Local zoning undermines affordability, perpetuates segregation

Frank C. Onuorah

If the usual sight of downtown cranes doesn’t indicate to anyone that Austin is booming, then it's unquestionably the traffic that is every person’s ire to this city’s growth.

Indeed, Austin has a lot of work cut out for achieving responsible, sustainable growth.  

It’s a big challenge for a now-big city. And with Austin fast approaching a million people, its response to handling this growth and housing the people contributing to it has much little to be desired. Generating abundant, affordable housing as the answer has been lacking because of Austin's uncompromising zoning laws.

So therein lies the source of the housing crisis, in which hardly any housing stock has been built inside the city that isn’t traffic-inducing sprawl.

This is because of Austin's housing laws having a codified preference to single-family homes — through (huge) minimum lot sizes, setbacks, and compatibility — that prevent similarly scaled, higher density homes from ever being allowed in neighborhoods.

As a result, Austin's residential zoning rules insulate the city's perpetually hot housing market from being open to more options besides expensive single-family homes and, to a lesser extent, condos and ‘luxury’ apartments. The cards are essentially stacked in favor of high-end demand, consisting of affluent buyers and renters.

On the other hand, the city’s zoning restrictions on what’s known as “missing-middle” housing — the absent ‘middle ground’ of housing between single-family homes and midrise apartments ranging from rowhouses to sixplexes to garden courts — largely leave folks in the low-end unaccounted for.

These restrictions not only hike rents, but deprive central-city newcomers of denser, cheaper options that accomplish housing more people. They could also serve as entry-level housing for first-time homebuyers. Instead, we’re seeing more working and middle-class Austinites getting pushed out and not matched with housing that’s suitable for their incomes.

So as long as Austin’s zoning laws continue to narrowly enforce what new housing is allowed and where, so long as the missing-middle stays missing, we will continue to see the East side rapidly gentrify, more families forced out to suburban sprawl and more AISD students leaving the urban core.

For what it's worth to live in a city constantly hailed as one of the best places in the country to live, that’s blunted by Austin’s less flattering distinction of also being the country’s most economically segregated.

Research shows that tight land-use policies divide populations along economic, geographic and racial lines. This makes whole metropolitan areas demographic ‘doughnuts’ comprised of wealthy (typically white) folks living in the core while minorities, and lower-income folk alike, are relegated to the suburbs. This perfectly describes Austin. Because when restrictive zoning not only sabotages the goal for affordability through stifling plentiful housing, but also perpetuates de-facto segregation, this calls for a change.   

Fortunately, the city is currently rewriting its zoning code to allow for greater inclusion of the “missing-middle” and other diverse housing types to remedy its segregation. Known as CodeNEXT, the new code will offer more progressive land-use policies to facilitate wider access to abundant, affordable housing across Austin neighborhoods.

For college students, renters, seniors and increasingly the middle class who’ve been hard-pressed to find reasonably-priced places to live, this should come as welcome relief.

Though that relief won’t come soon enough when CodeNEXT is ready within five years, it warrants being cognizant of how Mayor Adler’s goal of having 100,000 households over the next 10 years holds up to Austin’s existing zoning laws. Pointedly, it should matter more for the Austinites who continue to struggle living here.

Onuorah is a geography senior from Austin.