Four things City Council could do today to fight the housing shortage

Central Austin needs more housing. Prices have been rising, more and more people want to live where they have short commutes but are only able to afford homes near the periphery. We have a long-term plan to alter our land development code that may help with this but our need is now. What options are available to us today?

End Parking requirements in west campus

Every year, West Campus adds more and more dense student housing and along with it, pedestrian amenities like wide sidewalks and street trees.IMG_20160119_142423 A parking benefit district meters on-street parking with proceeds plowed back into neighborhood improvements. Surveys have shown the vast majority of West Campus students get around without cars. Allowing housing for students without parking could allow denser housing, lower construction costs, or allow more creative buildings that take advantage of unique lots. Removing minimum parking rules has already resulted in a few buildings downtown targeting markets that either don’t need cars or have other places to park them; the same could be even more true in student-rich West Campus.

Reduce parking requirements near transit routes

The same logic of reducing parking requirements applies outside the student market to apartments near transit routes. More and more people in Austin want to live car-free or car-light. That is easiest to do in buildings created with that lifestyle in mind–a step that can both reduce construction costs and allow room for improving other amenities. Long-term, if Austin wants to be a sustainable city, parking-free typologies should be allowed everywhere. However, in much of Austin, we wrongly treat scarce on-street parking as an endless “commons” rather than managing it as a scarce resource. This means that it may be the wiser path to improve incrementally–iteratively reducing off-street parking requirements, improving on-street parking management, and improving transportation options. Happily, this may also improve an almost universally disliked aspect of Austin’s largest apartment complexes: their architectural monotony.

Implement the Downtown Austin Plan

New high-rise towers are being constructed in downtown Austin all the time–but downtown is more than just the Central Business District. A sleepy section of downtown known as northwest downtown consists mostly of one and two story offices, with a handful of residences and a handful of larger buildings mixed in. Northwest District PlanThe demand for living in this area is very high: it is adjacent to the university, the central business district, county government, ACC, and Pease Elementary. In 2011, a stakeholder process decided on a measured, middle approach toward developing this area to be more housing-rich, commensurate with the strong demand for downtown living, but without the high-rise towers that characterize downtown. Unfortunately, with no active sponsors pushing for implementation on City Council, this plan has languished. With the heavy lifting already done, it would not be complicated to implement and could result in real gains for those wishing to live downtown but not in high-rise towers.

Implement the South Central Waterfront Plan

Map of South Central WaterfrontThe South Central Waterfront has added a modest amount of housing in recent years, with the apartment buildings the Catherine and 422 on the Lake acting as an extension of downtown across the river.  However, the area as a whole is a mess, from the enormous Statesman offices to the big-parking-lot-and-a-Hooters near the Long Center. Fortunately, the city has been working on a plan that would clean it up, add significant amounts of park land, improve transportation access by improving the street grid and adding trails, and, crucially, free up some land for more and better housing. Implementing this plan would be a great boon.

And Beyond…

Added together, these plans aren’t nearly enough. Austin is a big city and rapidly growing. Unfortunately, it’s growing in many of the wrong ways right now: our houses are sprawling outward, our towers aren’t affordable to most people, and our apartment complexes are monster buildings dominated by parking garages. But this ship can’t turn that fast and it’s time to get turning.

Four things City Council could do today to fight the housing shortage

Austin created a dense student neighborhood—what happened next will warm your environmentalist heart

In 2004, Austin adopted a new set of rules and design guidelines allowing developers to build larger apartment buildings in West Campus with fewer parking spaces required, as long as they provided a few additional benefits like better sidewalks and street trees and set some of the apartments aside for low-income students. Unlike the larger apartment complexes Austin allowed on major streets like Burnet or Lamar, these homes are scattered throughout the neighborhood. One of the ideas was to provide a place where students could more easily walk, bike, or bus to campus rather than drive. This is in fitting with ideas of environmental groups like the Sierra Club.

What’s happened since then?

Continue reading “Austin created a dense student neighborhood—what happened next will warm your environmentalist heart”

Austin created a dense student neighborhood—what happened next will warm your environmentalist heart

5 Reasons Uber has leverage in Austin (or, How Austin made taking taxis awful)

Austin is in election season. City Council passed a new set of rules for Uber and Lyft, and the companies have funded an initative to repeal and replace those rules with rules more similar to the ones previously in place. On May 7, the issue will be decided by voters. This election has been heated, with charges that Uber pays its drivers too little and its campaign workers too much and countercharges that City Council members are in the pocket of Big Taxi. For many people I know, the referendum poses an awkward choice: they think the new rules the City Council passed are reasonable but they don’t want to see Uber and Lyft leave.

