Where should we be allowed to build multifamily apartment buildings? Should we allow it in more places in central Austin?

Multi-unit housing can be zoned in appropriate locations throughout the city, including in central Austin. To do so effectively, we must initiate a community dialogue and planning process to achieve our identified housing goals, with each City Council district committed to doing its fair share to accommodate both market-rate and deeply affordable housing. The planning process should consider such factors as access to transportation, health care, schools, groceries and other basic services, as well as existing planning documents and available resources, such as public land that could be used for deeply affordable housing.

In this effort, it will be important to set aside the divisive emotional rhetoric that has too often accompanied discussions of increased density. As an example of constructive compromise, a joint Planning Commission/Zoning and Platting Commission working group recently developed recommendations for adjusting compatibility standards. The group included a variety of perspectives and the ultimate recommendation, while not universally beloved, was a positive product all members could live with. Unfortunately, their recommendations did not move forward at the full Commission level, but this is an example of the type of work, trust and good faith compromise required to make progress on this and other complex issues.

Fortunately, many city-sponsored Neighborhood Plans across Austin, including the central city, already contain plans to accommodate increased multi-unit growth in a way that does not cause rampant displacement. For example, the Brentwood/Highland Neighborhood Plan, adopted in 2004, specifically encourages mixed-use, higher density development on major corridors as one of its top goals. As a result of this plan, North Lamar and Burnet corridors have both seen a noticeable increase in large multi-unit apartment buildings. The Future Land Use Map for this area also provides gradual stepdowns from high-density corridor developments with townhomes and missing middle housing serving as a buffer, a best practice in urban planning. Again, thoughtful planning and compromise resulted in increased density with buy-in from stakeholders.

Finally, it is important to note that density, in and of itself, does not automatically bring the affordability Austin so desperately needs. For that reason, we must continue our efforts to ensure that any new zoning entitlements include a strong affordability component. In 2006, prior to my City Council service, I served on the city’s Commercial Design Standards Task Force, which developed the Vertical Mixed Use mechanism to create more multi-unit entitlements on corridors. A key element of this effort was the acknowledgement that with increased density comes increased responsibility for affordable housing. The VMU density bonus requires 10% of the units be affordable, on site. This mechanism has since resulted in thousands of new units and hundreds of affordable units on corridors in central Austin.

As Austin continues to grow, we must redouble our efforts to avoid displacement of low-income residents and ensure that a maximum number of new housing units, especially those on major transit corridors, remain affordable for Austinites of all incomes.