5 Things We Learned From City Council’s Vote on Granny Flats

Yesterday, City Council voted to make it easier to build a backyard cottage (aka ADU, granny flat, garage apt, etc). Read the details at the Monitor. Here’s the lessons I took from the debate:

1. Party Labels Don’t help Understanding Land Use Politics

Kathleen Hunker from the conservative think thank Texas Public Policy Foundation spoke in favor of the ordinance from liberal Democrat Gregorio Casar.

The granny flat resolution was introduced by Greg Casar, whose main claim to fame before City Council was as a labor rights activist. It was supported by the Republicans on City Council: Zimmerman and Troxclair, as well as Sheri Gallo (who has previously run as a Republican) [edit: I previously listed CM Gallo as a Republican, but now I’m not so sure] and three other Democrats: Adler, Rentería, and Garza. The four democrats who supported are definitely not “conservative” democrats in any meaningful sense. To understand land use politics, it’s best to set aside party labels.

2. The new breed of Urbanist at City Council is the social Justice Urbanist

District 4 CM Greg Casar

This granny flat resolution was backed by urbanist organization AURA. It was originally introduced by urbanist Council Member Chris Riley. And it was seen past the finish line by CM Greg Casar.

But CM Casar didn’t come to the Council on a land use campaign with platform planks about zoning or parking restrictions; he was elected to Council on a platform of social justice and equity. Increasingly, though, he and other Council Members have seen many urbanist policies as boons for social justice.

3. There’s a majority for More transit-accessible Housing

This Council has not always been easy to predict. But this granny flat resolution was the second highly-contested land use case that took a long time to negotiate, but ended up in the same 7-4 vote. The interesting question to come is whether this group of 7 will start to see itself as a bloc and introduce more pro-housing ordinances, knowing that they probably have the votes to pass them.

4. Neighborhood Plan Politics Didn’t Work

Neighborhood Plans with and without the secondary apartment infill tool.
Neighborhood Plans with and without the secondary apartment infill tool.

One of the major objections to this plan from CM Kitchen was that, by passing new ordinances, City Council was usurping the role of neighborhood planning teams. This was frequently an effective tact in the previous Council, where all 7 Council Members were elected at large and all feared alienating the politically active planning team members.

But while neighborhood plans were of clear importance to CM Kitchen and MPT Tovo, many of the Council Members in the new council pushed back, seeing neighborhood plans as an exclusive tool of the central city, not available to many areas further from downtown or to those who have busy lives and can’t participate.

5. Parking Requirements can be changed near Transit

The Imagine Austin plan includes activity corridors.
The Imagine Austin plan includes activity corridors.

Minimum parking regulations are one of the hardest, most expensive pieces of building homes, especially smaller, more affordable homes. Yet, they are also politically hard to change, in part because most adults in the city drive.

To solve this chicken-and-egg problem, the Imagine Austin plan envisioned activity corridors, along which there would be better transit service. In this resolution, Council made use of those planning corridors by reducing parking requirements along them. This may point the way toward more parking requirement reductions for other types of housing near these corridors.

Another positive development (accessory units)

Following up on the positive development of Chris Riley and Bill Spelman pushing to lower parking and density requirements for small units along dense corridors, Riley is back at it, this time teaming up with Mike Martinez to lower parking and driveway requirements for accessory dwelling units (secondary structures in the backyard of single-family homes).  Chris Bradford and Steven Yarak have great rundowns on why the ordinance is needed so badly and how it could be even better if it applied to more ADUs.

Chris and Steven can give you a better overview than I can of why ADUs are needed and why parking and driveway requirements make it so hard to build.  So I’ll add a perspective that is so obvious it shouldn’t need to be stated, but now and again we do well to repeat: parking and driveway requirements are unfair, backwards, and detrimental all around.

I live in Austin without a car.  At many apartments I’ve lived in, a solid chunk of the land was (un)used for the worst possible thing: an empty parking space, reserved for the car I don’t have.  That land could’ve been a garden absorbing rainfall and preventing runoff; it could’ve been an outdoor patio, providing me and the other residents with a place to enjoy the weather; it could’ve been more housing, allowing for me to split the costs of housing with another resident or roommate.  Is it useful or fair to require every resident of Austin that doesn’t have a car to still pay the costs of maintaining an empty parking space (and often driveway) next to their home?  Is it beneficial to the city or the planet to encourage residents to drive, over using choices like riding public transit or bikes?  (Crib sheet: answers are no and no.)

Even if I did have a car, though, requiring a reserved parking space for my home still wouldn’t make sense.  I lived in each case on streets with a significant share of their street space reserved for the sole purpose of parking automobiles. The city goes to almost incalculable expense to reserve space along almost every street for no purpose other than parking cars; yet frequently that space goes unused.  It is as if the city spent billions of dollars establishing swimming pools throughout every neighborhood, only to mandate that most private homes have swimming pools to ensure that the public swimming pools didn’t get overused.  Except, subsidizing swimming to that extent, while not a great use of funds, might at least be good for the health and enjoyment of the city, while subsidizing parking encourages emissions and traffic.

Likely, some of those who oppose the reduction in parking and driveway requirements don’t really want the parking requirements specifically; they just know that without them, there would be more ADUs, and they oppose that.  To the extent that this is true, it is a real shame.  The city requires a ton more parking spaces, driving up costs, harming the environment, and subsidizing traffic, all because some who couldn’t get the political forces necessary to achieve their (bad) objective of banning ADUs found a way of doing it by making it practically banned instead of actually banned.

I’m far from the only, first, or best person to make these points about parking.  If you’re interested in learning more, I suggest checking out Graphing Parking, a blog by Austin’s own Seth Goodman; Reinventing Parking, the internationally-themed group blog he participates in, and the canonical work, The High Cost of Free Parking, by UCLA professor Donald Shoup.