Council Member Leslie Pool’s proposal to change zoning definitions and criteria on single family housing could affect up to an estimated 171,944 “parcels” or properties. That estimate was provided by City staff in response to an inquiry from the Austin Independent. Staff made sure to note, “we are not able to provide an official number of the number of lots/households that will be affected by Item 126 until the Planning Department Code Amendments team completes their research.”

Staff also stressed that the ultimate number of households affected will be somewhat lower than the 171,944 number because that figure “does not take into account properties with deed restrictions and/or Homeowners Associations (HOAs) that would overrule this code amendment.” Staff added, “other planning considerations could prohibit this code amendment, such as: zoning overlays, Planned Unit Developments (PUDs), and Neighborhood Conservation Combining Districts (NCCDs).”

Numbers on these individual categories are not yet available, but should be available by the end of the process. We’ll examine the different categories below. 

The exemptions noted by City staff will likely form a relatively small percentage of the overall amount of single family parcels in the City. That number will depend in part on how the Council decides to treat properties in each category. Based on study of the City staff estimate, examination of the possible exemptions, and a separate estimate of affected properties provided to us, the Austin Independent estimates a range of affected properties between a very conservative floor of 128,000 ranging up to 176,000 properties affected. (We will give more detail on these numbers further down in the story.)

That’s a lot of folks, but many may not even find out what the City is doing to the rules governing their property because a Council super majority appears poised to push the changes through without City notification of property owners.

A Review of Pool’s Proposal

As reported in a July 13 Austin Independent story, Pool’s initiative, co-sponsored by Mayor Kirk Watson and seven other Council Members:

  • redefines single family zoning categories to allow at least three units per lot on all parcels currently zoned Single Family — SF 1, SF 2, SF3 and SF4; 
  • at the same time reduces minimum lot sizes in all single family zoned properties to “2,500 square feet or less;” 
  • then allows current lots to be subdivided into the new smaller lot sizes; and 
  • anticipates demolitions, with the proposal stating “allow at least three units per lot in single-family zoning districts without requiring existing structures to be preserved.”

  Pool says she envisions this combination helping Austin’s “middle income earners” by enhancing “their ability to continue to afford to stay in the city.” Pool won effusive praise for her initiative — and for her acknowledged change in direction — from colleagues at the July 20 Council meeting. Her proposal passed nine to two with Council Members Alison Alter and Mackenzie Kelly voting no. 

While announcing her vote Alison Alter said, “I believe this resolution is much more drastic and goes much further than anything our staff brought to Council for a vote during the CodeNext or Land Development Code process.”

Alter and other opponents of the measure see different outcomes than Pool envisions, including an increase in demolitions of existing homes. For example, a developer or investor could buy a SF2 or SF3 minimum size single family lot (5,750 square feet), subdivide it into two smaller lots, demolish the existing home, and build at least six units on what before held one house. Many lots are larger than the minimum. On those larger lots even more than six units could be built where there is now one. 

The July 20 vote did not pass Pool’s proposal into law. Instead the City Manager was “directed to process these code changes, provide Council with briefings or memorandums that explain community stakeholder input plans, and give a progress briefing” in November. So final passage would not occur until at least November.

Sources of the Numbers 

The Austin Independent acquired the above numbers from City staff after submitting a different estimate provided to us by a citizen skilled in data gathering and analysis. Our source estimated that 176,694 properties would be affected. The Independent wrote to City staff asking:

  • if they considered the 176,694 “a reasonable estimate;”
  • if the City staff could “provide another number for the number of lots and/or number of households affected;” and
  • to please provide the current number of households in Austin, or the most recent available number.

City staff responded with the 171,944 number of “parcels that we believe could be affected by Item 126.” They also said that the most recent number of “housing units” in Austin is 493,537 and that this number “was derived from the Census Bureau’s 2022 Address Listing File.”

According to the Independent’s source, the 176,694 number was a low estimate and the ultimate number will likely be higher. The difference in estimates between City staff and our expert is not something we can work out at this point. The news here though is that both our expert and the City came up with an estimate of more than 170,000 properties, or parcels, that could be affected by Pool’s proposal; minus the categories mentioned above.

