Today, in Austin, if a property owner wants to improve their property, get a zoning change, or even build a garage apartment, they will almost certainly have to hire a high-priced lobbyist to navigate the city bureaucracy. The onerous and confusing City code requirements have fostered an entire industry of “cottage lobbyists,” with prominent legal firms such as the Drenner Group and Armbrust & Brown. These lobbyists fill City Hall with visitors, and subsequently fill campaign finance reports with campaign contributions.
Austin’s “land development code” and development process is, in short, a hot mess.
What is the “land development code?”
Somehow it’s both one of the most boring topics you’ll ever discuss and also the backbone of our economy. Especially at the local level.
“Land development” regulations guide who gets to build what, where, and how. While simple in theory, our reality is a complex hodge-podge of competing interests and priorities. To put it simply, land development codes can encourage housing construction, with low regulations and fees, (thus lowering prices) or it can restrict it (thus raising them).
The “land development code” is the formal name for the legal document that houses all the relevant regulations, from watershed requirements to impervious cover limits.
History of Austin’s land development code.
Austin’s current land development code was originally passed in 1984, a sleepier time in Austin’s past, when we had a population of 392,000. Over the intervening decades, Councils have amended and revised the code hundreds of times. While many of those changes might have made sense in a narrow context, the net effect has turned the code into an incoherent nightmare and led to the famous Zucker report in 2015 that named Austin as one of the worst development processes in the entire country.
Over the years, the code has dramatically restricted development in politically favored and more environmentally sensitive parts of Central and West Austin, while encouraging more intense development in other parts, namely, East Austin. This had the effect of inflating the property values for some, while gentrifying communities of color and low income neighborhoods. While reasonable people will disagree about the costs / benefits of gentrification and protecting established neighborhoods, few will deny the reality of the situation.
The most historic example in Austin is how in 1992 voters enacted the “Save our Springs” ordinance, intended to protect the Barton Springs Edward Aquifer. The ordinance put “impervious cover limitations on development in West and Southwest Austin of 15% and 25%. For the lay reader, this means that only 15% of a property’s land area could be covered with either building cover or concrete (impervious cover). Meanwhile, in some parts of East Austin, impervious cover is allowed up to 85% of a property. No wonder developers have flocked to the east side to find developable properties, including tear-downs of existing homes. The city has encouraged it.
Overall, the code has severely restricted supply of housing when compared to Austin’s growing population, causing all related costs to skyrocket, and sending affordability plummeting. While this has been good for some, who benefited from asset price inflation and can still pay for ever-increasing property tax bills, life became more expensive for most everyone else.
According to the Austin Board of Realtors, median-home prices in the Austin area have increased by 62% in the last 8 years, and 40% in the last 5.
Recognizing some of these issues, in 2012 the city council passed “Imagine Austin.” Imagine Austin was a planning document designed to reflect a wide range of economic and environmental goals. In addition to codifying the protection of West and Central Austin and to designate much of the East Side as the Desired Development Zone, Imagine Austin recommended the City rewrite its land development code, commonly known as the CodeNEXT process.
This is where the story gets really depressing.
CodeNEXT failed spectacularly.
From 2012 to 2018, the City spent $8.5 million, along with countless personnel hours, to produce an embarrassingly bad code. At best, CodeNEXT was a lukewarm pile of…mush. Criticisms from within City Hall highlighted that staff and consultants tasked with making technical changes to simplify the code, instead were making political calculations, basing recommendations on compromises between the real estate lobby and neighborhood activists.
CodeNEXT managed to make marginal headway on some aspects of the code but mostly entrenched the very worst aspects of the current code, doing so in a document that was 200 pages longer than the original. Yes, you just read that last sentence correctly. Where the current code is approximately 1,100 pages, CodeNEXT managed to bump that total north of 1,300. This in a document that was supposed to “simplify” the unworkable status quo.
Given this mismanagement, and the resulting code that did not meet the desired community outcomes, CodeNext became politically toxic and Council pulled the plug last summer.
Where are we today?
Nevertheless, hope springs eternal!!! Austin is still Texas, after all. Not to mention, the problems with the current code haven’t gone away.
Earlier this year, Council charged new City Manager Spencer Cronk to spearhead City staff’s next re-write, hence its new title, Code Cronk. The City Manager is due to report back in late fall. Until then, we wait.
The need for a clearer, streamlined code that prioritizes housing affordability above all else should be self-evident. Given recent history, however, Austinites have every reason for skepticism. We’ll know soon. While we wait, let’s look at just one example of the type of issue the City must consider in the process.
The Parkland Dedication Fee
Parkland dedication is a local government requirement imposed on subdivision and site plan applications mandating the dedication of land for a park and/or the payment of a fee to be used by the governmental entity to acquire land and/or develop park facilities. The City of Austin passed its first Parkland Dedication Ordinance in 1985, updated in 2007 and again in 2016.
Sounds nice! We all love Austin’s excellent parks and green spaces. However, if we are serious about our goals and housing affordability, we must prioritize. During Council’s recent changes (2016) to the parkland dedication fee, they were notified by staff that the adoption of the changes would negatively impact housing affordability. They proceeded regardless. Result: housing is less affordable.
Now, people will say, “oh, so you don’t want parks!” Let’s fix that concern with nuance that can be reflected in the new code. The City maintains a parkland deficiency map. A reasonable idea would be to overlay that map on the new code, and require parkland dedication where we need parkland, not on every lot in every corner of Austin, thus maximizing the negative impact on housing affordability.
Land use development code horror stories are myriad, and could fill volumes. Just among your family and friends, you probably know of many examples we don’t. The need for a clearer, streamlined, more affordable land use development code is real. Whether that’s where we’re headed, however, is an open question.
More to come on Code Cronk.