Thursday May 16 is going to be an historic day at the Austin City Council. A nine-vote Council super majority is poised to pass changes to the Land Development Code (LDC) that will transform the face and character of Austin and its neighborhoods.

At the Austin Independent we have covered most of these topics during the last few years. They are very complicated and we do not have the time or capacity at this point to detail the scope or impact of all these items. Plus, a lot of readers probably wouldn’t want to dive that deep into it if we did. (We include several links below for those who might want to review.)

So it’s comforting to know that our City elected officials have such a depth of knowledge about the policies they are planning to implement, and the impacts these policies are likely to have on Austin and its residents.

Just kidding in that last paragraph. Let’s do examine, however, the grasp some of the Council Members have on what they’re doing. We’ll try Chito Vela, considered a leading intellect and policy maker on the Council. 

First, here’s a short and incomplete summary of the items on the May 16 agenda:

  • shrink the minimum lot size for single family homes to 2,000 square feet; 
  • exponentially weaken “compatibility standards” which govern, to put it simply, how close tall buildings can be to residential neighborhoods; and 
  • create ETODs (Equitable Transit Oriented Districts) which will dramatically up-zone chosen properties within a half mile of the proposed (and shortened due to huge cost overruns) light rail line, including allowing up to 120 feet in height;
  • plus ETODs for a proposed second phase of the line; 

This is all packed into one Council item, although there is a separate item on ETODs as well. Mixed in the same mega item, for some reason, are changes in regulations on electric vehicle charging at homes. (The packing of all this into one item could be an attempt to get around the recent court ruling requiring the Council to give speakers three minutes speaking time on each separate item.)

Chito Vela, Not Quite the Lorax

Now, let’s return to Chito Vela (pictured in screenshot at the top) and just one initiative from him that illustrates how the Council might make amendments at the May 16 meeting; amendments that go beyond even what staff brought forward at Council’s direction. This episode also illustrates the grasp Vela has on policy details.

One topic is how far units on a lot with more than one unit must be set back from the street. Before HOME 1 passed in December that limit was 25 feet, as it had been for decades. The Council scaled it back to 15 feet in HOME 1, for lots with more than one unit. City staff wants to stick with that in HOME 2. The Planning Commission, however, recommended 10 feet. Vela agrees with the Planning Commission and took up the cause at the April 30 work session. 

Let’s see how that went.

Vela asked City staff, “What are the (staff) concerns with the 10-foot setback?

A city staffer replied that the 25-foot setback is going to remain in place for larger lots with only one unit and for other allowed uses in single family zoned areas, including “civic uses.” So, continued the staffer, “the staff sees that 15-foot setback as more of a balance between the 25 (feet) and a smaller setback.”

Vela then asked to what extent this was just an “aesthetic” concern, i.e. “you just don’t want one jutting out more?”

The staffer replied that the staff also has concerns about the amount of “green space” in front of the house if the setback is reduced to 10-feet.

Vela replied, “But, do we want to preserve the lawn in the front? I mean we use a lot of water, you know, to keep our front lawns green. I mean personally I’m not a big fan of front lawns. I think of them more as kind of wasted space.”

Personally I’m not a big fan of front lawns. I think of them more as kind of wasted space.”

Council Member Chito Vela

This prompted Assistant City Manager Veronica Briseño to get into the discussion. Briseño offered, “We certainly understand the need for conservation of water, but open space is a concern in our community as well.” 

Now for an interjection from the narrator: Austin has made significant progress on water conservation over the last decade and a half. Full disclosure, I was part of that when I worked at Austin Water. City residents are limited to one day per week of irrigation and other programs and policies — along with citizen awareness and commitment — have led to many reducing or eliminating grass in their yards. It’s not clear if Vela is aware of any of that.

Then the Director of the Development Services Department came to the microphone and gently reminded Vela of something else that often occupies the space in front of homes. That would be trees.

This prompted Vela to switch from water conservation to his arborist expertise: “Even just looking at downtown, I mean we’ve managed to do a pretty good job with our trees and our streetscape here and I think we have zero setbacks in the downtown area.” He concluded definitively, “You can definitely have a tree within a 10-foot setback.”

Vela then said, “I look forward to future conversations” on the matter. That likely means he will propose an amendment at the May 16 meeting.

A Planning Commissioner asks if HOME 2 will benefit “average” folks in Austin

The Planning Commission has also played a major role in this saga. Here’s an interesting exchange that took place at their April 23 meeting.

Commissioner Grayson Cox, an appointee of Council Member Alison Alter asked city staff the following question. (Cox’s viewpoint is in the minority at the Planning Commission.)

“On my mind is the fact that we went through HOME Phase 1 super fast and learned that you really have to have a condo regime to take advantage of this, or you become a landlord. And that’s not really accessible to most people to do. 