The difference in estimates between City staff and our expert is not something we can work out at this point. The news here though is that both our expert and the City came up with an estimate of more than 170,000 properties, or parcels, that could be affected by Pool’s proposal. . .

Who Will Tell The People?

A very large portion of these properties are the homes of Austin families and — as the old truism goes — the biggest investment of their lives. In many cases these are also homes, and investments, that the owners may want to pass on to their children.  

Despite the high numbers of affected citizens and the high stakes, the Council majority appears to be planning on pushing these changes through without even notifying property owners; that is, without officially notifying property owners of the changes the City will be making in rules and regulations governing their homes and their neighborhoods.

At the July 20 Council meeting longtime neighborhood leader Michael Curry directly asked the Council if they planned to notify property owners. Curry explained his thinking, “Families want to know when their homes are the subject of a public hearing and they want to know when the Government is proposing to change the regulations on their property and all the property around them.” So, continued Curry, “When it comes time to pass an ordinance to amend the Code [when the City Manager brings back the “amendments” he is instructed to develop], are you going to direct the City (Manager) — whether you believe it is required by law or not — to send individual notice to property owners?” 

No one replied. 

Members of the Council, however, may have been reluctant to respond to Curry, a lawyer who was involved in the successful legal battle to stop CodeNext. Also, Council Members tend to not answer questions from speakers because that can get into a back and forth and can lengthen meetings; as well as sometimes make Council Members answer unpleasant questions. 

So last Friday afternoon the Independent utilized the City’s handy “Email all Austin City Council Members” feature and asked the Mayor and all Council Members if they plan to officially notify property owners that the zoning rules and zoning criteria on their properties are being changed. We set a deadline for getting their answer in this article, but told them the question remains open.

No one replied except Mayor Kirk Watson who wrote back, “Yes.” We’ll have more on this later, as the reply came after the initial deadline, but before we actually went to press.

Council Member Leslie Pool and Mayor Kirk Watson (In photo at top Pool, Watson and Pool aide Louisa Brinsmade visit during a break in the action on July 20)

The Potential Exemptions

As to the potential exemptions to Pool’s proposal, let’s briefly go through each one.

City staff specified two overall categories of potential exemptions in their reply to the Independent. We’ll examine them by those categories, beginning with “properties with deed restrictions and/or Homeowners Associations (HOAs) that would overrule this code amendment.” It seems fairly clear under state law that the Council could not supersede Homeowners Association provisions. Homeowners Associations, however, are mainly located in suburban areas outside the City limits. The ones within the City, at least those of primarily single family homeowners, are located mostly in far southwest and far northwest Austin; for instance Circle C and River Place. In contrast few, if any, central city neighborhoods, or older neighborhoods anywhere, have Homeowners Associations or PUDs. And, many places within the City that do have HOAs tend to be condo developments, which are not usually zoned Single Family.

As to deed restrictions, City staff did not mention it in their reply to the Independent (and we didn’t ask), but the City does not enforce deed restrictions. Such situations instead rely on private legal efforts. So it is likely that any homeowners with deeds restricting their lots to single family would have to fight the Pool ordinance in court, unless the Council were to set up some other process.

That brings us to the “other planning considerations (that) could prohibit this code amendment, such as: zoning overlays, Planned Unit Developments (PUDs), and Neighborhood Conservation Combining Districts (NCCDs).” 

PUDs are unlikely to generate many exemptions to Pool’s ordinance for two reasons. One, is that many, if not most, PUDs are located outside the City limits — especially those with significant single family zoning. Two, PUD developments tend to have HOAs. For instance the informative Eleven Oaks Realty website reports, “They’re (HOAs) most commonly formed for condominiums and planned urban developments (PUDs).” So there is considerable overlap between HOAs and PUDs. Thus PUDs are unlikely to add much to the number of exemptions from Pool’s proposal.

It is difficult to put a number on zoning overlays and we won’t try, but it is unlikely to put much of a dent in the overall number of affected properties. 

