(Episode 6) Austin last re-wrote its land development code in 1984. Sounds boring, right? Well, that rewrite made it harder to build denser forms of housing. We explore the history of zoning in Austin and the opposition to changing the rules today, which could make the biggest difference in fixing Austin’s affordability crisis.
The full transcript of this episode of Growth Machine is available on the KUT & KUTX Studio website. The transcript is also available as subtitles or captions on some podcast apps.
Audrey McGlinchy Oh, my God. What a beautiful dog.
Jess Bouie I’m going to get you a slobber rag, because she’s …
Audrey McGlinchy Earlier this week, I went to a house in northeast Austin. I met Jess Bouie, her wife, Katie, and their Saint Bernard dog, Orlando.
Audrey McGlinchy Oh, my God, you’re so big. You’re just a big stuffed animal.
Jess Bouie Yes, you’re just a big baby, aren’t you?
Audrey McGlinchy Oh my god …
Audrey McGlinchy I’ve always been curious about the neighborhood where Jess and Katie live. It’s in Austin’s Cherrywood neighborhood, right behind an elementary school. And the streets here are full of these colorful two storey duplexes.
Jess Bouie They look like, you know, if you were like, at a farmer’s market and looking at a stand of fruit, there’s just like so many pops of color and like, really unexpected colors, too.
Audrey McGlinchy Jess and Katie’s house is like this baby blue color with this yellow trim.
Jess Bouie Almost like Marigold as the sort of complementary color to it. But we have neighbors who have like a literal watermelon color. Like, their house is bright fuchsia with really intense green trim.
Audrey McGlinchy These homes were built in the 1940s for men returning home from World War Two.
Jess Bouie And they’re really quirky. Like these houses are bizarre. There are some very strange things.
Audrey McGlinchy What are some of the strange things in your house?
Audrey McGlinchy Jess points to this built in bookshelf in the hallway.
Jess Bouie We have this like sort of inset shelf that doesn’t have a back. So it’s like this bookcase with no back.
Audrey McGlinchy And like, so there’s no back, so if I punch the books or they fall through the other side?
Jess Bouie They would absolutely fall. Yeah. Fall to the floor.
Audrey McGlinchy I wanted to talk to just about this house because I had heard something. I’d heard a rumor that these houses could not be built today. And I was told it had to do with zoning. These are rules that cities adopt that tell people what they can build and where. Which makes sense. You really don’t see duplexes like these, what are called stacked duplexes where one family lives downstairs and the other upstairs. I mean, you really don’t see many duplexes in Austin. Anyway, I had heard the city passed voting rules after the 1940s that basically made these kinds of houses hard or impossible to build. Some of this stuff just seems so arbitrary. Jess pointed to a shed in the backyard.
Jess Bouie Shortly after we moved in, we found out that this back structure, which is totally separate from the main structure of the house, it had previously had water and there is still electricity there, but the city apparently found out and came to shut it off for the last people who lived here because they claimed having water back there made it a triplex. And that was against city code, which I don’t know, that feels really silly to me because at the same time it’s like, well, if you reasonably could have three units on one lot, why wouldn’t you?
Audrey McGlinchy The answer is zoning. The city says you can’t have more than two families living on this piece of land. Jess is a writer and an editor. She’s not a city planner. But turns out …
Jess Bouie I have a passing interest in city planning through a video game that I’m very involved in.
Audrey McGlinchy What’s the video game called?
Jess Bouie It’s called City Skylines. And it’s, you know, you zone certain parts of the city for certain things. And so, yeah, I have a, maybe an elementary knowledge of zoning, but yeah, it’s a little boring.
Audrey McGlinchy Yeah, it is a little boring. But zoning impacts so much of what is around us.
Audrey McGlinchy Okay, last thing, I’m going to play a slightly annoying game with you, which is just naming a couple zoning regulations and seeing if you have any guesses at what the hell they mean. Okay, so I’m gonna start with setback.
Jess Bouie Setback? Okay. I feel like this would be a regulation for how far back your house has to be from the curb.
Audrey McGlinchy Excellent. Yeah.
Jess Bouie Nice!
Audrey McGlinchy Well, technically, it’s how far back from the property line, but curb is close enough. So in Austin for, like, single family homes, it’s usually 25 feet.
Jess Bouie Okay. Your house has to be 25 feet away from the curb.
Audrey McGlinchy Yeah.
Jess Bouie Why? [laughter]
Audrey McGlinchy That’s a great question. Next one. Impervious cover. We talked about this in episode three.
Jess Bouie Oh, that sounds like some requirement for how much tree coverage you have? Shade? Shade from trees.
