Austin Eases Zoning to Allow More Homes on Single-Family Lots
Amid the ongoing housing affordability crisis, the Austin City Council recently approved a measure to permit the construction of additional homes on single-family lots, a significant move aimed at increasing the inventory of available housing units in the city. This policy alteration enables homebuilders to erect up to three housing units, such as duplexes and triplexes, on most lots currently zoned for single-family homes, intended to bolster the supply of residences within reach for middle-income households. For years, like many major U.S. cities, Austin predominantly allocated its residential land for single-family dwellings, a zoning constraint that industry experts believe significantly hindered the city’s ability to address the escalating housing demand alongside its surging population growth, ultimately contributing to soaring home prices and rents.
However, critics of this new directive argue that densifying housing options could potentially mar the character of existing neighborhoods and result in the displacement of low-income residents without effectively addressing the issue of affordable housing. Despite heated public debate and testimonies from hundreds of speakers, the council endorsed the initiative — part of a broader set of reforms known as the HOME initiative — through a 9-2 vote, marking a pivotal step in generating more housing opportunities across Austin.
The decision to allow multiple homes on single-family lots is part of a larger initiative by Austin officials to ease city regulations and stimulate more housing development. Preceding this, the council recently eliminated requirements mandating a specific amount of parking in new developments, referred to as “parking minimums,” aiming to encourage housing construction while combating climate change. Moreover, discussions are underway regarding a proposal to reduce the land required for constructing single-family residences.
In the face of an acute housing shortage that worsened during the pandemic, particularly evident in the shortfall of approximately 35,000 homes in the Austin region in 2021, city officials are looking toward strategies adopted by other cities like Portland that allowed increased home construction on lots. Such measures aimed to distribute land costs across multiple households, potentially lowering the overall price of individual homes and curbing rental prices, according to recent studies. Despite resistance from groups like Community Not Commodity, who oppose zoning reforms, there’s a growing recognition that increasing housing supply could alleviate housing costs and prevent gentrification and displacement.
While critics fear the initiative could intensify gentrification and prompt displacement, evidence suggests that augmenting housing stock might actually mitigate housing expenses and protect marginalized communities. City officials intend to investigate the impact of the initiative on displacement among other consequences. Although the proposal has received opposition, a significant number of residents and various organizations support the move, viewing it as a means to expand housing options and mitigate environmental impacts while enhancing the quality of life in Austin.