That leaves Neighborhood Conservation Combining Districts (NCCDs), which could potentially provide more exemptions than other categories. There are NCCDs in Hyde Park, North Hyde Park, the North University Neighborhood, Fairview Park, and on part of East 11th and East 12th Streets — the latter two in roughly the six blocks immediately east of the freeway. The NCCDs cover an estimated 926 acres in all. While City staff correctly says that NCCDs “could” exempt properties within their boundaries from Pool’s ordinance, it is also a distinct possibility that the Council might seek to repeal the NCCD designations and make Pool’s ordinance apply in those areas. Council majorities during the Adler era were critical of NCCDs and the new Council is as well. They also see the hearts of these neighborhoods as prime for dramatic increases in density; as do many developers and investors who back Pool’s proposal.  

Looking for a Realistic Range of Affected Properties

Now, let’s try an unscientific, but conservative, process to try to establish a floor — a low number — for the number of properties affected by Pool’s proposal. We’ll start by returning to the Eleven Oaks Realty website which reports, “About 25% of the home owners in the Austin, Texas metro area live in property governed by a Home Owner’s Association (HOA).” Eleven Oaks does not report a number for just within the City limits and the City staff says they do not have a number either. We know, however, as mentioned earlier, that the percentage of HOA members inside the City is much less than outside. Plus, many HOA members who live inside the City live in condo developments, which are not considered single family zoning.

To be really conservative on establishing a floor, let’s use 25% as the overall number that will escape compliance with Pool’s proposal. To repeat, this approach will almost certainly yield a bigger number of exempted properties than will ultimately prove to be the case; and thus this is likely below the number of properties that will actually be affected. 

OK, here’s the math. 


X      .75   (percentage left after subtracting 25%)

128,958 = conservative estimate of number of households affected

Now let’s multiply that by the Census Bureau’s figure of 2.28 persons per household in Austin. 


X         2.28

294,024 = low estimate for number of people affected by Pool’s proposal.

For an upper range let’s take the Independent expert’s number of 176,694, which the expert believes is a low estimate. 


X         2.28

402,862 = high estimate for number of people affected by Pool’s proposal.

So, I feel safe in saying here that Pool’s proposal would change the zoning rules and criteria on somewhere between 128,958 and 176,694 properties; with the cumulative population in those properties ranging from 294,024 to 402,862 people. (This range should likely be higher overall because the average number of people living in single family is probably higher than the overall average.) 

So, I feel safe in saying here that Pool’s proposal would change the zoning rules and criteria on somewhere between 128,958 and 176,694 properties; with the cumulative population in those properties ranging from 294,024 to 402,862 people.

Doing some rounding, we could say that the Pool initiative will apply to between 129,000 and 176,000 properties; and between 300,000 and 400,000 people. 

The Proposal Affects Both Homeowners and Renters?

As noted earlier, that’s a lot of people. Not everyone living in the affected properties is a homeowner. A significant number are renters. Unlike with homeowners, the Pool proposal would not affect the biggest investment of their lives, but the impact on renters would be uncertain and varying. 

Some might be able to continue living where they do now, if the property owner did not choose to subdivide, tear down existing structures, and build new units. The fate of other renters would be different if property owners chose to take advantage of the Pool ordinance provisions. 

In theory some renters might be able to stay where they are now and just have more units built around them. Or, some homeowners might be able to build a new rental unit and supplement their income, as Pool envisions. 

There would doubtlessly, however, be other cases in which all the units on a property are torn down and new ones constructed. In the rosy scenario on that eventuality, the renter might be able to move into a new unit on the property later. 

In reality, however, numerous renters would be cast out and have to find a new place to live in Austin’s housing market. Even photos that Pool released showing the type of housing she envisions happening were all close together, newer units — as opposed adding a new unit and keeping the existing house. Also, the units Pools showed, while attractive, would clearly not be very affordable in the Austin market — given the size and design.

For homeowners the Pool proposal would be a dramatic change from what they thought they were buying into when they made — as we noted earlier — their biggest investment.

With a Council super majority seemingly poised to approve Pool’s initiative without notifying homeowners (unless Watson tries, and succeeds, to persuade them otherwise), it is anybody’s guess as to how, and when, homeowners find out about the changes to local rules and regulations governing their homes.

Stay tuned.

Coming up in this series: Why do Council Members feel comfortable undertaking these actions?


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