New Councilmembers’ Approach to Zoning, In Their Own Words

On the City Council meeting on Thursday, 2/12, we had our first major look at the approach that many of the new Councilmembers will take to zoning and land use policy in practice.  The Item that I believe gave us the most insight was a re-zoning case.  For background, check out the Austin Monitor story. The basic gist of this case is that the owners of an auto repair shop are retiring and want to sell their land to a developer to build apartments.  As this was the first major rezoning case to come before the Council, many of the Councilmembers took the opportunity to state their principles.  I present to you the Councilmembers’ own words (not in the order they spoke at Council):

Don Zimmerman

Zimmerman views his decision through a lens of competing property rights: that of the property owner to build as they see fit and an implicit contractual expectation of neighbors that the city will not rezone nearby land.  As the opponents didn’t frame their argument in property rights, he decided to vote with the applicants’ property rights. CM Zimmerman voted for the motion to signal support for the project.

Kathie Tovo

Kathie Tovo, generally more skeptical of new development during her first term, doesn’t speak directly to her approach, but asks questions related to whether development could still be profitable with less housing, as well as arguing that the developer should provide more larger (2 and 3+ bedroom units) units.  She also mentions “zoning is always discretionary,” pointing to a larger role for Council to play in deciding the details of what gets built and where. CM Tovo voted against the motion to signal support for the project.

Ora Houston

Similarly, Ora Houston asks questions regarding how many guaranteed Affordable Housing and accessible units the complex will have.  CM Houston voted against the motion to signal support for a larger complex.

Leslie Pool

Leslie Pool puts forward a theory of balancing the needs of current members of neighborhood associations and future (Millenial) residents.  She argues for a slower development process in which infrastructure gets built first, followed by more housing.  CM Pool voted against the motion to signal support for the project.

Sheri Gallo

Sheri Gallo expresses support for neighborhood voices in general, but says she doesn’t “understand the neighborhood thought process” on this particular case. She supports the larger complex in part because it is buffered from single-family homes, and because the housing is needed and desired by younger people. CM Gallo voted for the motion to signal support for the project.

Sabino Rentería

Very much like Gallo, Sabino Rentería expresses support for neighborhood voices in general, but also for density. He argues that there isn’t enough land to build single-family housing for all the people who need housing. He also adds a different line of reasoning, arguing that further density will lead to higher quality of place, via slowing traffic, increasing viability for restaurants and other retail and increasing “eyes on the street.”  Contra Gallo, he argues that housing creates the political support for more infrastructure. CM Rentería voted for the motion to signal support for the project.

Greg Casar

Greg Casar asked questions that indicated an interest in finding the way to make the market-rate housing most affordable, as well as asking whether, if this project wasn’t built, whether there would be other places to place similarly dense housing nearyby, arguing that “more people should have the right to live in that area.” CM Casar voted for the motion to signal support for the project.

Steve Adler

Adler expresses a lot of process concerns, arguing against ad hoc zoning cases like this one, in favor of more comprehensive citywide plans. Nevertheless, he argues that while these planning processes are going forward, we need to keep moving forward. He also makes a plea for compromise. Mayor Adler voted for the motion to signal support for the project.

Delia Garza, Ellen Troxclair, and Ann Kitchen

These three councilmembers didn’t offer enough comment on this case to get much insight into their approach to zoning.  CMs Garza and Troxclair voted for the motion to signal support for the project; CM Kitchen voted against.

New Councilmembers’ Approach to Zoning, In Their Own Words

The Pervasive, Pernicious Anti-Renter Hostility in Local Politics

As always, my examples are from Austin but probably apply more broadly.

A majority of Austin households rent, but Austin politics is dominated by the homeowner minority (myself included). There are tons of theories of why renters don’t participate more: renters are as a group younger and poorer than homeowners, and both of those demographics participate in politics less. Renters may move more often and therefore not have had time to develop connections to groups or candidates. But I want to suggest one more narrative: it is draining to participate in a system where people are frequently overtly hostile to you, believe your voice matters less or not at all, and far from being shamed for it, are celebrated.