Audrey McGlinchy Mmm, no. Impervious cover is what portion of your land blocks water from being absorbed into the ground. So like a driveway or the foundation of your house.
Jess Bouie Hi, Orlando. You’re like, “I wanna play this game.”
Audrey McGlinchy Okay, this one I think is easier. Height.
Jess Bouie The height of the house. [laughter]
Audrey McGlinchy Great work. Okay, this one. Okay. Compatibility.
Jess Bouie Okay. I feel like this, and this sounds like it’d be a fucked up one, but I feel like this has something to do with the the lot’s compatibility with, like the neighborhood, with the aesthetics or with the function of the neighborhood.
Audrey McGlinchy So not quite. Well, sort of. So compatibility, this one’s kind of interesting. So it has to do with single family homes. If there is a building within about a football fields length of a single family home, the height is restricted.
Jess Bouie Oh Yeah. This is, okay, I have heard about this. And this is what from what I understand, this is, yeah, what keeps sort of larger, denser housing structures from being built, uh, especially in like sort of really interior parts of Austin.
Audrey McGlinchy When I left Jess’ house, it still wasn’t clear to me if some zoning rule made it impossible to build the duplex she lives in. I reached out to about half a dozen people who might know. One builder said, “No, it wasn’t outlawed. These homes could still be built today. Just no one wants to build them.” Another wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. One architect told me, “Yes, the zoning definitely made it impossible to build these homes.” Anyway, the last word I got was from this city. I was told they were not aware of any rules prohibiting stacked duplexes. Okay, so maybe they can be built, but they’re not. As I stood in her front yard and looked at her baby blue duplex, I thought, “Man, what a rebel in a sea of big apartment buildings and single family homes. This thing is an anomaly, and she stands at the center of a big, big fight. A fight that has to do with zoning.”
Audrey McGlinchy I’m Audrey McGlinchey. This is Growth Machine: How Austin Engineered Its Housing Market. Episode six. There Go the Neighborhoods.
Audrey McGlinchy Austin got its first zoning rules in 1931. These rules were actually based off of the city plan from 1928; the plan that forced Austin’s black residents to move east. We talked about this in episode one. Anyway, back in the ’30s, the city regulated a bunch of things. There were rules about horse stables. No more than four horses, please, and about where certain businesses could go. Blacksmiths. Bakeries. Boarding homes. Acid manufacturers. Yeah, that was a thing. Each was limited to a certain part of Austin. As you mentioned in earlier episodes, a lot of East Austin was zoned for heavy industry. So after 1931, the city adopts a whole new set of rules about every decade or so to fit a new and changing city. Okay, so maybe we don’t manufacture acid any longer, but there were other things like requiring parking spots to be built once people started driving everywhere. Every decade. Revise, revise, revise. Until we stopped.
Donna Kristaponis It’s been a long time ago. I’m surprised I can talk as coherently as I seem to be about it, although maybe not as coherently as you might like. [laughter]
Audrey McGlinchy This is Donna Kristaponis. She was Austin’s assistant director of planning back in the 1980s.
Donna Kristaponis You know, land use and comprehensive planning and so on for the city.
Audrey McGlinchy Donna’s big job at the time was to help rewrite the land development code, those zoning rules, like we’d done every decade. But the ’80s in Austin was an entirely different beast. As we talked about, this was when a ton of people were moving to the city. It was the early start of tech, and Austin’s population had hit 350,000 people. So Donna and her colleagues sat down to sort out what rules they needed to change. But they weren’t just thinking about new people moving here.
Donna Kristaponis Well, I think there were really two big issues that were driving the conversation. The first one, obviously, would be Barton Springs.
Audrey McGlinchy Remember, this was also the beginning of this big environmental movement in Austin, a movement to stop building in the southwest part of town, and protect Barton Springs from pollution. But there was also a second concern. People living in single family neighborhoods, basically neighborhoods where most of the homes are houses with one family and a yard, were getting mad about other types of houses, duplexes, apartment buildings, being built near them.
Donna Kristaponis They’re in a historic neighborhood and they see all this encroachment and they’re not excited about it. And there’s also some concern about how it looks encroaching into the the wonderful small bungalows and historic homes that were in the area.
Audrey McGlinchy And these people, typically homeowners, were gaining a lot of political power in Austin. Starting in the early ’70s, people started forming neighborhood associations. This is basically where you’d get together with your neighbors and fight for or against something like, “Hey, we want a park,” or “Hey, we’re not happy with all the traffic in our neighborhood.” Anyway, in the decade between 1970 and 1980, Austin went from having just a handful of neighborhood associations to nearly 100.
