A few people wrote to me yesterday confused about the implications of the apparent ruling against the city over several zoning ordinances. I was in a bit of a rush and didn't provide enough context. Fortunately the Austin Monitor is providing some more specifics today (emphasis mine):
A group of citizens who sued the city over four ordinances designed to make it easier to develop new housing projects have apparently prevailed on three of the four laws. That means the city will have to go back to the drawing board on Vertical Mixed-Use 2 zoning and ordinances on compatibility on corridors and residential uses in commercial areas, according to a press release from the plaintiffs.
...Doug Becker, attorney for the plaintiffs, said he and lawyers for the city are working to reach an agreement on the final wording of the order from Judge Jessica Mangrum. Becker said they will have until Friday to submit their proposed order, which will include the city paying the plaintiffs’ attorneys fees and possibly sanctions. Becker added, “I’m putting in the order that Council should rescind the ordinances they passed.”
My point yesterday is that it should be easy, if tedious, to reinstate these ordinances. If the issue is that the city did not provide adequate notification, then Council can pass them the same way they are passing the HOME initiative.
To review: a provision of state law allows cities to essentially evade notification requirements for zoning changes if the City Council holds a joint public hearing with the Planning Commission. Why? No idea. But that's what Council is doing to ensure that the HOME initiative zoning reforms (allowing three units per lot, elimination of occupancy limits etc) cannot be challenged on notification grounds.
Council was already likely anticipating holding at least two more joint meetings with the Planning Commission early next year to deal with the second phase of HOME (to reduce the minimum lot size) and to put in place a new reform of compatibility that will be much bolder than the weak sauce "compatibility on corridors" thing that got struck down in court. Now all they gotta do is include the VMU2 density bonus program and the "residential in commercial" program, which allows for housing to be built on properties with commercial zoning.
So long-term, the plaintiffs in this suit will get nothing. These programs will eventually be implemented. Nobody I've talked to at City Hall appears too worried about that.
In the short-term, however, they may have succeeded in obstructing a bunch of housing developments. There may very well be hundreds or thousands of desperately-needed homes that will be delayed or never built.
I'm told, for instance, that there are a number of projects in the permitting phase counting on participating in the VMU2 density bonus. So perhaps instead of doing that, they'll just build under the normal entitlements, resulting in fewer market-rate units and fewer income-restricted units. Way to go guys!
When you can't win elections, sue
As gross as it is to see this cast of clowns leaning on technicalities to block housing, it's important to remember that this is actually a sign of their downfall. They're running to the courts because they can't win elections anymore. Their brand is so toxic that even former staunch allies (Leslie Pool) have abandoned them. Similarly, Kirk Watson, who seemed to think that their support was key to winning last year, has (so far) gone along with all of the proposed housing reforms, rightly recognizing that fighting them would not benefit his reelection prospects.
NIMBYism will always exist, of course. People naturally have opinions about what gets built in their neighborhoods. That's true in every city in the world. But this particular strain of zoning zealotry is on its deathbed.
Tonight: Amendments to the HOME initiative
Three weeks ago, in order to protect against a lawsuit over notification, City Council held an unprecedented joint hearing with the Planning Commission on Phase 1 of the HOME initiative. Citizens on both sides of the issue provided seven hours of public comment.
Tonight, many of those same citizens will show up for the Planning Commission hearing on HOME. Yes, this one is just the Planning Commission. It will be interesting to see how many show up.
After taking comment, the commission will discuss 16 potential amendments. Here are the ones that stick out to me:
Floor Area limits: Awais Azhar has proposed a number of amendments that attempt to incentivize more units through limits on Floor to Area Ratio (FAR). He proposes that a single unit be entitled to a FAR of 0.4, meaning that the total floor space in the house can only amount to 40% of the lot size. So on a 6,000 sq ft lot the maximum home size would be 2,400 sq ft.
However, the FAR limit would increase to 0.55 for two units and 0.65 for three units. That means that, theoretically, on a 6,000 sq ft lot you could build three units, each of which would be 1,300 sq ft.
Preservation incentive: Azhar proposes a couple different mechanisms to encourage the preservation of older housing stock.
Under Azhar's amendments, an existing home that is at least 15 years old will not count towards the FAR limit on the property. That would allow you to build a bigger second or third unit.
If you preserve a home built before 1960, not only do you get the additional FAR allowance, but you could build an additional unit beyond what would otherwise be allowed. So theoretically four units on one lot.
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