The fact that renters are viewed as outsiders in politics is so plain to those who participate that it hardly seems to merit proof, but I’ll try to document a tiny sliver of it here.

I’ll start with a trivial example, something fairly easy to brush off. In a city planning session for Imagine Austin, I suggested the city needs to consider the effects of its policies on renters and not just homeowners, and the discussion leader (a city staff member) coded this as “inclusion of nontraditional residents, like renters”. I do believe his heart was in the right place, but as a renter at the time, I felt more unwelcome to know that because I was part of the renter majority, he saw me as an exotic and not just a neighbor. Similarly, from the statements of goals for the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, a private organization that nevertheless wields considerable power:

Again, this could even come off as endearing: they know that they have an issue with renters and want to overcome it. But it also sends a clear message to renters that this is not their organization. They are to be tolerated, even though...  And this is a neighborhood association in a neighborhood where the vast majority (~80%) of residents are renters! Okay, so not so bad. Well, after some people felt unwelcome by HPNA, they formed a more open neighborhood association, and that’s when the claws came out:

Tell us how you really feel, Betina! Okay, that’s just one person. This kind of hostility to the majority of your neighbors couldn’t be that widespread, could it? Well, widespread enough to make it into the campaign literature of a runoff candidate in renter-heavy District 4, Laura Pressley, who pointed out that her opponent had 0 “Years as a Property Tax Payer” (i.e. he is a renter, not a homeowner):

Okay, but Laura Pressley, even though she is on the Executive Committee of Austin Neighborhoods Council and earned enough votes to put her in the runoff, is completely crazy* also believes lots of stuff most people don’t and ultimately lost the election. Does this stuff matter? Well, it’s pretty much the official policy of ANC, one of Austin’s most powerful civic organizations. Here, from ANC’s official comments to the city on CodeNEXT, and why they took positions against welcoming new housing into core neighborhoods:

As we all know, unless you have enough wealth to invest in property, you can’t have emotions regarding the place you live, nor should your opinion matter. Am I being too harsh? No, not nearly harsh enough.

Let me set this next clip up. Austin has intensely detailed rules on “residential compatibility” outlining what a house may look like, what modifications can be made to it, etc. This is footage from the Residential Design & Compatibility Committee, an official committee of the city of Austin with “sovereign power” (i.e. final say) on whether to grant waivers to these rules. The man in front of this committee has sought to enclose his carport by installing a garage door. Under the rules, a house may not occupy more than a certain percentage of his lot (known as Floor Area Ratio or FAR). Garages count toward that space; carports do not. With the carport enclosed, he’d go over the allowed space, so he needs a waiver. He has presented a petition with 52 signatures from nearby neighbors of his. After some early trepidation from President of ANC and RDCC Commissioner Mary Ingle (actual quote: “I would hate for this to start a tsunami of garage doors appearing on carports”), the commissioners get around to discussing the letters of support:

Commissioner Lucy Katz: “If we have 52 people in the neighborhood who say that they’re okay with it, then it’s their neighborhood. They’re not renters. They’re owners.”

After some discussion, they get to counting the letters in favor.

Commissioner Karen McGraw: “I found about 40 in favor in the backup and they all say ‘resident'; they don’t say ‘property owner’. Some of them are likely to be–I mean, whether it matters or not–some of them are likely to be residents but possibly not property owners.”

The fact that Commissioners could be explicitly looking to identify whether the people who have chosen to make their voices heard are homeowners and thus worthy of mattering belies the idea that the fault lies entirely with the renters for not participating, rather than with the city for choosing to stifle or ignore that participation.