Allan McMurtry Usually it was something that set it off, some action by the city that was going to change everything so dramatically that it would impact, you know, the value, the ease, the quality of the neighborhood.
Audrey McGlinchy Allan McMurtry moved to Austin in the mid ’70s. One of his first jobs was working for the city’s health department. He’d go around and ticket people for tall grass and weeds on their property.
Allan McMurtry So I’d go out, I’d look at the weed lots, and then I would decide whether it violated the ordinance or not. And if I thought it did, then I would go down and research the records at the county courthouse.
Audrey McGlinchy In 1976, Allan bought a house in Allendale, the neighborhood in West Austin, between Burnet Road and Mahopac. A couple of years after moving there, he joined the neighborhood association, and he turned out to be a real asset. You see, while he had been rifling through all these property records for his job, he noticed something about his neighborhood.
Allan McMurtry I realized that the zoning in Allendale was interim, and so that meant that the city didn’t have to give notice. They could just, with a simple majority, change the zoning to whatever they wanted to. And I thought that was fairly dangerous.
Audrey McGlinchy Basically, it was easier at this time for someone to build something other than a single family home in Allendale. So like a duplex or a triplex. Where that had happened in other cities, Allan said, bad things followed.
Allan McMurtry The quality of life really, really changed. It dropped significantly. Crime rate went up and and it was just a mess. And I said, “Man, this is ripe for the same thing happening.”
Audrey McGlinchy I want to be clear here. Allan’s presenting anecdotal evidence. The research on this is pretty mixed. And there’s no clear link between apartment buildings and the people who live in them and crime. But this was people’s perception and why Allan says the Allendale Neighborhood Association did what it did.
Allan McMurtry I can’t tell you the light bulb moment when it was like, “Hey, we need to make this step.” But Austin was growing fast, and you never know who might move into some position of authority.
Audrey McGlinchy So the neighborhood association went to city council members and asked them to make it harder to build anything but single family homes in the neighborhood. In 1980, the council voted on what was called the Allendale zoning rollback. It was unanimous to keep the neighborhood full of single family homes. Allan was quoted in the newspaper at the time saying that he was “tickled to death.”
Allan McMurtry Yeah, I was tickled to death because the city recognized, you know, the vitality in the neighborhoods. And so they matched the zoning so there would not be continued fights. And, you know, that’s the kind of stability that I think really makes for a viable city.
Audrey McGlinchy So as city planners go to rewrite the zoning rules in the early ’80s, they have to balance two things. On one side, there are these newly powerful neighborhood associations, like in Allendale, where people generally don’t want their neighborhoods to change. On the other side is the reality that more people are moving to Austin and need places to live.
Donna Kristaponis There were lots of public meetings and there were lots of neighborhood meetings.
Allan McMurtry This is Donna Kristaponis again.
Donna Kristaponis And there was a very strong push to get it done.
Audrey McGlinchy So the city makes a couple of big changes. One, they created that compatibility rule I mentioned earlier. Basically, it’s this rule that restricts buildings near single family homes from being tall. The city did a couple other things, more parking requirements, bigger lot sizes in some cases. The idea was to make sure that apartments got built on busy streets and not inside single family neighborhoods. Donna says when the council went to vote on March 1st, 1984, everyone seemed happy.
Donna Kristaponis Happy may not be— they were satisfied. They were content. Again, not the perfect document. There’s no such thing, but it provides protections and it allows us to develop.
Donna Kristaponis I looked really, really hard for a recording of the City council meeting, but I could not find it. What I did find was a very short article on the front page of The Statesman from that day. After five years of work, the vote had been unanimous. Nothing seemed really controversial about changing the zoning rules. Since then, the city’s amended the zoning rules from 1984, but it’s never totally rewritten them.
Audrey McGlinchy I mean, what is it to you to know that we are still in some form using the code that you worked on here in Austin, you know, 40 years later?
Donna Kristaponis Well, I guess I should feel glad about it, but I don’t particularly.
Audrey McGlinchy Donna says doing something like a complete zoning rewrite, changing all of these building rules to fit a new and different city, that takes years. And it’s not something a politician typically wants to touch.
Donna Kristaponis Having a long term outlook is, it’s really sometimes quite unusual, and it’s easier to muddle through. And that’s what Austin has chosen to do. Or not even necessarily chosen. Making a decision is sometimes not making a decision, and so therefore you do muddle through. And muddle through means piecemealing it, amending it. And then after a while, what was a document that seemed to work in its time has been transported 40 years later and really has, if you stop and think about it, not a lot of relevance to the way we live today or the issues that we face today.
