Interested in CodeNEXT? You Should Be

“There’s something around one percent of the city that actually pays attention, but every single person is directly affected by our land development code.” Those were the words of Greg Anderson, director of operations at Austin Habitat for Humanity and a member of the City of Austin’s Planning Commission, during the Shades of Green radio show recorded last week.

We’ve been mentioning it a lot lately, but CodeNEXT (our city’s effort to rewrite its land development code) is a big deal and is one that will have far-reaching impacts throughout the entire city. That’s why our radio partner, Shades of Green, dedicated a full episode to it last week, which you can listen to above. The podcast is also available for download on iTunes.

Guests on the show included:
  • Greg Anderson – Director of Operations with Austin Habitat for Humanity, member of the City of Austin Planning Commission
  • Andy Cantú- Executive Director of Evolve Austin,  an organization that champions the Imagine Austin comprehensive plan, crafted by the people of Austin to create a more affordable, mobile, and sustainable city.
  • Lauren Ice – Staff Attorney with the Save Our Springs Alliance, member of the City of Austin CodeNEXT Advisory Group
  • Daniel Llanes – longtime community activist in East Austin, as well as a musician and performer

For those who aren’t as familiar with the subject area,CodeNEXT is the city’s effort to rewrite its land development code, which is basically a rule book for the city, explaining what can be built where. CodeNEXT will determine how Austin looks 10, 15, and even 50 years from now. And it will affect everything from affordability, to transportation, to the environment. In other words, it’s a really big deal.

The draft code was released at the beginning of the year, but the big news came in April when the maps were released. The maps actually apply the rules laid out in the new land development code to certain neighborhoods and regions in Austin.

Don’t have time to listen to the whole podcast? Some of the key points we touched on include:

History
“Well certainly this is an historic moment for Austin, because we have the opportunity to transition from a racist legacy to a real democratic, inclusive form of government,” Daniel Llanes said, during the Shades of Green CodeNEXT show. “Because historically, zoning and planning have been the vehicle for the displacement, particularly for people of color.”

On air, Llanes talked about how previous comprehensive plans, land development codes, and zoning regimes have been discriminatory, including the now infamous 1928 Master Plan. This plan effectively moved all people of color to the eastern part of the city by concentrating all of the city services and schools that served them to the area east of East Avenue (which eventually became I-35).

Over the years, zoning also intentionally concentrated industrial development in East Austin neighborhoods, which ended up bringing many polluting industries to the eastern part of the city.

Many local community organizations, including Undoing White Supremacy Austin and PODER are now calling on the city to fully acknowledge this history before moving forward with CodeNEXT in order to ensure that the same mistakes aren’t made again.

“…We are all looking for the city… to do a 180 and take history into account,” Llanes said. “Otherwise, this is just going to be another tool to get rid of everybody that’s been living in Austin and be replaced by a whole bunch of new people.”

 

Gentrification
“As a Chicano myself, as a fourth generation Austinite…but also from the perspective of an urban planner, I just want to give everyone sort of a better sense of what zoning does,” said Andy Cantú during the Shades of Green CodeNEXT show. Zoning, he explained, is a tool that can be used for bad (as it has been in the past). But, Cantú said, “zoning can also be used in really proactive, progressive ways.”

Cantú sees a lot of opportunity in CodeNEXT, suggesting that it could help slow the pace of gentrification in Austin by allowing for more housing development (and more types of housing, including duplexes and town homes) in more places.

“It [gentrification] happens because that development is being pushed from wealthier, more empowered neighborhoods….And that happens because the people in those neighborhoods, by in large… have said, ‘we don’t want that development here,'”Cantú said.

Not everyone has quite the same hopes for CodeNEXT. As you can see in this video clip from a community forum held late last month, some Austinites have concerns that simply allowing for more housing in more places won’t fix gentrification. In fact, they worry that it will actually make matters worse by spurring the development of more and more homes that are too expensive for low-income families to afford.

To help address some of these concerns, there have also been calls from the community to press pause on CodeNEXT until the city’s forthcoming racial equity tool is fully developed. The tool is meant to be a lens through which to examine city policies and ensure that their impacts are fair and equitable on communities of color.

“That’s something I’m fully in support of, is slowing this process down, giving people time to really…engage and put this through the equity tool so that we can be sure that the impacts that we might see, and the unintended consequences that we might see, are something that we think about through that equity lens,” Lauren Ice said during the Shades of Green CodeNEXT show.

 

Affordability
As Greg Anderson explained during the Shades of Green CodeNEXT show, affordability is a major issue for Austin Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization (where Greg works) that builds affordable homes right here in Central Texas. But lately, building affordable homes has become more and more difficult for them.

“Right now, it’s just impossible to find land…Today, the prices are such that with their current entitlements, which is what you can build on those lots, we can’t afford them, period. So we’re building more and more outside of the City of Austin than we ever have before,” Anderson said.

And that’s a problem for Austin Habitat for Humanity, because they want to build more homes closer to the city’s core, so that residents can have better access to public transportation and city services. Anderson hopes that CodeNEXT can help them to achieve this by allowing more housing units to be built on a single lot of land. For Habitat for Humanity, Anderson says that this would allow them to lower their costs and ultimately, to build more affordable housing.

 

Transportation/Sprawl
“Under our existing code…we have a really broken system,”Cantú said during the Shades of Green CodeNEXT show. “And one of the ways that it’s broken is that it encourages a really inefficient use of land and the outcome of that is what we call sprawl.”

In Cantú’s estimation, our current land development code is leading to such heightened sprawl because it doesn’t allow for enough houses to be built within the core of the city. And that’s because of something called minimum lot standards. These rules say that most single family homes can’t be built on lots that are smaller than 5,750 square feet. If these lot sizes were to be lowered, said Cantú, then more homes could be built one the same plot of land where today, only one can be built, which might have added benefits.

“Sprawl promotes single occupancy vehicle use, far and away above other modes, and so if we can create a more compact and connected neighborhood, through our development standards, through our code, suddenly transit becomes a lot more efficient…creating walkable communities,” Cantú said.

 

So what’s next?

Public comment on the text of the CodeNEXT draft is due on June 7th and public comments on the draft map are due on July 7th. You can comment on the draft text here and on the draft map here. Many in the community have raised concerns that this isn’t enough time to really dive into the 1,100 page CodeNEXT document, understand it, and then formulate an opinion to submit to the city.

“It’s pretty frustrating actually, that I don’t think the engagement has been what it needs to be to date and so that would be definitely one of my top criticisms of the process so far,” Ice said.

After this first round of public comment is received, additional drafts will likely be released and if all goes according to plan, the new land development code will be adopted in the spring of 2018. However, many have predicted that the process will take longer than that.

 

 

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