Boyt Interview – Details on Preserving Affordability, Livability

This is the second of four interviews with City Council District 7 candidate Jeb Boyt on his candidacy and the issues identified in the candidate scorecard. The interviews are organized as follows:

*     Top Priorities, Experience, Community Involvement
*     Livability, Affordability and Housing
*     Transportation, Open Space and Infrastructure
*     Public Safety, Small Business, and City Budget

How do you define a neighborhood? What features make one successful?

You know it’s a big issue in the city – what is a neighborhood.

To a certain extent there are geographic boundaries – major roadways, the river. Other things can help to establish what a neighborhood is. Certainly it’s a cohesive area of housing – principally single family housing. That’s the core of our neighborhood, in Austin, and really that’s the core of neighborhoods. And also there’s the local services associated with the housing.

Allandale’s an interesting example. So Anderson Ln, between Mopac and Burnet, down to Hancock/45th – it’s kind of blurry down there about where the boundaries actually are. And in some cases there’s some real differences in the neighborhood between north of 2222 and south of 2222. Some of that’s the nature of the building types – south of 2222 there’s more services, it’s more walkable in general. The houses are built mostly before 1960. Whereas north of 2222, the houses are mostly built after 1970, I think.

Do you see Downtown as a neighborhood?

Yes and no. Yes it is a neighborhood – DANA, the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association thinks of itself as a neighborhood. The people who live there…. I mean it’s a different type of neighborhood, certainly.   But actually downtown is several neighborhoods. So there’s like the DANA part, which is sort of the urban core. Then you’ve got Rainey, which is different. And of course we’ve seen transition – 10 years ago it was much more of what we think of as a neighborhood than it is now. You’ve got the Regional West Austin neighborhood, which is the area south of 15th, I think. Then you’ve got Judge’s Hill. Those are all part of Downtown. Then we’ve got the old neighborhood that used to be around Waterloo Park, northeast of the Capitol, that of course the state has now bulldozed, so that there’s almost nothing left of that neighborhood. And it’s a great example of what we DON’T want to see happen.

Should neighborhoods be specialized, or should any kind of neighborhood appeal to any kind of person?

West Campus is always going to have a super focus. Downtown is going to appeal to people who want to live in high-rise condos principally, because that’s the predominant built housing type. There’s some other housing types, but certainly it’s going to be people used to the idea of living in close proximity, with commercial services in close proximity, and no lawns.

But generally, ideally you’ll have a range of uses and building types. The idea is that people can live in a neighborhood through all stages of their life. We think of Allandale as predominantly owner-occupied single family homes. We have a certain number of rental properties. But there’s a certain number of apartments and a fair number of students who live in those apartments, that are a part of our neighborhood. There should be opportunities for seniors to live in housing, remain in the neighborhood without having to maintain the burden of a single family home.

One of the more controversial votes by the current Council involved a proposal to regulate how businesses can offer single-family homes for short-term lease – in effect micro-hotels in residential neighborhoods. Many Austin residents oppose Commercial Short-Term Rentals (CSTRs) for fear that they will undermine the strong sense of local community that helps to make Austin so livable. Tourism and real estate groups, some homeowners, and especially the Austin-based company HomeAway, countered that some regulation is better than no regulation, but that restrictions shouldn’t undermine the economy. Council approved an ordinance that defines CSTRs, regulates them, and restricts their number in a given census tract to 3% of single family residences.   Did they get it right? How would you have voted?

They also made them pay taxes, which is huge. That is a very important thing.

I would have voted in favor of putting them under regulation. We do need to see how the regulations work. There have been problems with short term rentals. I have heard friends here in Allandale who’ve had problems with the short term rentals. My folks have had some problems with people who took over a house near them and during SXSW were having wild parties. So I’m well aware, there are definitely problems out there. And the fact that they were not paying hotel/motel taxes was a big problem. I’m also in favor of revisiting the regs to make sure they’re actually working. I’m hearing a lot of concerns from the people who own the rentals saying that it’s too burdensome, really difficult to comply. And we want to make sure that people do comply.

