Austin gave us.
The good news is that the fight is not lost, and we still have powerful weapons at our disposal – namely, an extraordinary consensus about what our challenges are, and a shared determination to find solutions that change the equation. If we choose to respond thoughtfully but decisively to our housing emergency – if we come together around a positive, progressive vision, and quickly take steps to turn that vision into a reality – I know that we can protect Austin’s special quality of life, for ourselves and for future generations.
While my commitment as mayor will be to bring Austinites together to develop strategies to respond to our biggest problems, it’s also the responsibility of a leader to bring new ideas and approaches to the table. When it comes to housing, I believe that Austinites want to expand the availability of a full range of options without damaging the essential character of our existing neighborhoods, or putting our environment at risk. Obviously that’s easier said than done – and of course every innovative idea has obstacles to overcome and details to work out.
But, to lead off the discussion, here are some options I believe we should consider:
SCRUB AUSTIN'S DEVELOPMENT REVIEW PROCESS
It’s long past time for the City of Austin to conduct a comprehensive, transparent evaluation of its development review process, with the goal of reforming our policies and procedures to support the immediate delivery of more housing options and then to act on it. I suggest we base that review process on the one utilized by the Texas Sunset Commission, the nationally-recognized body that regularly reviews nearly every agency in Texas government. My goal as mayor would be to complete such a review, and adopt resulting reforms, within nine months of taking office.
TEMPORARILY CUT TARGETED DEVELOPMENT
A recent report revealed that the City of Austin charges the highest development fees among all large Texas cities, by a significant margin. For example, for infill development, the City’s estimated fee is around $41,300 per unit, while the average estimated fee among other big cities is around $14,400. While Austin is facing a housing emergency, I believe we should designate projects under City review that will fill critical needs and temporarily cut development fees for those projects by at least 50%. If necessary to prevent any negative impact on the development review process, we could utilize the City’s Stabilization Fund to fill any budget gap created by fee cuts.
LET COUNCIL DISTRICTS ADOPT THEIR OWN CODE REFORMS
Comprehensive reform of our land development code has eluded Austin for more than a decade. In my view, the failure lies primarily with a “one size fits all” approach, which I see as a relic of our previous at-large system of governance. When Austinites voted ten years ago to adopt a system of district representation, I believe they were expressing a desire to localize decision-making, including decisions about development and housing policy. I propose that the best way to make progress is to stop trying to force every Austin district to adopt the same type of code reforms, and instead allow each Council member to bring forward a set of district-specific reforms.
REWARD NEIGHBORHOODS THAT ADOPT PRO-HOUSING REFORMS
As part of localizing our approach to code reform, I believe we should create an incentive for Council districts to embrace changes that will deliver more housing options in their area. When new housing comes online, it not only addresses affordability, but also generates new property tax revenue, both from the new housing and from the new office and retail projects that should go along with proper development. Those districts that adopt pro-housing code reforms should benefit directly from the new revenue those reforms will generate in the form of an Affordability Annuity – a dedicated, ongoing funding stream that neighbors could choose to devote to local parks, pools, libraries, displacement prevention, rental assistance, or other initiatives. This is also a way to help ensure equity for those areas that provide more of the city’s needed housing stock than others.
LAUNCH THE CENTRAL TEXAS HOUSING PARTNERSHIP
In an emergency, it’s critical to coordinate responders and resources. That’s why I propose to bring the City of Austin, Travis County, Austin ISD, Austin Community College, Capital Metro, and the University of Texas together to form the Central Texas Housing Partnership – a standing coalition designed to capitalize on the resources and roles of each partner group. Each entity controls significant assets, including underutilized land; combined with the regulatory authority of the City and County, I’m convinced that this proactive, collaborative approach could quickly deliver new housing solutions, both for each partner’s constituents – such as teachers, students and public employees – and for the community at large. This partnership could and should also be grown to include other jurisdictions in the region.
CREATE A MASTER-PLANNED COMMUNITY AT LAKE WALTER E. LONG
A major project of the new Housing Partnership could very well be the development of Lake Walter E. Long. Created over 50 years ago as a power plant cooling reservoir, the 1,165-acre lake is surrounded by 2,530 acres of parkland – a City-owned property nearly four times larger than the Mueller community developed on the site of the former Austin airport. Travis County also leases a section of the property, where the Expo Center is located, and Capital Metro’s plans include connecting the area to downtown Austin via the Green Line. While the City completed a park Master Plan in 2019, the estimated cost of executing that plan was $800 million – not only an entirely unachievable budget but, I would argue, also now entirely the wrong plan. Given the housing emergency facing Austin today, I believe we should change course at Lake Walter E. Long and instead pursue a vibrant, mixed-use, transit-oriented development that could help reshape our city’s housing future – and still create at least the second-largest park in Travis County.
USE EVERY TOOL IN THE TOOLBOX TO EXPAND HOUSING OPTIONS
In addition to these ideas and others that may result from new discussions and collaborations, I believe we must consider every other possible strategy to make it easier and cheaper to bring new housing online while protecting our existing neighborhoods and environment. Some of these might include:Creating designated hubs of density – especially along transit corridors – where the City requires minimum development as opposed to setting limits
Proactively identifying greenfield and large underutilized commercial areas and facilitating the development of new housing, including by utilizing incentives
Reducing compatibility and reducing or eliminating parking requirements in targeted areas
Changing vertical mixed-use zoning to allow more height in exchange for more affordable housing units
Streamlining the process of subdividing and developing or redeveloping larger single-family lots
Changing City development rules to encourage construction of appropriate duplexes and Accessory Dwelling Units rather than McMansions on single-family lots
Creating incentives to convert office buildings into residential buildings, add housing to existing parking lots, and encourage employers to participate in building workforce housing
Creating a new City site plan process for simple projects that need less oversight
Creating “pop-up permitting” events to allow homeowners to more easily get permits for minor projects, helping to reduce development review backlog
Ensuring that the City’s use of voter-approved bond funds for affordable housing projects is based on detailed, transparent plans, and that results are shared in real-time