Audrey McGlinchy In 1984, Donna helped write zoning rules so that houses could be built to accommodate a growing city of 350,000 people. Three decades later, Austin’s population had more than doubled, and housing was starting to get a lot more expensive because we hadn’t built enough of it. So elected officials said we have to do something. They decided that something was zoning. Changing the rules to allow more housing. Donna’s work made people happy, or at least content, but this time around, no one was happy. More after the break.
Audrey McGlinchy Before we get to what happened after 1984, I got to get something out of the way. I want to talk about economics. I’m so sorry. That’s right. Supply and demand as it relates to housing. Does building more housing lead to lower prices overall? The answer is yes.
Sarah Bronin Scholarly research has shown in study after study that the more housing is built, the lower prices tend to be.
Audrey McGlinchy Sarah Bronin’s a professor of planning at Cornell University. In multiple studies, researchers have shown that when zoning rules change and more housing gets built, housing prices either fall or don’t rise as quickly. In Austin, developers are building a ton of apartments right now, like more than ever before. But much of that new housing is on the edges of the city, not in close-in, single family neighborhoods.
Sarah Bronin Areas with less restrictive zoning that enables more housing to be built doesn’t see prices increase as quickly as areas with restrictive zoning that blocks new housing.
Audrey McGlinchy It’s not that the new housing is cheaper, it’s usually not. A new car is typically going to be more expensive than a used car. It’s that all the people who want to live in that neighborhood won’t push up prices competing for the same house or the same apartment. Woo, okay. Back to our regular programing. So in 1984, Austin rewrites its zoning rules in an attempt to accomplish two things: to stop changes in some neighborhoods and to prepare for new people moving here. And move here they did.
Audrey McGlinchy Between 1980 and 2010, 450,000 people moved to Austin. 450,000. And honestly, that was just the beginning. In the next decade, the city and its surrounding suburbs grew faster than any other big city in the country.
Newscast 1 It may sound obvious to those of us who have been here in Austin for a while, but a new list says Austin is the fastest growing large city in the United States.
Audrey McGlinchy Austin’s elected officials wanted to make a plan for all of this population growth. As more people moved here, where would they go? Where should we make it easier to build? In 2012, the council adopts a plan to answer these questions. They call it Imagine Austin. Imagine it.
IA Promo 1 Imagine Austin includes a lot of great ideas, ideas that will maintain Austin’s unique quality of life and the experience that’s treasured by residents and visitors alike.
Elizabeth Mueller The tagline for the plan was compact and connected.
Audrey McGlinchy Elizabeth Mueller is a professor of planning at UT Austin.
Elizabeth Mueller So there was a lot of emphasis on making the city a kind of more transit-friendly city, so people would be less auto dependent, there’d be less driving, we’d be less sprawling.
Audrey McGlinchy I’ll just get right to it. The idea was to get Austin to work more like New York, Philadelphia, London, Mexico City, places where you can walk to a grocery store, walk your kid to school, or to a park. That’s hard to do in a city like Austin, where everyone’s so spread out. And part of that is because of zoning. When you look at a map of zoning in Austin, single family zoning is yellow and it is a sea of yellow, like a daffodil field. So it’s really hard to build anything other than one house for one family on one piece of land. So imagine Austin, this plan, imagined a city with more duplexes, more small apartment buildings.
Elizabeth Mueller You’re going to have to have different housing types than you might have in parts of the city. And different uses allowed in areas that have been largely, exclusively residential.
Audrey McGlinchy It’s great to have a plan, but without rules, it means very little. So in the early 2010s, the city decided to rewrite the zoning rules for the first time since 1984. At the same time, the public elected new council members, including this woman.
Delia Garza Sure. Delia Garza, currently the Travis County attorney, former mayor pro tem and council person for district two, Southeast Austin.
Audrey McGlinchy In 2014, Delia Garza was elected to represent one of Austin’s poorest districts. Delia had never been a politician. She actually worked as a firefighter, so she knew very little about the technicalities of zoning. Things like setbacks, compatibility. But she also knew very little about the emotional side of zoning, of how worked up people can get about changing zoning rules in their neighborhoods. Delia remembers listening to zoning cases in her first few months on the council and thinking to herself …
Audrey McGlinchy “Wow, we have kids that can’t get food in Southeast Austin, that don’t have sidewalks, that, you know, there’s three families living in a house because that’s what their family needs to do. And this person’s so mad about a lot size or a setback or, you know, a building that’s taller than four stories.” That was just really surprising. I was introduced to a a side of privilege that I never had seen before.