And, then we’re learning from this is that the cost to subdivide your property is going to be anywhere between 50 and 100 thousand dollars, which I don’t think is accessible for most people to do. So it seems like all the things we’re passing here, all the things we’re considering here, are tailored to the development community, the people that have banks and loans and big money behind them to take advantage of this.

“It seems like all the things we’re passing here, all the things we’re considering here, are tailored to the development community, the people that have banks and loans and big money behind them to take advantage of this.”

Grayson Cox, Austin Planning commission

And all the regular people that actually this has been marketed to (in order) to get support, they’re not going to be able to take advantage of this. 

So I just want to understand, do we expect this largely to be taken advantage of by our development community or do we reasonably expect the average individual with a 10,000 square foot lot to be able to take advantage of this?”

Erica Leak of the City Planning Department was at the microphone and answered the question. She responded, “I think we don’t know. That’s part of the challenge of this work is that you can’t always totally predict what will happen.”

To give a complete picture, Cox’s time for questions and answers was almost over, and may have shortened Leak’s answer. It would be nice if the Mayor and Council tried to address this question before voting at the May 16 Council meeting.

A few unanswered questions and unacknowledged realities

The Mayor and the Council super majority seem very confident that the polices they plan to pass on Thursday will make it possible for more people in Austin to own homes, especially people who cannot afford homes in Austin now. If that were to happen it would be a good thing. I remain skeptical, however, because I have not seen the Mayor and Council apply their intellectual heft to a number of important questions. Instead they seem, to me, to be driven by an ideological certainty that coincides with the desires of many developers to have Austin’s single family neighborhoods opened up for massive development. This is accompanied by an ongoing refusal to answer questions or address data that contradicts their conclusions. 

For instance neither the Mayor nor members of the Council super majority have addressed (or even acknowledged) how Austin was for years a runaway national leader in issuing building permits, especially on apartments, but all the while a crisis of housing affordability continued to worsen. This is important because their actions scheduled for May 16 are based on a belief that if more housing is built then widespread affordability will ensue.

Instead Mayor Kirk Watson and the Council super majority have embraced an ideology that blames a national problem — the crisis of young people not being able to afford home ownership — on a few forces in Austin. Those forces are the neighborhood movement and others who fought to protect their neighborhoods and their city. Not every decision made over the years by these groups, or people in these groups, proved correct. In fact I have often disagreed with them myself, and them with me. But, to blame them for the housing crisis is simply a convenient political tactic that the Mayor and Council picked up from others, specifically the most ardent New Urbanists or YIMBYs. In the Mayor’s case that meant deserting longtime neighborhood activists who played a critical role in putting him over the top in the 2022 election. In the closely fought mayoral runoff they sent old fashioned “neighborhood letters” saying that while they didn’t expect to agree with Watson on everything that he would include everyone in discussions. Based on my research it appears that these letters actually persuaded some voters to switch to Watson in the runoff, after voting against him in the first round. Watson narrowly won.

Mayor Kirk Watson from City webpage

Perhaps this is part of why Watson has been particularly mute on these issues, at least at Council meetings. Watson did not even give a speech to explain his vote when HOME 1 passed; or to explain why he never put his once legendary peace making skills to work in order to try to negotiate a compromise solution. Instead he just sat up there, said nothing and voted yes.

That’s really too bad. In his most recent “Watson Wire,” the mayor invoked the racist 1928 City plan to explain why he is voting the way he is (At press time this issue of the Watson Wire was not available at the above archives link, but only on email.). He argued that the new policies will open up more neighborhoods to people of color who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to live there. Perhaps that will be the case. 

Watson ignores, however, (as does the Council super majority) that many of the opponents of HOME and other LDC changes are people of color. For instance the Austin Neighborhoods Council (ANC) is one of the most diverse groups that appears at City Hall. Also racially diverse, even predominately people of color, are HOME opponents GAVA (Go Austin Vamos Austin) and the newer group Community Powered ATX. Additionally, a number of unaffiliated speakers from the Eastern Crescent have spoken eloquently against HOME and other related policies. A common thread is that they fear that their neighborhoods — where they have worked hard to establish homes, most of them with yards — will be the first and most affected by HOME. That’s due to the lower land prices which these speakers fear will quickly attract investors and developers and transform the neighborhoods where they have built their lives. 

Watson evidently feels this will not be the case, or else he doesn’t care if this will be the case. I believe Watson has a responsibility to these homeowners — and to everyone who takes the time to come to the Council meeting or to watch it at home — to explain why he is voting the way he is, and why he doesn’t believe that the policies he and the Council super majority are passing will have the impacts that people fear.

So perhaps Watson and the Council supermajority will prove correct as the years go by. On the other hand their actions may prove tragic, with the health and natural beauty of a City decimated by the limited vision, knowledge and experience of a few elected officials — with the personal hubris of more experienced colleagues mixed in. But, they are the elected officials chosen by Austin voters.

Update: This story was updated to clarify the paragraph on setback requirements.


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