In a move that would have dramatic effects on neighborhoods in every part of Austin, Council Member Leslie Pool is proposing to redefine single family zoning categories to allow at least three units per lot in all areas zoned Single Family — SF 1, SF 2, SF3 and SF4 (green in map above). Most of Austin’s single family neighborhoods are zoned SF-3 which already allows two units. The resolution also specifies that the intent is “to allow at least three units per lot in single-family zoning districts without requiring existing structures to be preserved.”

At the same time Pool is proposing to reduce the minimum lot size in SF1-SF4 to “2,500 square feet or less;” and make it easier to subdivide lots. So a developer or investor could buy a minimum size single family lot (5,750 square feet in SF2 and SF3), subdivide it into two lots, and build at least six units on what before held one house. Many lots are larger than the minimum, so would allow more than six units.

Another possibility would be investors or developers buying multiple adjacent lots, subdividing those and building three units on each newly subdivided lot, i.e. six on each current minimum size single family lot. The proposed ordinance seems to anticipate the latter outcome, saying that it is meant to encourage “a variety of housing types such as row houses, townhomes, tri-and four-plexes, garden homes, and cottage courts.”

The proposal also seeks to aid new construction by changing regulations on “setbacks, height, impervious cover, and floor-to-area ratio (FAR)” to make the redevelopment easier to do.

The resolution is co-sponsored by Mayor Kirk Watson, Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis, and Council Members Chito Vela and Zo Qadri. 

If the Pool-Watson et al proposal, as written, becomes a reality, then any of this could be done without any further Council action and without neighboring homeowners having any say in the matter. That’s because, under the proposal, the ability to do everything described above would be granted to property owners, as Pool acknowledges, “by right,” rather than a developer or homeowner having to come to Council for a zoning change. Instead the proposal is to change the current definition of the zoning category and allow all the above described uses within a zoning category that currently does not allow them.

The vote next week would not immediately change the zoning definitions and regulations, but instead directs the City Manager “to propose (Land Development Code) amendments” to do so and then bring them back to Council. Thus, Pool stresses that with next week’s vote, “The conversation is beginning, not ending.” 

The Way Pool Sees It

Pool frames the initiative as a way to help “middle income earners” by enhancing “their ability to continue to afford to stay in the city.” She sees this happening by homeowners being able to add another house, or two. Pool envisions families being able to “have a multigenerational setup or a caretaker or a college student that they can derive some revenue from. . . and make it possible for them (the current homeowners) to stay in Austin.” She adds that she sees her initiative as “preserving neighborhoods.” (The Independent also contacted Mayor Watson to discuss this proposal, but he did not respond.)

Council Member Leslie Pool

Pool understands that another result could be investors and developers acquiring homes, tearing them down and building new units. She describes this as a “3-3-3” scenario and says it “is an example of an unintended negative consequence that I want staff to tell us about, because there have to be some kind of guardrails around it.”

And, what about the perspective of a homeowner that just wants to keep living on a single family block like the neighborhood they moved into, and would have no recourse if this proposal goes through? As previously noted, Pool acknowledges that property owners would be able to build new units “by right,” i.e. without any Council action required. She again emphasizes,  “That could be a negative consequence coming from this that we would need to talk about and consider. So the door is being opened for the conversation. The conversation is beginning. It has not ended.”

Is This CodeNext 3.0?

If this sounds like one of the most controversial parts of CodeNext/the Land Development Code rewrite that never made it across the finish line, that’s because it is extremely similar. For one thing, the changes the City Manager is instructed to make are all in Chapter 25 of the City Code, which is the same Chapter that CodeNext and the subsequent unnamed LDC rewrite were intended to change. 

Secondly, this proposed action is close to a Citywide upzoning. That was also the case with CodeNext and the proposed LDC rewrite which followed. In those cases, however, the most dramatic of those upzonings largely concentrated on the central city and specifically identified “transition zones,” which were streets near major corridors. The then Council majority was stopped by a court because they tried to avoid notifying property owners and tried to deny property owners their petition rights — the latter of which can result in the requirement for a super majority vote to approve a zoning case.

By contrast the Pool approach covers single family neighborhoods throughout the City limits, in every Council District; as opposed to just properties in the central city. Also, as noted earlier, the Pool approach doesn’t change the zoning, or zoning nomenclature, of any property. For instance SF3 will still be called SF3. Instead it changes the definition of single family zoning categories, affecting the homes of tens of thousands of people in Austin. It remains to be seen whether Council will bother to notify people affected by this change of definition that will significantly affect their homes; the biggest investment in most people’s lives. 

Pool was one of four Council Members to oppose CodeNext and the LDC rewrite attempts following CodeNext. So how does she explain the seeming change in her position. “I disagreed with the approach that was used by the previous Council to change everything, everywhere, all at once.” She preferred to “take things in chunks,” first approving things they “agreed on,” then discussing issues with some “alignment.” and putting issues with considerable disagreement “aside.” Her idea for that approach, she recalls, “fell on deaf ears.”

Now, she continues, “We have a different Council, we have different leadership” and also, she adds — referencing Austin’s new status as the 10th largest City in the country — “The world has changed. So how do I as a Council Member respond to that?” Her current ideas she says came out of that thought process.

For his part, Watson took grief during his mayoral campaign because he had had an anti-CodeNext sign in his yard, before announcing his run for Mayor. At least once during the campaign he tried to say that the sign didn’t mean he was against CodeNext or the LDC rewrite overall. Instead, he maintained that he just put the sign up because he supported citizens’ notification and petition rights. At another point Watson said, “trust has been breached with the (LDC rewrite) process we’ve had over the last ten years.” Perhaps he will explain at next week’s meeting whether he thinks this proposal, and other LDC issues he’s voted for, help to heal that breach of trust.


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