In a better world, even contemplating, hedged or not, the choice to deny a voice to some of your neighbors because they don’t own a home–whether they are renters by choice or financial necessity–would earn you an immediate rebuke and put you outside the pale of politics until you apologize. Back in our world,  it apparently puts you on a committee with sovereign power. And, in Mary Ingle’s case, it puts you as one of the few citizen voices selected to brief City Council during their policy deep dives.

So what does it matter?

In the scheme of an individual person’s life, probably not that much. This is not apartheid. Renters still live in most parts of the city; there are no separate “renter” water fountains. Most people who attend a meeting like this and get a bad feeling of being unwelcomed, shrug the city committee or the civic organization off as busybodies and find something else to get interested in. It’s not so much that they’re uninterested–within a month of establishing a more inclusive neighborhood association, Friends of Hyde Park had more members than the decades-old HPNA–it’s that they’re uninterested in putting up with the nonsense and hostility that they had to put up with in order to participate.

But the net effect of all these people getting interested in politics and then cycling out is a city whose policy is seriously skewed.  Powerful neighborhood associations dominated by the homeowner minority regularly try–and succeed–in limiting the creation of rental homes in their neighborhoods. This drives costs up and ultimately drives many people out of the city altogether. The most popular policy endorsed by the most candidates in the last election was a homestead exemption–a tax cut that specifically targets homeowners and not renters, and may end up being paid for by raising taxes that renters ultimately pay.

How do we fix it?

The politics of the last couple years have offered great hope in this area. I was very pleased to see Councilmember Delia Garza will request that any analysis of the homestead exemption take into account what effect it would have on renters. City-wide organizations arguing for welcoming all, homeowners and renters alike, have been formed in Austin: (AURA) and San Francisco (SFBARF). On the hyperlocal level, more inclusive neighborhood associations like Friends of Hyde Park have formed. I would encourage people struggling with the frustration of feeling like they are something apart from the old politics to not waste your time trying to join organizations that don’t want you and just go straight to those who do. If you aren’t welcome in the old politics, you are welcome in the new politics.

On the broader level, we need to push for a cultural shift in which it is no longer considered acceptable to discriminate against your neighbors because of their homeownership status. In which, even if you secretly harbor an animus towards those who rent, you know to keep it to yourself or else lose your position in the policymaking apparatus. And a future in which all may participate in city politics without anybody questioning where their down payment is.

* Laura Pressley has objected to my characterization of her above and advised me that I was “potentially committing libel”. What I wrote was obviously intended as an opinion, not a statement of fact. However, it was an uncharitable opinion and I have therefore replaced it.

The Pervasive, Pernicious Anti-Renter Hostility in Local Politics

Council considering parking management districts for East Austin, Mueller

As Jennifer Curington reports in the Community Impact Newspaper, this Thursday Austin City Council will consider whether to create its first two parking/transportation management districts. PTMDs are arrangements in which the city installs parking meters in an area that needs them and splits the proceeds from operating the meters between the general fund and a fund that is specific to the area in which the meters are installed. They differ from parking benefit districts, another arrangement that the city can create, primarily in who can apply to create one.  (There are some folks who believe PTMDs are inferior to PBDs. For their arguments, read the comments section of this post a little while after I post it.)

The main feature of both these programs is that they control parking demand through the use of meters, a practice that first began in Oklahoma City in 1935. Of course, given the opportunity, most people would just as soon not pay for parking as pay for it, but as I discussed here, that can cause serious problems when there are more people who want to park than there are spaces.

The “revenue split” feature of PTMDs (and PBDs) are essentially political features. Just because it would benefit people on the whole to install parking meters doesn’t make it politically easy to create them. Opposition to meters can come from a number of corners, including merchants who believe their customers will no longer come to their store if they can’t park for free, to residents who dislike having parking spaces they have been using for long-term parking converted to short-term parking for those who live outside the neighborhood. By concentrating the benefits of the meters in the same area where these opponents live and work, theory goes that it will be easier politically to create and maintain support for them.

