A Civilized Debate on Housing Policy

posted Feb 21, 2016, 4:01 PM by Steven Zettner

A few weeks ago, in response to one of my earlier posts, long-time affordable housing advocate Patrick Goetz reached out with some thoughtful feedback.  The resulting dialogue (debate sounds cooler) seemed like fodder for a blog post. If nothing else, it should be newsworthy that an urbanist and a neighborhood activist had a civilized exchange of ideas in Austin, Texas. ;)


Balanced Demographics

[Patrick] In your posts, Steve, you’ve made a big point about demographic balance.  This is a very sore point with young urbanists.   The dynamic in Austin mirrors what is going on through much of the Western World.  I’ll quote a recent Economist article:

”Housing, too, is often rigged against the young. Homeowners dominate the bodies that decide whether new houses may be built. They often say no, so as not to spoil the view and reduce the value of their own property. Over-regulation has doubled the cost of a typical home in Britain. The youngsters of Kuala Lumpur are known as the “homeless generation”. Young American women are more likely to live with their parents or other relatives than at any time since the second world war.” 


Traditional families with children today count for just 20% of the population in the U.S., yet our current land use code assumes that traditional suburban large family housing is and must be the norm.

It's a sign of the times that millennials have been squished down into the lowest common denominator of housing possibilities due to income stagnation, limited housing supply, and staggering student loan debt.

[Steven]  I guess every demographic group feels some sense of slight. ;)   Children in all households are 24% of US population. Expected decline to 23-22% over coming decades. Nothing like the 3-5% levels seen in most downtowns.  To that percentage you have to add parents, so say ~40% of the population. 

What’s happening in Austin, and around the country, is that older garden style apartments that used to have a higher mix of multi-bedroom units and more open space are being torn down in the central core and replaced with very dense blocks with a much higher mix of single occupancy units, less open space suitable to kids, and lifestyle amenities that don't work well for families. 

Most of the ‘family-friendly’ housing is getting built in the suburbs.  The result:  de facto age segregation.  The child demographics of Austin resemble a donut - 20-30% children in suburbs and 3-10% in the core.

But I’m speaking rhetorically – you are a parent and very aware of this.


[Patrick] Exactly. AISD is losing students. We simply don't have enough family friendly housing in the urban core. And empty nesters camp out in their one-story bungalows for lack of alternative (affordable) options. If CodeNext allows for the kind of missing middle housing I've championed for years, and developers don't step up to the plate, I'll look into doing at least one such development myself.  The responses I got when showing the plans around were largely "I want to live there."  This mostly came from people living in bungalows, not apartments.

I think the trend among millennials is to try to stay in walkable, transit-oriented housing in the urban core. When they start having kids they simply can't find anything appropriate that they can afford and end up moving out to Pflugerville or Cedar Park. The millennials I know can endlessly catalog their friends who have gone through this. There's a desperate need for such housing right now.


Balanced Housing


[Patrick]  I agree with your assessment that we need a more balanced housing mix. The key to that is more density, not less.

In one much discussed zoning case on Burnet Rd [the Gordon Automotive apartment project, January 2015] council members Kathie Tovo and Leslie Pool asked for more 2-3 bedroom units. The developer said he would need MF-6 zoning in order to be able to monetize the project with larger units; with MF-4 he would only do one bedrooms and studios. Both council members then voted to support MF-4 zoning.

Height restrictions and compatibility requirements are the biggest enemies of a better multi-family housing mix. In a market where anything you build will rent combined with a very limited envelope in which to build, developers will definitely maximize their profits by doing only one bedrooms and studios.

[Steven]  The Gordon Automotive zoning case that you’re referring to, and that I supported at MF4, was never going to yield much family-suitable housing, nor amenities suitable to families.  The developer said as much.  It wouldn’t have mattered if it was MF6 or MF4.  The developer’s proposed mix at MF6 was still 70% efficiencies and one bedrooms.  MF4 projects around town yield about that same mix.  Because the project is so dense and so unbalanced, it contributes to the trend of unbalanced housing mix in our wider community.

I want to be clear – I’m not opposed to higher density projects, especially if they are in those places along the corridor with the best transit and walkable amenities (not the case at the Gordon Automotive site).  But if under the current rules and market conditions you are going to build big super-dense apartments that hugely skew the local housing mix, the only effective tool currently available to protect local diversity is to ration such apartments.

The rationing mechanism I've proposed for Burnet, and that has Imagine Austin behind it, kills two birds with one stone.  You use a 'compact and connected' model to zone for big apartments where they are best supported by transit and conditions that get people out of cars. The farther you get from the transit hubs, the lower the density. This compromise yields the most ‘missing middle’ housing.  It’s a compromise because that missing middle comes from both adjacent neighborhoods and along the corridor.  IF the City makes improvements to transit quality and walkability, the definition of your 'transit-supported area' can adjust over time.

