Should we "protect" the east side from small lots?

Who exactly would an "equity overlay" protect?

Should we "protect" the east side from small lots?
A gas station on Menchaca.

Back during the second attempt to rewrite the land development code (2019-20), then-Council Member Delia Garza proposed an "Equity Overlay" that would apply to census tracts that met certain socioeconomic criteria. It was embraced by other pro-reform members of Council.

Back then, the debate du jour was "transition zones": the properties on the edges of single-family neighborhoods that would be allowed to develop into "missing-middle" housing of various intensities, from four units to 12 units.

Under the Equity Overlay, neighborhoods throughout the eastern crescent would not get transition zones as big as those in Central and West Austin. So if the typical transition zone would apply to the first eight properties from the corridor, in Equity Overlay areas it would only apply to the first four.

As far as I could tell it was purely symbolic and not grounded in any coherent reasoning or research. Some housing advocates told me that the policy itself was junk but the politics were great, since it helped to neutralize the attack from Council's anti-reform bloc (who by this time was entirely white and west of I-35) that the new code would disproportionately harm the east side. Others in the pro-reform camp sincerely believed in it –– it aligned with their idea that gentrification and displacement in East Austin was largely the fault of West Austin NIMBYs refusing to accept their fair share of the city's growth.

I of course agreed that West Austin's powerful anti-growth cohort had caused a lot of pain for Austin's most vulnerable, but I didn't see how limiting new housing in East Austin was an effective way to counter that. There was a central contradiction at the heart of the Equity Overlay: we're told that allowing more types of housing is equitable in one part of town but inequitable in another part of town. If we want to allow smaller homes for smaller incomes, why wouldn't we want to allow that in parts of town where incomes are the smallest?

Round Two

Four years later, there are once again calls to exempt certain parts of town from the changes allowed under HOME. To review, HOME I, passed in December, allows up to three units on any standard single-family lot (at least 5,750 sq ft) and HOME II, passed earlier this month, reduced the minimum lot size (for one unit) to 1,800 sq ft.