The Austin area has, for the 5th year running, been among America’s two fastest-growingÂ major metro areas by population. Although everybody knows about the new apartments sprouting along transportation corridors like South Lamar and Burnet, much of the growth has been in ourÂ suburbs, and in suburban-style areas of the city. Our city is growing out more than up.
How come? The desire for living in central Austin has never been higher. ButÂ Austin, like mostÂ cities,Â has rules that preventÂ new housing from getting centrally built. That makes it easier to buy and build on virgin land in the suburbs. Here are some of those rules.
1 MINIMUM LOT SIZE
Historically, expensive houses wereÂ built on expensive, largeÂ lots; cheaper homes wereÂ built on smaller, cheaper lots. Austin decided that new houses canât beÂ built on small lots. Even if you want to build a small, cheap house, you still need a lot with at least 5,750 square feet.Â In central Austin, that costs a lot of money, even without theÂ house! If somebody owns a 10,000 square foot lot, they arenât allowed to split it into two 5,000 square foot lots and build two medium-sized houses, let alone three 3,333 square foot lots with three small houses, let alone three 3,333 square foot lots with triplexes!
2 MINIMUM SITE AREA
For areas that are zoned for apartments and condos, there is a cap on the ratio ofÂ number of apartments to lot size known as âminimum site area.â
3 IMPERVIOUS COVER MAXIMUMS
Impervious cover is any surface that prevents water from seeping into the ground, including buildings, driveways, andÂ garages.Â There is a cap on the ratio ofÂ impervious coverÂ to lot size.
4 FLOOR-TO-AREA RATIO MAXIMUMS
5 HEIGHT LIMITS
Outside the central business district downtown, there are limits on building heights. These limits vary based on zoning category,Â but except in a few special districts do not exceed 60 feet.Â Most residential lots inÂ the city have height limits of 35 feet.
6 MINIMUM PARKING
Outside downtown, all housing must buildÂ parkingâwhether surface parking, carports, or garages. These parking spaces cost money and count toward impervious cover limits. If they are enclosed, they count toward floor-to-area ratio limits.
Front, side, and rear setbacks are strips of land on the front, side, and rear of aÂ lotÂ where buildings arenât allowed to be built. Most importantly, side setbacks preventÂ the construction of rowhouses: single-family houses that share side walls.
8 COMPATIBILITY RESTRICTIONS
Single-family zoning and multi-family zoning are different categories with different limits on the variables above. However, if a multi-family zoned property is located next to aÂ single-family house, additional rules limitÂ these variables in the part of the lot close to the house, including height limits and setback requirements. There are very few properties in central Austin that arenât next to single-family homes.
9 SITE PLANS
WhetherÂ building single-family houses or apartments, one must comply with all the technicalÂ rules ofÂ development. For apartments,Â thereâs an additional layer of requirements, such as the creation of site plans with detailed engineering drawings subject to staff review. Single-family houses arenât required toÂ prepare site plans.
Getting site plan approvalÂ canÂ add a hugeÂ expense to apartment development–an expense unbearable for smaller, 3–4 unit projects. I sayÂ would not,Â because Austin has almost completely regulated 3-4 unit buildings out of existence. In 2015, there were only 76 permits for new 3-4 unit buildings, compared to 11,574 new single-family homes.
In many ways, Austin is headed in the wrong direction. The city is getting more expensive, more sprawled-out, and less environmentally sustainable. This results from the difficulty of building centrally. The more the cityâs population grows, theÂ harder it is for people to find affordable homes withÂ convenient, environmentally-friendly commutes. ManyÂ people are finding themselves not drawnÂ to the suburbs, butÂ pushed to the suburbsâcar-dependent and stuck in traffic by economic necessity.
Each of ourÂ rules were put into place for a reason. Limits on impervious cover regulateÂ stormwater drainage to prevent flooding. Front setbacks canÂ make sidewalks feel wider.Â Minimum parking rulesÂ discourageÂ residents fromÂ competing for on-street parking. But when combining the whole package, the result is that itâs extremely difficult to do the one thing we absolutely have to do for environmental sustainability: build housingÂ with short commutes. Instead of gettingÂ the sum of the benefits of these rules, we are gettingÂ the sum of the costs, leading to environmental destruction, economic hardship, and architectural conformity.Â And thatâs just in the short-term! Long-term, the results could be far worse.
AustinÂ needs more central-city housing. That doesnât mean that every one of these rules need to be removed, butÂ we need to understand why developers are making the choices they are.
[This post originally appeared on the blog Austin On Your Feet.]