Second Phase of Major Zoning Changes to Increase Middle-Income Housing Kicks Off

Speakers packed City Hall ahead of the HOME vote Dec. 7 (Photo by Jana Birchum)

This Thursday at 9am, City Council and the Planning Commission will hold a joint hearing on the second phase of the most significant changes to the Land Development Code in years, known as Home Options for Middle-Income Empowerment (HOME).

The first phase passed in December and allowed property owners to build up to three homes on lots previously zoned single-family (along with preservation bonuses to keep existing homes intact); allowed tiny homes; and removed limits on how many unrelated adults can live together.

The public will weigh in on four amendments: The first would reduce the minimum size for lots zoned single-family and the amount of space required between homes (“setbacks”). The second – compatibility standards – would reduce the space between new multifamily builds and existing single-family lots, and tweak design requirements to avoid impacting neighbors. The third would allow more developable space and require affordable units within a half mile of planned light rail. The fourth would allow more electric vehicle charging stations to be built en masse.

HOME phase one allowed property owners to build three units on one lot. Those three units all have to share an owner, though. The new proposal would more than halve the minimum lot size from 5,750 square feet to 2,000 square feet and allow you to split larger lots into three units, each of which could be owned by a different person.

Lest things get out of control, these new 2,000-square-foot lots can’t be subdivided further. The smallest lot you could put multiple homes on will still be 5,750 square feet. This limitation addresses fears that developers would pack more homes on lots than infrastructure can currently support, Planning Commissioner Awais Azhar said.

Azhar says the minimum lot size change will boost affordability and allow homeowners to stay in place. “If a homeowner is struggling to pay taxes, but they’re sitting on a high-value home, they could actually split their lot, sell part of it, and still be able to maintain their home.” Including an actual affordability requirement is more difficult, says Azhar. In order to cross-subsidize even one affordable unit on a three-unit lot, developers would have to build many more market-rate units than three. “During the LDC revision,” Azhar said, “we had consultants who do this work nationally, who said that for every one affordable home, you needed 23 homes to offset the cost.”

Along transit routes where apartment buildings with lots of units are allowed, an affordability requirement is feasible. The requirement proposed would require between 12% and 15% of units to be affordable for people making significantly less than the median income. Alternatively, the developer could pay a fee to the city, meaning they wouldn’t build units on-site but the City would use that money to do so elsewhere.

These changes must be accompanied by non-code changes in order to work the way they’re intended, says Azhar, such as making the subdivision/site plan process easier: “How do we make sure the changes are able to be used by low- and moderate-income homeowners?” Overall, “our hope would be this allows somebody who wants to live in a teeny tiny triplex with neighbors and still raise children, [to do so],” says Azhar.

After the Thursday meeting, there’s an open house at Austin Central Library on April 17, and a virtual open house April 20: sign up here. The Planning Commission will discuss the changes April 23 and April 30 at 4pm, and Council will take a final vote May 16 at 10am.