LDC Rewrite Success

Metrics for a worthwhile LDC rewrite.

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The CodeNEXT-branded process is effectively over. A new land development code (LDC) rewrite plan will be developed by the City Manager. A successful LDC rewrite would:

  1. Meaningfully reduce the rate of housing cost increases
  2. Catalyze transportation mode shift away from single-occupant car commutes
  3. Increase economic and racial integration

These remain popular goals amongst Austin policymakers and leading civic figures, at least in terms of lip service. Because of the complexity of the land development code, there are many unsuccessful outcomes of the new LDC rewrite process that could be spun as major “victories” towards the above goals.

So, what is the minimum, measurable standard for each of these three goals that would represent a truly successful LDC rewrite?

For housing costs, the rewrite will need to map sufficient zoning capacity to ensure regional housing demand is met within the city limits at prices that provide lower income Austinites options to live near their jobs and/or within the boundaries of their preferred schools.

If we adjust Austin’s recently adopted “Strategic Housing Blueprint” to reflect the existing subsidized affordable housing gap and tight overall market, the required units needed to match regional housing growth over the next ten years equals 284,452 units.

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Seattle, a “progressive” peer city of sorts, adopted a zoning capacity factor of 300% desired unit growth. The Austin equivalent would be 853,356 units for the next decade. During its modern peak of affordability, Los Angeles had a zoning capacity of 400% existing units, which would be a zoned capacity of 1,590,548 units for the next decade of present-day Austin. Combine these numbers and you’d require at least 1.2 million new units in zoned capacity for the next decade. During the CodeNEXT process, City Council repeatedly struggled to grasp the connection between entitlement capacity and expected housing development.  Solidifying a proper, consensus model of that relationship should be an analytical priority for the LDC rewrite.

To create a car-independent majority in Austin by 2030, the share of transit commuters needs to increase by ten percentage points up to 14%.

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That’s roughly 68,000 units that need to shift to transit commutes during the coming decade. Even in the census tracts with the best transit service, at best a quarter of residents use transit for commutes. Assuming that this can improve to one-third transit mode share in the best-served tracts as a result of increased density (and sales tax dollars going to CMTA), then 204,000 units or approximately 70% of zoned capacity would need to be within 1/3 mile of an existing, planned, or viable transit service.

This means increases in zoned capacity near existing frequent bus lines and “corridors” (a “serving” strategy), but it also means aggressive increases in the “next” corridors and frequent bus routes that would be viable in West Austin and other affluent areas once transit-supportive land use was in place (a “shaping” strategy).

The top, middle, and bottom third of Austin census tracts by median income must each carry an equal load of new additional zoned capacity.  This goal will help reduce existing economic and racial segregation. Specifically, each of these three tiers would carry 400,000 new units of the next decade’s zoned capacity.

Finally, it is important that the individuals staffing the rewrite process ensure that the data and models used to build their recommendations are well-documented and released to the public in a timely manner.  It will be impossible to accurately discern the effects of proposed recommendations without access to the technical details of how those recommendations were formulated.

Put differently, we’ve all seen the result of someone trying to bake a complex cake without following a recipe or using measuring spoons. If policymakers and key City staff can’t coherently, publicly describe their planning “recipe” or how they measure their recommendations’ components, then it’s quite likely the end-product won’t be very appealing.

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