It can also be an aspect of affordability – if you have a room, a garage apartment that you can rent out for short-term rentals, or if you move into the garage apartment and rent your house out, that can be a way for people to stay.

Should there be any distinction between rentals that are purely commercial, versus ones where people still live on site?

One of the big concerns was the lack of accountability – who do you call when there is a problem. I think that’s a pretty structural difference between ones where the owner lives on site, where they know, they have ongoing relationships – onsite or next door. As opposed to ones where the owners live whereever. You may or may not know who the owner is, you may have more relationship with the property management company than you do with the owner. So yeah, it seems appropriate to make a distinction in those cases.

Another controversial vote this last year involved approval of a local bar, Little Woodrow’s, on Burnet Rd. Rick Engel, the bar owner, said he was drawn to the changing demographics along Burnet, and that his bar would help to activate the corridor and still be family-friendly by sharing the site with a pizza restaurant.   Opponents charged that the bar’s 2 AM weekend hours of operation, lack of sufficient parking, and proximity to an existing bar, would start to shape a SoCo-style bar district with serious livability impacts for adjacent residents. Council voted 4-3 to approve a conditional use permit, with restrictions including 1 AM weekend hours, noise restrictions, and a bigger parking requirement. How would you have voted?

I thought it was 12 am? 1 am? That’s troublesome.

That’s actually two blocks from my house. I did not get very involved in that issue at all, and did not follow the details of it. I’m a little dubious of the parking plan. We’re going to have to see how that works. But part of the issue is the odd shape of that lot. We’ve got a lot that has a street on the back side. You know the homeowners who live behind the lot, from their front yard you can still see Burnet Rd. So that’s just a condition of where they are.

I’m not so concerned about the bar district. In that place now we’ve got Monkey Nest, we’ve got Big Hat, we’ve got the BBQ place, we’ve got Ginny’s Little Longhorn, Lucy’s Fried Chicken, the Peach Tortilla’s opening shortly. Little Woodrows – whereever – there’s no sign of that. That property needs to be redeveloped. It’s been a closed real estate office for a while. So I don’t know how I would have voted as that deal finally got shaped up.

I would certainly hope under the new system, it’s a good example how I would hope that Council members would have a chance to mediate neighborhood concerns well before the project got to the Planning Commission stage – try to work something out. And as I said, we’ll have to keep an eye on the parking. I’m very dubious about discounting parking requirements based on providing parking spaces for Car2Go. I like Car2Go; I’m not very fond of dedicating spaces to Car2Go. Also, it is a very walkable area, and you’ve got the new apartments opening right nearby. But still, on Sunday afternoons, when Ginny has their big days, there are people parking blocks deep into the neighborhood. That’s only one day a week. And it varies, it’s not that bad some days. It’s not that big of a problem right now. But if it turned into a people parking all the time, big crowds and late night problems, that’d be a different story.

One of the proposals floated for the CodeNext zoning reform involves scrapping rules like the tree ordinance that protect mature trees on properties subject to redevelopment. Developers argue that rules like this hamstring their projects, hurt the economy and affordability. They want more flexible rules, in this case the option to replant trees of equivalent value at a different location. Many residents argue that large trees are priceless, and fear replacement trees will be somewhere other than where they are needed, in dense urban areas. Would you keep the tree ordinance or revise it?

I would tend to keep the tree ordinance, as it now stands. There is a provision for replacing trees already in the ordinance. But it’s hard, and it’s also very expensive, and it’s risky to try to replace mature trees. The services of an existing mature tree are the key factor.

That said, sometimes it can create difficulties. The two notable cases, recently, there was the tree adjacent to a new condo project on Shoal Creek. That project’s going forward. As I remember, the tree stayed in place. But then you look at the flip side, which is the guy out in Oak Hill, who pretty much scraped a lot, cut down all the mature trees. That’s very problematic. We need to make it clear that there are penalties that apply in those instances.