Indeed, in this case, theory appears to be matching up with reality. Two neighborhood associations–the East Cesar Chavez NA and the Guadalupe Association for an Improved Neighborhood–have joined the city in applying for the “East Austin” PTMD. This PTMD (council item here) would be bounded by I-35, Chicon Street, 4th St and 7th St, or roughly speaking, what many people call East 6th. The meters would run during the busy nightlife hours of 6PM-midnight Tuesday through Saturdays; any residents of single-family homes whose homes do not have off-street parking will be provided permits to use on-street spaces free of charge. Some ideas contemplated in the city documents for where the funds may be used include sidewalks, crosswalks, traffic signals, artwork, and ongoing street maintenance.

If these PTMDs turn out well, they may prove an improved template for managing high-demand parking near commercial areas of the city. The parking management solution most commonly in use, the Residential Permit Parking program, has been a failure. The idea behind it in the first place is essentially exclusionary–the entire purpose of the program is to ban people who don’t live very close to an area in which parking is in high-demand from parking there. This is, to put it lightly, a poor use of a city resource (on-street parking). When put in practice, this program has, not surprisingly, had poor results. Many of those streets in which non-locals have been excluded from parking now sit empty, while parkers just park even further from their destination.

Perhaps in the future, the city will decide that rather than playing whack-a-mole with people who desire parking, they should simply charge for it, and use the proceeds to improve sidewalks, crosswalks, and the like.

Council considering parking management districts for East Austin, Mueller

Austin’s Secret Midrise Neighborhood

A small, residential neighborhood midrise street

Austin famously has a “missing middle” of housing. There are high-rise residential towers downtown, VMU along major corridors, and, most of the rest is zoned single-family-only, where even modestly denser homes like rowhomes are disallowed. But one neighborhood has, with far less fanfare than downtown condo towers or corridor VMU, remade itself into Austin’s premier dense, urban, walkable, midrise place. In this neighborhood, 4-story apartment buildings are built with little fuss or publicity and single-family homes sit in happy coexistence with vertical mixed use next door. It is a neighborhood far more people think they know than actually do: West Campus. Continue reading “Austin’s Secret Midrise Neighborhood”

Austin’s Secret Midrise Neighborhood

The Upside Down(town) Parking World

I often refer to the housing market as a game of musical chairs. We don’t have as much housing (chairs) as there are people who want it and however you arrange people in those houses (chairs), somebody loses out. The solution is abundant housing. In the downtown parking market, though; we suffer from a very different kind of failure. At the same time that people are circling the streets in search of that ever-elusive open on-street parking space, tons of spaces go empty in parking garages. We don’t need more parking; we need better use of the parking we’ve got.

So what’s going on? The issue stems from the underpricing of on-street parking during peak hours. Although on-street spaces are the most convenient spaces, they are also the cheapest. This means that there is a ton of competition for those spaces. On weekend evenings, the winners of this competition are largely the service workers who arrive for their shift before their patrons.  (My instinct on this is partly confirmed by data from ATX Safer Streets, which surveyed downtown service workers and found about half park on-street.)  The result is an upside down world of parking: the spaces most suitable to high-turnover applications, such as quick visits, dropoff or pickup, etc. are being used for long-term applications, such as employee parking. Meanwhile, visitors scour the streets for nonexistent open spaces before parking in a garage or going home. If we charged more for on-street parking, we would likely see a more effective utilization of both on-street and off-street parking. Service workers would find that making monthly contracts with garages is now the better deal for them, freeing up on-street spaces for downtown visitors. The knock-on effects of more available parking would be less time wasted and traffic created by visitors–especially short-term visitors like dinner or dry cleaning pick-ups–“cruising” for parking.