How is that when two young, money-losing startup companies contemplate stopping service here, that possibility gives them so much leverage? Mostly, the answer is that Austinites remember getting rides prior to Uber and Lyft, it was awful–and nothing has been done to fix the underlying problems.

1 The city (still) limits the number of taxis

Finding a taxi in Austin when you needed one was hard. At 2:00 AM on Friday and Saturday nights (closing time for bars), throngs of downtown revelers used to line up desperately searching for cabs. Many folks had to wait until the first wave of cabs had already driven to the suburbs and back. Others gave up and either drove home intoxicated, took unpaid rides from strangers, or hired unlicensed cabs. Since Uber and Lyft have arrived, the number of people offering rides for money and the number of paid rides have both risen dramatically, showing that the demand was always there, but couldn’t be provided for with the limited number of taxis the city permitted.

2 The city (still) forbids taxis from pricing appropriately

Uber and Lyft vary their prices for a variety of reasons. They use sales and first-ride discounts to promote their services; they use temporary price hikes to motivate drivers to get on the road at times of high demand. Given the city-mandated taxi shortage, taxi companies could have used similar tactics to build ridership at down times and motivate all their drivers to drive at times of highest demand. Except the city doesn’t allow taxicabs to change their prices except by act of City Council. The tools that Uber uses to provide reliable service aren’t available to taxis.

3 The city (still) limits the number of taxi companies

Ever wonder why, when riders and drivers both complain vigorously about the existing taxi companies, no other company came into existence and tried to lure drivers away to work for them instead? After all, Uber and Lyft are constantly fighting for each others’ drivers. The city only grants franchise agreements to three companies and limits the number of drivers for each, so they have no incentive to compete for drivers. As a member of my neighborhood association, I’ve met with people looking to start a new taxi company. Unfortunately, all their time was spent on the politics of convincing City Council members to allow them to serve customers rather than the actual logistics of serving customers. Starting a business is hard enough; starting a business that requires political approval before you are allowed to operate is a step too far for most people.

4 The city (still) forbids other companies from offering anything that even vaguely resembles a taxi ride

With the city-mandated taxi shortage, you might expect people to get more rides from slightly differentiated services like prearranged ride companies (called limousine service, but not limited to stretch limos). However, the city code includes many rules with no conceivable consumer benefit. For example, limo services are forbidden from charging less than $55/hour, must wait half an hour before providing service, and must keep trip tickets proving both of those facts.

5 Uber and Lyft provide better services than traditional taxis

Even acknowledging reasons 1-4, Uber and Lyft probably wouldn’t have as much leverage as they do if they merely provided another option on par with what existed before. But they really have managed to use digital technology to provide much better service for passengers. Just some of the Lyft features I’ve personally used recently:

  • Texted my driver before he arrived to okay bringing my cat along.
  • Waited upstairs until GPS showed my ride was a minute away.
  • Automatically matched for carpool with people I didn’t know.
  • Texted my friends a link to a map tracking my ride’s current progress.
  • Paid and tipped my drivers via credit card on file without driver interaction.

In addition to these flourishes, they’re better at the basics of requesting and dispatching cars. This is a point that gets acknowledged repeatedly at City Council. In one debate, Ellen Troxclair argued passengers already have a choice of fingerprinted drivers (taxis) vs. non-fingerprinted drives (Uber/Lyft), and Mayor Adler said it wasn’t realistic to expect passengers to choose taxis given their inferior service.

What next?

Uber and Lyft currently have superior technology and regulations that allow them to put as many drivers as they need on the streets and price rides based on the conditions they face. With the possibility that those companies will be unwilling to continue service under Austin’s new regulations, voters face a choice between having access to convenient, reliable paid rides and the regulations which at least some of them prefer.

Uber and Lyft’s tenure in Austin has exposed the massive gap between the ride services we had and the ride services we want. Whatever the outcome of the election on Proposition 1, I hope that City Council realizes that, as long as it forbids taxi drivers from collectively meeting the number of rides needed, they will always be providing a massive amount of leverage to non-taxi companies who want to meet that demand.

5 Reasons Uber has leverage in Austin (or, How Austin made taking taxis awful)

Living in a big ole city: Taylor Swift Urbanism

If you listen to a lot of bluegrass and country, you’d think cities were the worst thing that every happened to humanity. J.D. Crowe and the New South ask why they ever left their plow behind to look for a job in the town:

Hank Williams, Jr. thinks that you’ll only get mugged if you go downtown.  If you keep watching, you find that this is exactly what happened to the narrator’s friend!