How would you make Austin affordable?

It’s all about supply. Short-term is really all about supply. And that’s a tough thing to address. A large part of the problem is that we’re lagging way behind, especially in multi-family housing. We’ve got 97% apartment occupancy rate. Houses that go on the market are sold within days. We’re not going to get a handle on affordability until we can bring those metrics down.

We can permit and try to build more apartments. We’ve been pretty aggressive about that already so far. Under the current rules there’s a limit to what we can do.

How about long-term affordability?

Longer term – CodeNext offers a lot of opportunities for improving affordability. Right now, the code is a mess. The Diagnosis Report did a great job of identifying the top 10 problem areas in the code. Everybody acknowledges there’s problems in the code. It’s just really hard to read or understand. We need clear base zoning levels. The problem is how do we clean it up, how do we get it fixed. In the best case, we’re talking about 2016 before we can actually approve the changes in the code. So it doesn’t take so long to get projects approved, it’s clear and easy for staff and builders to actually understand how to work under the code. Making it so that people don’t have to hire architects if they want to remodel their houses.

You’re looking at affordability from a housing perspective.

Yes, but the building rules and the code approval process applies to commercial uses as well. You know business owners – we’ve seen some real horror stories about how long it’s taken folks and how much it’s cost them to remodel.

People will also talk about things like reducing utility rates, or other short-term tools to improve affordability

Certainly we can look at the utility rates, minimize increases, especially right now, particularly the water utility rates are the issue of great concern. And then again, we talk about Accessory Dwelling Units, there’s the ordinance amendment that Riley and, was it Martinez the other sponsor? put forth a few weeks ago, making it easier to build some accessory dwelling units. That’s a short-term opportunity for us to try to do something in the next two years.

But the baseline things – every year the Council is looking at utility rates, the Council’s looking at the tax rate, and keeping those as low as possible, while maintaining the services that we’re looking for.

One of the things I’m exploring in these interviews is the candidates’ sense of trade-offs. One trade-off with added housing is more traffic. The farther you put housing from transit, the more congestion. Is our affordability crisis so bad in this city that we should be adding new housing in areas well away from transit, in single-family cores? ADU’s as proposed would apply to all single-family housing.

I’m unpacking your question here. So the old model has been ‘drive until you can buy.’ And that’s really not working any more, because people are just having to spend so much time in their cars. It’s creating real dollar costs, time costs, time away from family. We are seeing lots of single family homes being built around Manor and Elgin. It is amazing, everytime I go to the airport early in the morning, to see the amount of people coming in from Lockhart. I HATE driving to Bastrop these days – that area has turned into this crazy corridor, folks driving in. So there’s a lot of single family housing being built outside the city limits. Even inside the city limits, especially on the East side we’ve got some opportunities to build. Certainly building more housing, especially denser housing, closer to transit networks, or in the community centers, as part of the Comprehensive Plan, allows them to be more easily served by transit.

I think most people get that. I think the question is as you taper away from those transit options, do you still add density – where’s the balance?

Yeah, the idea is nodal density. In many ways it’s the old village model. You have cities with a village outside, so you can go out to the village, walk to your house, take a bike or get picked up by your partner and get taken home. This model works really well. But the key question is making it easy and efficient to actually serve and get people out there.

But so like accessory housing, would you allow it anywhere in the urban core?

That gets into questions of lot size. And the off-street parking question associated with that. But generally, I think – yes. It’s worth considering.

Another issue is making sure we have an abundant amount of housing of all types. One of the things we haven’t done well is, during the bust years, from 1985 to 1990, we didn’t build much multifamily housing in the core. And that’s a large part of our problem right now is that we have that deficit we’re trying to make up. We also haven’t been building duplexes, and oddly enough we don’t build many townhomes either. So those are housing types that could provide some real affordable alternatives. The triple decker is another option that’s popular in Chicago – three flats above each other. Rowhouses also. Those would help.