Audrey McGlinchy This is the minefield that Delia and others were stepping into when they decided to rewrite Austin’s zoning rules.
Audrey McGlinchy Okay, so it takes staff a few years to write these rules. Remember, the stuff is like really complicated, and it had been amended, chopped up, added to for nearly 30 years. So they’re writing. They’re writing, They’re writing. And in 2017, the city finally releases the first draft. It was more than a thousand pages long, a thousand pages of technical terms that all amounted to what Austin could look like over the next several decades.
Steve Adler You guys ready? You ready?
Audrey McGlinchy And just like with Imagine Austin, it had a really cool name: CodeNEXT, next in all caps. This is former Mayor Steve Adler at a press conference.
Steve Adler Morning, everybody. Thanks for being here this morning. This is a real important day. This is the day when the initial draft of the land development code rewrite in the city of Austin gets circulated.
Audrey McGlinchy And the city’s trying to make this really boring but very important thing jazzy. They have tote bags, sunglasses, all printed with the word code next on them, trying to really like make this a cool thing.
Newscast 2 Coming up on City View, CodeNEXT is on tour of open houses throughout Austin. Find out how you can get involved.
Audrey McGlinchy But people weren’t that jazzed about it. It didn’t take long for people to start ripping apart this thousand page document.
Council Meeting Speaker 1 It is a waste of mindshare, intelligence, skill.
Council Meeting Speaker 2 While there is really no short term change, in the long term it builds an incentive to tear down existing housing and build high profit housing.
Council Meeting Speaker 3 Mayor Adler, you made a promise. You said there’s no sense in shoving density where it would ruin the character of the city we’re trying to save in the first place, where it is not wanted by its neighbors and where we would never get enough of the additional housing we need anyway.
Audrey McGlinchy There were basically two camps. On one side, you had longtime homeowners from really every part of the city.
Council Meeting Speaker 4 Is it that you do not need to honor existing agreements between the city and neighborhoods, or is it that you can and you feel you should cancel individual property rights by fiat?
Audrey McGlinchy These people tended to be older and, well, whiter.
Council Meeting Speaker 5 Right now we’re headed down 6th Street at 90 miles an hour with a bucket on the head. They have to stop the madness.
Audrey McGlinchy They opposed CodeNEXT. Like, they really hated this thing. They worried that changing the zoning rules to allow new housing and new people would make traffic and flooding worse and change their neighborhoods.
Council Meeting Speaker 6 Denser development would exacerbate traffic flow and make them significantly less safe.
Audrey McGlinchy Some of those people worried new housing would displace current residents, make the gentrification that was already happening even worse.
Audrey McGlinchy Austinites of color and working class Austinites, who have fought for increased investment in their communities, must not be penalized for getting better infrastructure and services.
Audrey McGlinchy And then on the other side, you had people excited about new housing. Excited about the idea of these zoning rules. They may not have liked CodeNEXT, many said the rules didn’t go far enough, but they said the city needed new zoning, needed new housing.
Council Meeting Speaker 7 Changes isn’t always good. And it isn’t always bad, but it always is inevitable. Even if we don’t change the code, the city will continue to change around us. And if we don’t change the code, all of our big problems will continue to get worse.
Council Meeting Speaker 8 This is not Charles Dickens’ London. A bit of density does not mean disease, plague and the forfeit of all parkland. It’s nearly 2020 and this is like climate change. We know the problems and we know the solutions.
Audrey McGlinchy Just like in the 1980s, so much of the focus here was on single family neighborhoods. One home with one family and a yard is really sacred, not only in Austin, but across the country. People worried allowing duplexes or triplexes would destroy their neighborhoods.
Council Meeting Speaker 9 Are you really willing to destroy the character of Hyde Park, North Loop, Old Enfield, Clarksville, to say nothing of some of South Austin’s established neighborhoods?
Audrey McGlinchy Amidst all of this was just the boring technicality of it all. You almost needed a Ph.D. to sift through what effect any of this would have on Austin. Talk of transition zones and transects. Zoning categories like R1, R2, R3.
Audrey McGlinchy Almost as soon as it came out, the new code proposal was under attack.
Fred Lewis You know, I don’t want the fake news not to be able to cover it. Just kidding. Just kidding.
Audrey McGlinchy In March 2018, a group of opponents, mostly homeowners, filed a petition to put the code and any future zoning rewrite to a public vote. They’d gotten tens of thousands of signatures to get a question on a city ballot, asking voters, “Do you want final veto power over any new zoning rules?” So people would be voting on whether they wanted to vote on this thing and anything like it. This is Fred Lewis. He’s an attorney who helped push this ballot measure.