Dave Grisman didn’t get mugged, but still found himself impoverished:

Taylor Swift, on the other hand, can portray a positive side of cities: cosmpolitan places to escape bad relationships, meet new people with different life experiences, and grow your dreams.

In White Horse, she reminds herself that small towns are difficult places for dreams to come true:

In Fifteen, she describes a process where girls growing up in small towns can be encouraged not to dream big dreams (though she herself, she reflects, has moved on to bigger, better things):

In Mean, she holds out the hope for city living as a way of escaping abusive relationships holding her back:

When she finally reaches the big city (New York), she is overwhelmed with the possibilities. People come from all over the world, feel free to explore their sexual identities, remake themselves, and try to achieve their dreams:

Real-life Taylor Swift is a fantastic example of somebody who achieved her dreams by moving to a specialized city, Nashville. Nashville has grown and evolved a cultural and economic engine in country music that allows young people like herself to meet like-minded, skilled people to collaborate with. Good for Taylor Swift for recognizing that the same process means cities can allow for personal growth in other dimensions, by exposing people to others from all over the world and all walks of life.

Living in a big ole city: Taylor Swift Urbanism

Nine barriers to building housing in Austin’s central city

The Austin area has, for the 5th year running, been in the top two major cities in population growth. Yet, even though everybody knows about the new apartments sprouting up on transportation corridors like South Lamar and Burnet, much of the population growth has been in our suburbs and the more suburban areas of the city. Our city is growing out more than it’s growing in or up.

How come? The desire for living in central Austin has never been higher. But Austin, like most cities, has rules that prevent new housing from getting built in the central city. That makes it easier to buy up virgin land in the suburbs and build new housing out there. It’s worth understanding what some of those rules are.

1 Minimum Lot size

Historically, expensive houses were built on expensive, large lots; cheaper homes were built on smaller, cheaper lots. Austin decided that new houses can’t be built on small lots. Even if you want to build a small, cheap house, you still need a lot with at least 5,750 square feet. In central Austin, that costs a lot of money, even without the house!

In 1999, Houston reformed its minimum lot size laws. Since then, environmentally-friendly central-city urban townhomes have flourished.
In 1999, Houston reformed its minimum lot size laws. Since then, environmentally-friendly central-city urban townhomes have flourished.

If somebody owns a 10,000 square foot lot, they aren’t allowed to split it into two 5,000 square foot lots and build two medium-sized houses, let alone three 3,333 square foot lots with three small houses, let alone three 3,333 square foot lots with triplexes!

2 Minimum site area

For areas that are zoned for apartments and condos, there is a cap on the ratio of number of apartments to lot size known as “minimum site area.”

3 Impervious cover maximums

Impervious cover is any surface that prevents water from seeping into the ground, including buildings, driveways, and garages. There is a cap on the ratio of impervious cover to lot size.

4 Floor-to-Area ratio Maximums

FAR explainerFloor-to-area ratios (aka FAR) maximums are a cap on the ratio of livable space to lot size.

5 Height Limits

Outside the central business district downtown, there are limits on the height of buildings. These limits vary based on zoning category, but except in a few special districts do not exceed 60′. Most residential lots in the city have height limits of 35′.

6 Minimum Parking

Perhaps Austin's most essential and defining architectural genre is the hulking car storage facility. This example is in West Campus, where most students can walk to class.
Perhaps Austin’s most essential and defining architectural genre is the hulking car storage facility.

Outside downtown, all housing must build parking—whether surface parking, carports, and garages. These parking spaces cost money and count toward impervious cover limits. If they are enclosed, they count toward floor-to-area ratio limits.

7 Setbacks

In the central city, setbacks are actually more complicated than stated here, as a building can't reach it's full height even outside setbacks.
In the central city, setbacks actually extend vertically, forming an envelope in which a house must not be built.

Front, side, and rear setbacks are strips of land on the front, side, and rear of a lot where buildings aren’t allowed to be built. Most importantly, side setbacks prevent the construction of rowhouses: single-family houses that share side walls.

8 Compatibility restrictions

Diagram for height limits for buildings near single-family homes.
Diagram for height limits for buildings near single-family homes.

Single-family zoning and multi-family zoning are different zoning categories with different limits on the variables above. However, if a multi-family zoned property is located next to a single-family house, additional rules limit these variables in the part of the lot close to the house. Multi-family buildings near single family homes in particular are subject to stringent height limits and setbacks that the single-family homes do not themselves have to observe. There are very few properties in central Austin that aren’t next to single-family homes.

