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. ;)
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.
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.
speaking rhetorically – you are a parent and very aware of this.
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.
[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.
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
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
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?
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
[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.
[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
[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.
[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.
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.
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.