May 15, 2024 - Politics

Council to vote on density changes

Illustration of Austin City Hall with lines radiating from it.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

The Austin City Council will vote Thursday on the second phase of the HOME Initiative — a rule change that would reduce minimum lot sizes for single-family homes.

Why it matters: It's the latest effort by city leaders to address Austin's high cost of housing, although the plan has received pushback from some neighborhood groups.

State of play: The city's Land Development Code currently requires a 5,750-square-foot lot minimum for a single-family home. The update would reduce the lot size requirement to 2,000 square feet.

  • Council members in December approved Phase 1 of the HOME initiative, which updated the city's Land Development Code to allow up to three homes on most single-family lots and make it easier for homeowners to install tiny homes on their property.

What they're saying: Proponents of the HOME initiative — Home Options for Middle-Income Empowerment — say Phase 2 of the plan will increase the number of starter homes available and make homeownership more attainable for Austin residents.

  • "We need more housing opportunities, period," Mayor Kirk Watson wrote in his Watson Wire newsletter this week.
  • "The more supply we are able to generate, the more it can positively impact the pricing curve going forward," he continued.
  • Watson argued the current minimum lot size is the vestige of a century-old Austin master plan that was meant to "exclude, isolate and deny access for communities of color."

By the numbers: In an April report, the Austin Board of Realtors estimated that "between 87 and 871" new homes could be built annually as a result of reducing the minimum lot size, and the change could lead to lower home prices.

  • "By allowing larger lots to be subdivided, we could effectively lower the cost of land for new homes," according to the report. "The analysis shows that a $540,000 home — Austin's median sales price in 2023 — could have an estimated $477,313 sales price … if the home is allowed to be built on a smaller 2,000-square-foot lot instead of a 5,750-square-foot lot."

The other side: In an email this week, a coalition of HOME Initiative opponents called the proposal a "false solution to the housing crisis," saying it would incentivize demolition of existing affordable housing for luxury redevelopment.

  • The group, which held a press conference at City Hall yesterday, included representatives from Community Powered ATX, Austin Neighborhood Council, Go Austin Vamos Austin, Community Not Commodity, NAACP and PODER.

Between the lines: City Hall has long grappled with how to increase density — with the hope of making housing more affordable — while preserving neighborhood integrity.

  • Previous attempts to rewrite Austin's land use rules have been stymied by lawsuits.

What's next: Phase 2 appears likely to pass. Council members overwhelmingly approved phase one in a 9-2 vote in December, and the resolution paving the way for the HOME Initiative passed 9-2 last summer.

If you go: Thursday's City Council meeting begins at 10am at City Hall.

What we're watching: What legal battles crop up after the vote.

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