9 Site plans

Whether building single-family houses or apartments, one must comply with all the technical rules of development. For apartments, there’s an additional layer of requirements, such as the creation of site plans with detailed engineering drawings subject to detailed staff review demonstrating that your plan complies with the rules. Single-family houses aren’t required to prepare site plans.

Getting site plan approval can add a huge expense to apartment development, and that expense would not be able to be borne by smaller, 3-4-unit apartment buildings. I say would notbecause Austin has almost completely regulated 3-4 unit buildings out of existence. In 2015, there were only 76 permits for new 3-4 unit buildings,  compared to 11574 new single-family homes.

So what?

In many ways, Austin is headed in the wrong direction. The city is getting more expensive, more sprawled-out, and less environmentally sustainable. This is the result of the difficulty of building central-city housing. The more the city’s population grows, the harder it is for people to find affordable homes with convenient, environmentally-friendly commutes. Many people are finding themselves not drawn to the suburbs, but pushed to the suburbs—car-dependent and stuck in traffic by economic necessity.

Each of our rules were put into place for a reason. Limits on impervious cover regulate stormwater drainage to prevent flooding. Front setbacks can make sidewalks feel wider. Minimum parking rules discourage residents from competing for on-street parking. But when the whole package is put together, the result is that it’s extremely difficult to do the one thing we absolutely have to do for environmental sustainability: build housing with short commutes. Instead of getting the sum of the benefits of these rules, we are getting the sum of the costs, to a bill of environmental destruction, economic hardship, and architectural conformity. And that’s just in the short-term! Long-term, the results could be far worse.

Austin needs more central-city housing. That doesn’t mean that every one of these rules need to be removed completely, but we absolutely need to understand why developers are making the choices that they are, and decide which of those reasons we are going to change and soon.

Nine barriers to building housing in Austin’s central city

Fed up with national politics? 5 reasons to move your energy local!

Are you fed up with national politics? Sad your candidate lost? Just sick of the whole thing?  Here’s 5 reasons to turn your eyes local.

1. You can become an expert

Issues in national politics can be extremely complicated. Wonks and academics spend lifetimes studying things like healthcare or foreign policy, while partisans spend lifetimes reframing them. There is a learning curve to local politics as well but many people who have no background become fluent quickly and many issues don’t require a ton of expertise. In Austin, we have the fortune of dedicated media covering City Hall, like the Austin Monitor, the Statesman’s City Hall Blog, and the City-County section of the Community Impact newspapers. Similar resources exist in other cities.

2. Meet your neighbors

Getting involved in politics is a good way to make new friends who care about the same things as you. Getting involved in local politics is a great way to make nearby friends. Even when you disagree with folks on issues, you often find out that you share a lot in common.

3. Many races are non-partisan

If you’re sick of politicians from two parties reflexively believing whatever everybody else in their party believes, local politicians have way more leeway to come up with third, fourth, and fifth options. Real problem-solving takes place with ordinary citizens sitting around a table talking about real issues. As parties are weak at the local level, many problems don’t come with preordained solutions.

4. Many similar issues are at play, but with more nuance

At the national level, issues like growing economic inequality loom over the political system, but with considerable disagreement over what might address them. In local politics, organizations like Desegregate ATX argue that local governments implement their own form of inequality through laws that make it more expensive to build housing.

5. You can make a difference

The biggest, most important reason to get involved in local politics: you matter. The number of donors, activists, and voters in local elections is tiny, both in raw terms and percentage terms. Your voice, your volunteer time, and your campaign donations matter. Organize 50 people for a presidential rally and you have a poorly-attended rally for media to laugh at; organize 50 people for a local organization and you have a powerful force for Council Members to pay attention to.

So if change is what you want, turn your eyes local, get out there, and make it happen!

Fed up with national politics? 5 reasons to move your energy local!

Developers are required to make car-friendly houses. Read one Coop’s reply!

Anybody building housing outside downtown is required to make it car-friendly by building or buying parking spaces. ICC Coops is a non-profit with a social mission for providing affordable, democratically-run housing. They ran into these requirements as they’re building out their new affordable student housing in West Campus. Unlike most developers, they decided to fight the requirement by seeking a waiver from the rules. Some of the reasons they cite:

Continue reading “Developers are required to make car-friendly houses. Read one Coop’s reply!”

Developers are required to make car-friendly houses. Read one Coop’s reply!