Fred Lewis If the end of the day. Every single person in this city knows what’s in their best interests regarding their neighborhood, their home and their property better than any city councilman. And so we’ll rely on them to decide at the end of the day, after we’ve gone through this, is this in the best interests of the people?
Audrey McGlinchy Alongside Fred stood people like Susana Almanza. We met her in episodes three and four. Eastside activists like her and others had blamed smart growth for gentrifying their communities, and they weren’t about to let that happen again.
Susana Almanza And so we see the president rewrite of CodeNEXT as the final urban removal of low income working class people and especially people of color.
Audrey McGlinchy When a petition like this is filed, the city council has two choices. Either accept the petition demands immediately or put them to a public vote. But this city council chose a third option: do nothing. Their lawyers told them state law didn’t allow zoning to go to a public vote, so they ignored the petition. Just like with the Save Our Springs petition in the ’90s. Then, just like 30 years before, a judge stepped in.
Newscast 2 In court today, a judge will hear from both sides to determine if that ordinance will go on the ballot after all.
Audrey McGlinchy The judge said the council had to do something with the petition. So they voted to put it on the ballot that November.
Newscast 3 And now the ordinance is on the ballot for the people to decide if they want to weigh in or let the council handle it.
Audrey McGlinchy But it wasn’t just the small group of homeowners that opposed CodeNEXT. A small group of council members were also against it.
Leslie Poole I never was comfortable with the comprehensive, or the attempt to make it seem like it was comprehensive, to take everything and do it all at once.
Audrey McGlinchy This is Councilmember Leslie Pool. She represents parts of Northwest Austin.
Leslie Poole Everything, everywhere, all at once didn’t work.
Audrey McGlinchy We’ll hear from her later in this episode. In the meantime, it became increasingly obvious that this whole thing had devolved into a real mess. In August 2018, the mayor told the rest of the council that misinformation around CodeNEXT, next in caps, had poisoned the process. This hysteria over the idea that this new code would lead to whole neighborhoods being bulldozed. So Adler suggested we start over.
Steve Adler It was clear that the process we were on was not one that was trusted. And we need to come up with a way to move forward that the community can trust.
Audrey McGlinchy About a week later, the council voted to scrap CodeNEXT, next in caps, at least in name.
Newscast 4 CodeNEXT, the rewrite of Austin’s land development code, is no more. City Council voted unanimously just a few minutes ago to bail on the years long multimillion dollar effort.
Audrey McGlinchy But wait, that election on whether to force a public vote on any land code rewrite was still happening, with or without CodeNEXT, next in all caps. And the lawsuits kept coming. This time, the city got sued over how they wrote the ballot measure, like the phrasing they used. Turns out, though, that lawsuit got dismissed. Which brings us to Election Day, November 7th, 2018.
Newscast 5 Props J and K, which did not pass, those would have required voters to essentially approve CodeNEXT.
Audrey McGlinchy By a narrow majority, voters rejected the ballot measure that would have forced a vote on zoning rewrites like CodeNEXT, next in caps, R.I.P.. And then for a while, nothing happened. Well, not nothing. Rents and home prices kept rising in Austin.
Newscast 6 Prices continue to soar. The median …
Audrey McGlinchy And staff kept working on these new zoning rules. Almost a year after the November vote, the city came out with a new rewrite of zoning rules. Maybe people will like this one better. October 2019. We get the next CodeNEXT, next in all caps, and the reactions exactly the same.
Council Meeting Speaker 10 I have personally invested much time into my community. I go off and I clean all the graffiti up in the whole neighborhood, and I’ve done it for three years, personally. So what you’re proposing is taking my home away from me.
Council Meeting Speaker 11 What can we do when the government is telling us to get out and then they take our homes?
Council Meeting Speaker 12 I don’t imagine you are in any way for affordability. Stop the lies. You have spoken lies so many times, and sadly, so many people believe you.
Audrey McGlinchy Two months later, some of the same homeowners that helped collect signatures for that petition made good on a threat they’d been making this whole time, to stop this thing outright. They sued the city, again.
Newscast 7 On February 18th, a judge will hear arguments in this case. The 19 local property owners suing the city claimed that leaders violated their protest rights by not letting them weigh in on zoning changes that would affect them.
Audrey McGlinchy State law requires local governments to individually notify landowners when there’s a zoning change in their neighborhood. These homeowners argued that the city never did that, and because they didn’t. The whole process was void.
