“There Needs To Be Some Changes”: Austin City Council Passes HOME Phase 2

By Blair Waltman-Alexin | Friday, May 24th 2024

Alfredo Reyes, Jr., waits in the atrium at Austin City Hall. He’s here because he’s concerned about housing affordability, and he wants to let the Austin City Council know about it.

“Nobody can afford the rent anymore here,” Reyes says. “There needs to be some changes about that.”

At the other end of the hall, Tai Hovanky echoes that sentiment.

“The rent keeps coming in to go up and up and up,” Hovanky says. “Part of why I'm so passionate about this is because I see this play out in every other city in America.”

But here’s where their opinions strongly diverge. Reyes attended the May 16 Austin City Council meeting to speak out against the passage of HOME Phase 2, the new land development code. Hovanky was there in support of it. Much like HOME Phase 1, supporters rallied around the potential of the new rules meant to help increase housing density and lower overall costs. But detractors remain concerned that land value will skyrocket and vulnerable communities will be pushed further out of Austin.

“It's getting to the point that I might have to move out of Texas or Austin just because of the fact that I can't find affordable housing here,” Reyes says.

The Austin City Council voted on the second phase of the Housing for Mobility and Equity, or HOME Phase 2, on May 17. It passed 9 to 2, with council members Alison Alter and Mackenzie Kelly voting no. It reduces the minimum amount of land needed to build a home from 5,750 square feet down to 1,800 square feet. The aim is to increase housing density and therefore reduce housing costs. They also amended compatibility rules, which will allow for taller buildings to be constructed closer to single-family units. The Equitable Transit-Oriented Development, or ETOD, also passed. It will encourage affordable housing along Austin’s future light rail.

Felicity Maxwell is a board member with AURA, a community group advocating for HOME. She says other cities have found success in lowering the minimum lot size.

“In Houston we've seen really excellent examples of homeownership open up to folks who have smaller lots and smaller homes,” Maxwell says. “If you make a smaller lot size, you get less expensive housing. So let's try it at least and see what happens.”

Mayor Kirk Watson says it’s a way to right historic wrongs. In a Watson Wire newsletter posted before the city council meeting, the mayor wrote that the previous land development code effectively prevented families of color from buying houses in certain parts of town because the large lots were so expensive.

“Vestiges of those racist, discriminatory policies have lingered for a long time in our Land Development Code,” wrote Watson. “If you make something cost more, it’ll exclude some people from being able to buy. That was true almost 100 years ago and is true today.”

But many residents are concerned it will have the opposite effect and disproportionately impact communities of color. At a rally outside city hall on May 14, PODER executive director Susana Almanza decried the proposal.

“I’ve seen how our people of color were put on the East Austin reservation,” Almanza said. “[HOME] is the initiative that will totally move us to the next reservation.”

Carmen Llanes Pulido, executive director of GAVA and Austin mayoral candidate, also spoke at the rally. She says these ordinances were not created with or for working class families.

“It is a false solution to a very real set of problems, but there is a community planning way around it,” says Llanes Pulido. “That's why we really want this equity overlay.”

The equity overlay would let some of Austin’s lowest income communities opt out of the land code changes. Houston included a similar provision in its land use code update. Many speaking against HOME asked that the city council add it. Ultimately it wasn’t included, but the city council did vote for a new study of how it could work. They also voted to delay implementation of the new ordinance for six months in communities considered vulnerable according to the city’s displacement study.

“What I heard very loudly and clearly from our community … is the need to ensure the financial component,” said District 2 Council Member Vanessa Fuentes. “I think with this amount of lead time–six months as council member Poole laid out–will allow us to ensure those resources get to where they need to go.”

All these updates come on the heels of another land use code change that passed in December. Dubbed HOME Phase 1, that ordinance allowed for up to three homes to be built on a single family lot. But lots still need to be at least 5,750 square feet to add extra buildings–Phases 1 and 2 don’t combine to allow multiple units on the new minimum sized lots.

Many opponents are concerned that all the extra construction will increase flooding risks. Those concerns come as Austin’s revised floodplain maps show more of the city at risk of flooding. But others point out that density can help tackle a broad swath of environmental issues.

“I think a lot of times people say, well, we're in Texas, we have so much land, we could just keep expanding out forever,” says Hovanky. “That ignores the fact that as you expand outward, you're destroying acres and acres of forest land ecosystems that are fully intact.”

The new rules will go into effect in 90 days. But the impact will be felt far into the future. Proponents see that future as a win for the entire city–more homes at a lower price and less displacement. But residents like Reyes worry that future will not include them.

“I'm paying $1495 and my landlord is trying to raise another $500,” Reyes says. “By the end of the year, I have to find a place.”

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