[Patrick]  The counterargument is that if we define (you'll agree, somewhat artificially) transit hubs and restrict higher density corridor development to those locations, then there simply will not be enough developable parcels on the market. Certainly not every property owner in convenient locations is going to be interested in selling.

For this reason I'm OK with these units being mostly studios and one bedrooms. Families with children don't want to be right on Burnet anyway. 
We provide housing for families in neighborhood interiors by deploying missing middle housing (which can comfortably afford a 4x increase in density. By allowing for, for example, corner stores in all neighborhoods, this also provides space for daycares and other family-oriented services right in the neighborhood interior. And by moving young singles out to the corridors, we reduce interior neighborhood demand, consequently increasing affordability.

[Steven]  You’ve concisely captured the orthodox urbanist view of how redevelopment is going to work for everybody.  I don’t buy it. 

A project like Gordon Automotive, which is 70% single-occupancy units, is 34x the density of single family housing.  You’re a math guy.  Tell me how, even with a (family-friendly?) ‘missing middle’ transition zone at 4x the density of single family, putting apartments all up and down the corridor is going to allow for a balanced housing mix?   

There’s no evidence that the current urban market will self-compensate with more family-friendly housing.  I visited Vancouver last summer, a city way ahead of Austin in terms of transitional housing.  I witnessed the unbalanced redevelopment occurring in ‘near-downtown’ neighborhoods, and the homogenizing impact to services and demographics. It was a feedback loop.

Burnet can be child-friendly.  Not if the pedestrian focus is right along the side of the corridor. That’s crazy. The pedestrian focus needs to be a block off the corridor.  I do agree it’s currently hard to assemble properties for redevelopment at hubs.  CodeNext is supposed to simplify that.


[Patrick]  I don't know about Vancouver. I think the urban core there is quite expensive, which likely discourages families with children from living there, and the suburbs that I'm aware of are just outside the core neighborhoods with excellent bus service and other suburbs connected via an elevated rail system. The suburbs I've seen there are still close and connected, so more like Allandale than Round Rock.

[Steven]  Affordability and services mix are important, but the hard constraint on age diversity is housing mix.  Downtown Vancouver has a pocket neighborhood (False Creek near the science center) where the city required higher ratios of apartments designed for families.  The ratio of children there is above 10% of the population. Still not completely balanced.   But good for a downtown area, and spot-on consistent with that neighborhood’s housing mix.


Balanced Services


[Patrick]  BTW, your concern about losing family-oriented businesses on corridors is probably not a real worry. VMU requires ground floor commercial, and commercial space is way, way overbuilt all across the country. This is why there are so many half empty strip malls and dying shopping centers. Most developers who build VMU just write the required ground floor commercial off as a business loss and part of the cost of getting VMU residential. There is now and will continue to be plenty of space for daycares. What we really need is a few more family-oriented restaurants that serve real food. I am awfully tired of going to Phil's Ice House with the kids.


[Steven]  Yeah, Phil’s for all its awesomeness gets old.  But I stand by my remark that housing and retail mix are related.  VMU preserves, but doesn’t grow, the commercial space along Burnet.  What’s shrinking is the service area.  As congestion gets worse, you can no longer hop in your car and drive 2 miles across the city to some restaurant like we did when we were kids.   Your main choices are those within a walkable area (supplemented by the occasional transit trip).  And those choices are mainly defined by the local demographic. 

As big apartments fill in along the corridor, their sheer demographic weight determines what businesses go in adjacent. 


Balanced Policies


[Patrick] My favorite example of family-friendly urban is the Prenzlauer Berg district in Berlin, where I stayed a few years ago. Very densely developed (Berlin has virtually no single family homes -- everyone lives in multi-family housing) and crawling with kids and families. Wide sidewalks, generous bike lanes, abundant parks, and affordable housing are the only necessary ingredients for family friendliness. We can easily achieve that here as well, we just need the will to do so. In Berlin, affordable housing is a direct result of abundant housing and (until recently) a relatively stable population. Yeah, you live in multi-family rental housing, but most people's rents are less than my monthly property tax.


[Steven] Berlin sounds like a well-executed case of child-friendly urbanism.

It may be tricky to replicate in Texas. As you noted, Berlin’s population wasn’t growing wildly. Also, for decades after WWII, Berlin was either a walled-off island, or subject to diktat housing policies.  In Texas where land is abundant, the market is just pushing families into the suburbs.  We’d need firmer land development policies to get there.


[Patrick] Thanks. I'm a fairly solid supporter of using a density bonus program to achieve community goals. Requiring a decent mix of housing type/sizes perhaps would be a good thing to add to such incentives.


[Steven]  Density bonuses won’t get us there.  But a hard requirement could transform the Burnet Rd planning conversation.