Austin is revamping its land development code (i.e. “zoning”) in a project known as CodeNext. It would be difficult to overstate how important this process is. As I have said, zoning really is the central problem in Austin, as in many other cities. Circumstances change and when cities don’t adjust to the changing circumstances, you end up with policies that don’t match the problems that the city is facing. In a city faced with too many people driving too far and too many people driving until they qualify because central city housing is so expensive, Austin’s tight restrictions on multifamily development in the central city are really a bad leftover from a previous century.
CodeNext’s current round of public meetings is framed less on change, though, but more on maintaining continuity. This is how they describe it in the email they sent:
CodeNEXT is an unprecedented opportunity for Austinites to shape the way we live now and for generations to come. To be effective in framing how land can be used throughout the city, a revised Land Development Code should consider the unique character found in different types of neighborhoods throughout Austin. That’s where you come in. [emphasis in original]
We’re inviting you to walk your own neighborhood and document the features that make it unique. What do homes in your community look like? Your streets? Businesses nearby? Anyone can do it and we’ll show you how!
Although the framing here hints at things other than maintaining physical infrastructure (types of businesses), the majority of this framing is built around the idea of the “character” of a neighborhood reflecting the physical infrastructure of buildings, and nothing more. I believe this is a mistake.
People Change Even When Buildings Don’t
I believe the buildings-first perspective is a poor perspective from which to guide policy. As Edward Glaeser wrote in his book Triumph of the City: “Cities aren’t strcutures; cities are people.” In the places where central Austin’s physical infrastructure has stayed pretty much the same over the last few decades, the neighborhoods have changed in character greatly. I have friends who bought starter homes in sketchy neighborhoods and now live in expensive homes in swanky neighborhoods, all without either moving or the buildings around them changing much. The difference is that more people want to live in that neighborhood now, driving prices up.
Supply, Demand, and Price
In any market, including the housing market, supply and demand together determine the price. In the housing market, the supply are the homes, the demand is the number of people who want to live in those homes (and the amount those people are willing to pay). As time goes by, more and more people want to live in Austin, through many processes: natural growth as people have children, those kids grow up and move out to places on their own; a lot of urbanization as people move from the rest of Texas to live in Austin, and some cross-country migration as people generally move from the Northeast to sunnier places in the South and Southwest. That is to say, the demand for living in Austin has gone up dramatically, and is currently trending upward.
So, the question for “community character” is: which determines a community’s character more: the price of living there, or the present form of buildings. Preserving the character of the supply of buildings in the face of new demand means allowing all the change to come in the form of swings in price, as has happened in many places in Austin. Preserving the character of housing prices (e.g. “a good place for starter homes”, “an affordable neighborhood”) in the face of rising demand means changing the supply dramatically.
When it comes my turn to participate in the CodeNext hearings, I will express my preference for preservation through change: preserve (and restore) household affordability by changing the character of zoning constraints on supply.