Affordable Housing in Central Texas: Politicians Take Action

Politicians in Central Texas are taking action to tackle the issue of affordable housing. With skyrocketing housing costs in the state, Republicans are leading the charge this session. Sarah Eckhardt, an Austin Democrat and former Travis County judge, is skeptical of a statewide approach to local housing regulations that doesn't include cities' input on how to boost production. She believes that there are other ways the state could address housing affordability, such as simply spending more on housing.

Chris Gannon and Leyla Shams bought a house in East M. Franklin Avenue, and noticed a three-acre densely forested lot of sprawling trees and lanky bamboo beside a small, spring-fed stream. The land was owned by Lee Daniel, the cinematographer best known for his work on the iconic Austin Slacker and Dazed and Confused movies. Daniel had moved an old New Orleans house to the property and invited artists to camp there and show their art.

The question of where new housing should be built should be answered through a comprehensive land development code, which would dictate, through zoning categories, what can be built and where it can go. Austin last updated its code in 1984, when the city was home to less than half of the residents it has today. The city has tried to rewrite those regulations, but that effort failed earlier this year due to fierce resistance from landlords and a lawsuit. The term “NIMBY” (Not In My Backyard) was initially used to refer to environmental defenders who struggle to keep hazardous waste facilities away from residential neighborhoods.

But in recent decades, it has been “used as a weapon” by wealthy white communities to oppose any new development, including apartments and affordable housing. Single-family homes exert more influence in Austin than any other city in Texas. In June, city staff looked at compatibility standards, which limit what can be built next to what, and found that Austin has some of the most restrictive rules in the country. To build a five-story apartment building, for example, a developer must locate it at least three hundred feet from any single-family home.

In Dallas and San Antonio, that distance is fifty feet - representing thousands of potential housing units that could be built if regulations were relaxed. As the months went by, the divide between the neighbors became tense over how to guarantee values such as affordability, diversity and the environment. Many neighbors wanted Mehra to build fewer units on the land while still keeping some of its wild character but selling them at lower prices. Across the street, Stanley believed that his neighbors disdained his concerns. It doesn't see itself as a NIMBY, but it protected what the neighborhood had already lost.

The landlords flocked when the case was examined before the planning commission in April. In East Austin, almost half of Texans define themselves as having housing problems - meaning they spend more than 30% of their household income on housing expenses - and three Texas cities represent three of the seven cities with the highest housing shortage in the United States. In Austin alone, about 50% of the average annual household income of homeowners goes to homeownership costs; in Arlington, Dallas, Fort Worth and Irving about 40% goes towards buying housing; rent in San Antonio is up more than 20% from the previous year placing it tenth place nationally among metropolitan areas with the fastest increase in rents year-over-year. With this growing threat that high housing prices pose to Texas' workforce in particular, Governor Greg Abbott's office has urged the Texas Legislature to remove barriers to housing construction. The process of obtaining permits in Austin is notoriously slow - increasing development costs and reducing supply - while Austin's complicated land development code is often contradictory. A new territorial development code would also address other issues such as permitting times which take more than a year in Austin compared to three or four months in other Texas cities. It is clear that something needs to be done about affordable housing in Central Texas if we are going to keep up with population growth.