But again, you do have to taper. This also gets into the compatibility question, and how that is going to work out. Having denser construction along the transit corridors and in the centers, and then having multi-family and other housing in sort of a transitional zone, and then going out to the single family housing.

A prominent affordability goal of the CodeNext zoning rewrite is to expand middle-density zoning categories, like duplexes, four-plexes, eight-plexes. It has also been proposed to simplify building accessory housing on SF properties, like granny flats. Opponents argue that such housing tends to suffer maintenance problems, brings in short-duration residents uninvested in their communities, strains infrastructure, and adds more traffic to residential streets. Do you support or oppose such housing, and why?

Those are all the trade-offs. Most of those are true. Not so sure about the traffic issue.

Also, we need to be looking at context, and getting the right mix of housing. Like duplexes – some places along Parmer, there are a lot of duplexes. And they actually probably need more owner-occupied housing. So you have to look at the existing mix of an individual neighborhood. Yes we have the overall approach that we’re looking to take through the Comprehensive Plan by diversifying housing types. How it gets carried out in individual neighborhoods – it’s going to have to be context-sensitive.

Austin is losing families. We have a feedback loop where childless households with more money and desire shape market demand, the market builds mostly 1-BR units that exclude families, the retail and services become less family-friendly, school quality suffers, and so fewer families try to enter that market.

Should we be zoning in a way that adds more family-friendly housing in areas that want to remain family-friendly, or should we zone for housing that best meets market demand?

It’s easier to affect supply and demand. Getting into the demographics can be more challenging. We have this weird problem of fewer people living in bigger houses. The average house has increased like 50% since 1983. A large part of this is houses without kids, or just fewer people. My mom grew up in a small house with her mother, her brother, her aunt and her grandmother. Folks don’t tend to live in multi-generational homes anymore. Now we are seeing kids come back and live with their folks – talking about boomerangs. Some of that is good in that it’s multigenerational. Some of it, in that they’re economically limited in their options – that’s not good. But to a certain extent, the nuclear family – parents and kids with no connections to grandparents, aunts, etc. – is kind of a relic of post-war affluence.

There’s also the generational turn-over factor in the neighborhoods. It’s interesting – when I moved into Allandale in the mid-1990s, there were almost no kids in the neighborhood. And the only kids who were around were in junior high school. Now there are bunches of kids. Mostly younger kids as new families have moved in. And it comes as supply opens up – folks move away, they decide they don’t want a big house. Older folks move out of the neighborhood for various reasons.

One of the things this question is trying to highlight is – with your single family housing stock, that rotation can happen. You can go from gobs of kids to empty nesters, and then have a new generation of families move in. With your concentrated apartment blocks of 1-bedroom units, you can’t do that, because families can’t use those apartments. Or if they do, it’s because those apartments are so old and run-down and that’s the only affordable housing…

Well that’s what you don’t want to do. And again you have to look at the larger neighborhood context. You know, how many of those apartment blocks of that type are being built in the neighborhood. Is it the first, the second? Is it the fifth? That’s starting to get a concern. But you know the only neighborhood that started to look like that was Riverside. And even some of the apartments there used by students were two-bedroom apartments. Certainly I know the project on Burnet next to Little Woodrow’s has a mix of one-bedroom and two-bedroom units.

But you’re right, families mostly want 2- and 3-bedroom units. So it can be tough.

But back to the original question – it is hard to manage demographics with zoning policy. Are you saying we shouldn’t try to do that?

I’m not sure that there’s a place for that, and I think it’s better to focus on the supply side, because I think it’s the one thing we can really control. But balancing the demographics by looking at the range of housing types that are available in any neighborhood or even smaller than a neighborhood, any stretch of a transit corridor.

See also:

Boyt Interview:  Top Priorities, Experience, Community Involvement
District 7 Candidates Page