Not convinced that raising prices could make a more efficient market? Let’s imagine an analogy. Suppose that, instead of providing below-market rates on parking to encourage visitors to shop at downtown businesses, the city instead decided to provide below-market rates on publicly-provisioned hotels to encourage the same. These hotels were the nicest ones in the city, with ever-fresh towels, and gorgeous downtown views. On top of that, the city charges a measly $1/hour. The only catch is that the city won’t take reservations for these hotels; visitors could just show up at rooms and if they are unoccupied, they would be allowed to claim them. If they failed to find a room, they could instead park themselves for the night at a market-rate hotel.

What you would find is that many visitors would arrive in Austin without a plan for where they would stay, just hoping to find a spot in the cheap hotels. On arrival, they would visit each cheap hotel hoping to score a deal. They would search for people taking elevators luggage in hand, in hopes as a sign they were going to check out. Traffic would soar as visitors circled the streets from hotel to hotel. Meanwhile, most of the rooms themselves would be scored not by visitors from afar, but by locals who know the rhythms of check-in and check-out. Downtown businesses would get complaints from tourists that finding a hotel room was too hard and complain in turn to the city that there aren’t enough hotel rooms. Is that a crazy way to run a tourism industry? Yes and also a crazy way to run downtown parking.

The Upside Down(town) Parking World

Get your housing in a row, Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, guest blogger Mateo Barnstone discussed how row houses can help with affordability and why they might make a great deal of sense given growth pressures Austin is facing. Today he’ll dig deeper into how the land development code limits the availability of this housing type.

While there are indisputable cost savings to row houses (in a city with a big affordability problem, that is no small matter) and other potential advantages, there are, of course, other considerations that factor heavily in Austin developing land use policies. Many of the regulations contained within our Land Development Code exist specifically as a means of “preserving the character” of our neighborhoods. Take for example Subchapter F – the McMansion Ordinance. The stated goal of the McMansion Ordinance is to “minimize impact of new construction on older neighborhoods,” and the standards chosen specifically were adopted to “protect the character of Austin’s older neighborhoods by ensuring that new construction, remodels and additions are compatible in scale and bulk with existing neighborhoods.” [1]

When we seek to preserve the character of a place, we all understand the intention is to protect that place from getting worse – but it also prevents a place from evolving for the better. We can debate until our eyes roll to the back of our head about what qualities make one neighborhood better than another – but I defy anyone to look at these lovely neighborhoods below and tell me why they’re inherently flawed because of the extensive use of row houses:

Dan’s linked post does a pretty great job of laying out the basic problem in Austin. SF-3 zoning is essentially a suburban code. The problem is that suburban code is the widely applied default zoning of our urban core. Continue reading “Get your housing in a row, Part 2″

Get your housing in a row, Part 2

Get your housing in a row, part 1

In an earlier post, I described zoning as “the central problem” facing Austin.  That is, inefficient land use makes it that much harder to get efficient public transportation and other public services.  But how, exactly, does zoning restrict land use?  I’ve invited my first guest blogger, Mateo, owner of a Mueller rowhouse, to blog about the benefits of rowhouses and why Austin should allow them in more places:

As many readers of this blog will know, consulting company Opticos has been engaged as the City of Austin’s consultant in the re-drafting of our Land Development Code, a process known as CodeNEXT. Early in the process they tipped their hand and indicated that the current land use codes and regulations by and large prohibit “Missing Middle” housing types. We tend to get high rises in downtown, a few midrises on the transit boulevards and a whole lot of single-family detached housing units everywhere else. We have nearly coded out (or greatly limited) the once common duplex, triplex, fourplex, bungalow court, row house, court yard apartment and live/work units that were a part of the essential fabric of the urban residential neighborhoods. One huge advantage of Missing Middle housing types is that they offer a way to incrementally layer in density without imposing large structures on neighborhoods.  The building mass of Missing Middle housing is similar to or compatible with single-family detached units, but make better use of largely wasted space.

In this blog post I will be discussing a particular Missing Middle housing type that is prohibited from (almost all) of Austin – the row house:


Continue reading “Get your housing in a row, part 1″

Get your housing in a row, part 1