Doug Becker They disregarded the citizens from start to finish.
Audrey McGlinchy This is Doug Becker, the attorney for the homeowners.
Doug Becker And said that they could do that, that it was legal and that, in this case, they could go forward with rezoning basically the entire city, without individual notice.
Audrey McGlinchy Despite the lawsuit, the council pressed on. In February 2020, weeks before COVID hit Austin and everything shut down, they took a near final vote on the new code.
Steve Adler Okay, those in favor of approving item number one on second reading, please raise your hand. Those opposed. Kitchen, Alter, Pool and Tovo voting no, the others voting aye. Item number one passes on second reading.
Audrey McGlinchy By this vote, the city had been working on this for eight years at a price of more than $10 million. And some council members, including Councilmember Delia Garza, just wanted to get it done.
Delia Garza We cannot live in this dream world. We have to understand that these are very difficult decisions for every single one of us. And just like I wish I could be the— everyday, I could be the perfect council member and the perfect mom and the perfect wife and the perfect friend. I have to make tradeoffs. And that’s what we’ve had to do in this case. And that’s why I know we have to keep moving forward. It’s been eight years. We need to stop waiting.
Audrey McGlinchy A month later, a judge heard the homeowner’s lawsuit and ruled against the city.
Newscast 8 The current rewrite was one vote away from becoming a reality. But yesterday, a Travis County District Judge voided the City Council’s two previous vote.
Newscast 8 The city appealed, and for a long time during the pandemic, everything with this new code was on hold. Councilmembers didn’t bother taking a final vote until the court case was resolved. Then in March 2022, a state appeals court put the final dagger in CodeNEXT, or whatever it was called at this point.
Newscast 9 This week, an appeals court sided with a group of residents saying the city didn’t allow them to formally protest the read write.
Audrey McGlinchy CodeNEXT, by any name was dead.
Audrey McGlinchy At the center of this fight was this thousand page document, full of all these technical terms that honestly, unless you have a masters in city planning, is really hard to understand. But it was about more than a document. It was about building more and different types of housing for more and different types of people. Regardless of whether we changed these zoning rules. These people had already come. During the pandemic, tens of thousands of remote workers moved to Austin, and we didn’t plan for that. The people who wrote the rules back in the 1980s never would have seen this coming. Since the lawsuit ended Austin’s zoning rewrite, the city has not attempted a new one. It just feels too hot to touch. Elected officials have taken a different approach.
Audrey McGlinchy So you were, you took office in 2015, is that right?
Leslie Pool That’s right.
Audrey McGlinchy Okay. Prior to that, had you been involved in zoning, land use issues in the city?
Leslie Pool I had not.
Audrey McGlinchy Councilmember Leslie Poole moved to Austin in the early ’80s, and decades before she was elected to City Council, she started volunteering for a political movement: the Save Our Springs movement, the push to stop building near the Barton Springs watershed.
Leslie Pool Getting involved with S.O.S. and that petition work was sort of just an entry point for a lot of people. A lot of people.
Audrey McGlinchy Pool worked for the county and the state. In 2014, she ran and won a seat on the Austin City Council. And remember, she was part of a small group of council members who opposed the city’s rewrite of its zoning rules. Her big issue? It was all happening too fast. Too much, too fast.
Leslie Pool You have to do it slowly and deliberately and with ample input.
Audrey McGlinchy But certainly, I mean, code— or whatever you want to call it, the land code rewrite happened over almost eight years to a decade. That feels pretty slow.
Leslie Pool But it wasn’t all the same group of people and it wasn’t all the same issues. And that conversation has been going on for a really long time. Sure. But not the actions that were being promulgated around it.
Audrey McGlinchy So it was surprising when this thing happened last month.
Newscast 10 A new land development resolution on City Council’s agenda has rumors swirling on social media. City Council member Leslie Paul says she wants to set the record straight.
Leslie Pool We are not changing single family zoning into multi-family zoning, and we will have notification on all of these, all of this information.
Audrey McGlinchy After fighting against changing Austin’s zoning rules, now Pool was advocating for change. And like, in a big way. She came out and said, “Let’s do something to allow more housing to be built in single family neighborhoods.” She proposed lowering what’s called the minimum lot size. Basically, that’s the minimum amount of land you need to build one home for one family on one piece of land. Austin’s long had a big minimum lot size compared to other cities in Texas. To build one house in Austin, you need at least 5750 square feet of land. That’s about a 10th of a football field. Supporters say lowering this lot size will do a couple of things. One, if you need less land to build on, you can build homes closer together. Two, this will hopefully encourage developers to build smaller types of housing. Maybe like those duplexes we met in the beginning of this episode.
Leslie Pool How can we gently densify those neighborhoods in ways that preserve the community and preserve the neighborhood? And I think this concept has a shot at that.
Audrey McGlinchy Land’s usually the most expensive part of buying a home in Austin. So if we cut up that land, basically give people smaller yards, these homes should be cheaper.
Leslie Pool And I want to be able to say to my daughter and her fiance say, should they decide to move back to Austin, that I took some steps to ensure that the property that’s here that you would be able to afford to buy in and live here and raise your family here and have your kids go to the schools that you went to and benefited so much from.
Audrey McGlinchy That’s the hope at least. And what Pool’s doing is the strategy the city’s taking now. No more comprehensive rewrite, no redoing the whole thing at once. That didn’t go so well. Let’s make zoning changes little by little. Like when earlier this year, the council voted to get rid of parking requirements. Maybe making these little changes will be more digestible.
Audrey McGlinchy About two weeks ago, the council took a vote on this minimum lot size thing.
Leslie Pool There are some folks who are not happy about this resolution and they are fearful.
Council Meeting Speaker 13 This extremely prescriptive resolution failed to consider the input of residents homes located on the 176,694 lots that it will impact.
Doug Becker The only way this matter goes forward and makes any sense is to further pave the central watersheds.
Council Meeting Speaker 14 You know, this resolution really is just about handing out massive entitlements.
Audrey McGlinchy But unlike several years ago, some of these voices were outweighed by people speaking in support of these changes.
Council Meeting Speaker 15 Houston reduced its minimum lot sizes and is the most affordable major city in the country.
Council Meeting Speaker 16 We’d love to see more density and diversity in our neighborhood, enabled by other small lots like our own.
Council Meeting Speaker 17 It’s my belief that the neighborhood character comes not from the buildings that exist in the city, but from the people that live here. And every day that Austinites have to leave the city to find cheaper housing, we’re losing that neighborhood character from the people. So that’s why I support this change. Thank you.
Audrey McGlinchy The measure passed with a vote of 9 to 2. It had more support on the council than CodeNEXT ever did. I asked Pool what she thinks changed, what changed her.
Leslie Pool The world is different. We have different expectations of workers, where they’re working, how they’re working. Transportation is different. We passed Project Connect and then in the Fall of 2020, I think I’m remembering that right. And so there are different obligations that the council has, as well as being the 10th largest city in America now. That carries very heavy responsibilities. And I take that very seriously. And I think that— And so that has all informed the changed dias, the different approach that’s more deliberative and the world has had a reset. So to respond to that, this felt like the time was right for this kind of significant offering, which maybe isn’t going to be that significant. It’s not going to change things overnight.
Audrey McGlinchy You can hear Pool walking this fine line. Significant, but also not significant. Pool came up in this city like several other politicians, with the Save Our Springs movement. That fight in the ’90s was a fight against development and many of its supporters have maintained that stance. They opposed CodeNEXT. Some were even part of the lawsuit that eventually took it down. And many involved with the group opposed this new minimum lot size thing last month. I asked Pool where she thinks the opposition to CodeNEXT, which she was a part of, and the opposition against this latest measure comes from.
Leslie Pool It could be because that’s not the town that they’ve lived in most of their lives. I didn’t grow up in a small town and Austin was a small town. When I moved here, there was 300,000 people here. You know, we’re a million now. So I think it’s, “What are you familiar with and what are you invested in? Even if it’s subconscious.”
Audrey McGlinchy It’s about change.
Leslie Pool It’s about change.
Audrey McGlinchy I’ve asked people who sued the city over CodeNEXT what this whole fight is about for them. They told me it’s about democracy, transparency and being heard. Meanwhile, Austin has become a deeply unaffordable city, and we’re only now starting to take steps to deal with that and what comes NEXT … Next in all caps.
Audrey McGlinchy Thanks for listening so far. There’s one more regular episode of Growth Machine: How Austin Engineered its Housing Market. Growth Machine is a production of KUT and KUTX studios in Austin. It’s produced by me, Jimmy Moss, Mose Bushnell, Marisa Charpentier, Nathan Bernier, and Matt Largey. Production help from Heather Stewart. Technical help from Jake Perlman and Renee Chavez. Stephanie Federico is our digital editor. Special thanks to the Austin History Center for help researching this episode. There’s more at KUT.org/GrowthMachine. I’m Audrey McGlinchey. Thanks for listening.
This transcript was transcribed by AI, and lightly edited by a human. Accuracy may vary. This text may be revised in the future.