Zone Interview – Details on Keeping Livable, Affordable Neighborhoods

This is the second of four interviews with City Council District 7 candidate Melissa Zone on her 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?

A neighborhood is walking out your door, you see your neighbor, you wave, maybe one neighbor’s working in their yard, you can walk to your Walgreens, get a shake at Sonic. You’re able to walk, or if you’re leaving to go to work, you’ve got a bus stop right near the corner. Maybe you have to drive that day, but you forgot to get gas – you’re close by.   We hardly ever have to leave this area, unless we choose to. That’s a neighborhood.

You know the residents. My garage door’s open at a certain time of day, and there’s no cars. You know one of my neighbors is going to mention it, or somehow get a hold of us.

Little Deli’s – that’s a neighborhood – people come there, they hang out, everyone’s friendly. It seems kind of 50’s utopia, but it works, and it works without forcing it. That’s what we like here. We like that the homes have unique characters, even though at one time they might have looked the same. We love that character.

Is Downtown a Neighborhood?

Sure. You could have a high-rise that could become a neighborhood. In Cleveland there’s an area called Reserve Square –they have a grocery store, dry cleaners, a little police unit with an officer who knows the community. So there’s services – a work out room, a pool, and bus stops conveniently located.

You see down by Luke’s Locker at Lamar – there’s a couple of new high-rises there. They provide those amenities. Those young people – they can go jogging on the trail, walk over to Whole Foods, go shopping for their clothes. It’s all right in there. Defining a neighborhood should be what someone wants personally, but you need to have your needs provided.

Should neighborhoods specialize, or should any neighborhood be a place that works for anybody?

When you say specialize, what do you mean by that?

CodeNext talks about neighborhood character, neighborhoods have different character. But Imagine Austin expresses goals in a way that apply universally – all development should appeal to all ages, all incomes.

There’s sense of place. I was talking about that at my kick-off – Burnet Rd is a sense of place. You drive down there, and you feel when this area was developed. Even though there’s some new development, you still feel like this was developed in the 50s. There’s a charm to that.   Savannah Georgia. You see the plantation homes. You go into New Orleans and you see these homes, and even though there might be some density intermingled in there, but you still have that feeling and that charm. I think Austinites particularly like that. And I think that people who are coming here like that uniqueness about Austin.

And we’re losing it. South Austin’s a great example – Phil [Zone’s husband] has some cousins who live down there. You have those cute 900 sq ft cottages. The lots got assembled, and they’re demolished and replaced by condos. You lose that funky hippiness.

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?

Yeah, it’s funny, because the original resolution draft allowed CSTRs in 3% of a zip code. And then Riley changed it from zip code to census tract. That didn’t change much. The census tracts in the south are much smaller than in the north of our district. 3% CSTRs up in the area of the northwest area of our district doesn’t impact us as much as it would if you were in Crestview, Brentwood, Allandale, Rosedale.

Why is that?

Because the homes are farther apart. In the northwest there’s a section by Howard Ln, they’re on an acre tract.

So you’re saying there’s more space around the house, so it insulates you from your neighbor?

Whereas here, I’ll know if there’s cars coming in and out so often.

What I found interesting about that, is that we’re giving short term rentals, and it serves a purpose – I understand that, because it was inherently here, people have always used it for ACL and SXSW. So in a way we’d be taking away this right that people have had. But at a time when we have shortage of housing availability, we’re now giving, we’re turning certain structures into short-term rentals, when they could have been a rental for that PhD student who doesn’t want to live on campus because it’s not their lifestyle. Somebody who’s just entering the work force and can use an accessory dwelling unit. Or the family who moves here because they got a job at one of the tech companies and they don’t want to buy immediately. So they lose out that opportunity. So, we create a shortage of housing opportunities for renters. And that part troubled me.

The other thing was they estimated this influx of short term rentals, and we didn’t get it. People aren’t registering. That’s another concern. Are we still having it but they’re not using it? The ones who are using it, there’s a lot of them who are investors and real estate companies who can charge more, so now they’re getting around the hotel taxes. And that’s money that should be cutting taxes for the rest of us.

Isn’t that part of what the ordinance was supposed to address?

It was supposed to address, but they’re still not registering.

So you’re saying enforcement is the question.

Yes, enforcement’s important. The short-term rentals, they did it too quick. In that, they put it out there without looking at everything. And I understand why HomeAway wanted it, that’s what their business was founded on. But if you’re having too many of them in a neighborhood, you’re now losing [revenue to fund] services because if you study this budget, single family homes pay the biggest property tax bill. So now it becomes rental property, or used in a different way, are they still paying their fair share? Yes, some argue that people using the STRs are going to be out spending more sales tax. There might be a trade. But I didn’t think the way they went about it was the most appropriate.

And the sides were too angry. What’s a shame is that at one time, both sides had come to a consensus. And I think we could have come to a consenus again, had they not rushed it. And that’s one of the big problems with the City is they rush through a lot of major issues. And they rush through it because they don’t want to have to deal with the public. And that’s a shame. HomeAway would have still been fine, and you know, how do we enforce that anyway. They’re not registering.

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?

The parcel could easily have brought traffic onto those residential streets right there. That’ve been a really big concern of mine.

I would have made Rick Engel work with them more. His representative said, “Oh we did,” but then you heard the residents who said he really wasn’t. Maybe where my mediation background comes into play, is you bring opposing sides together and reach a consensus. You know, Burnet Rd’s changing, and it is a desirable place. It makes sense because it’s on a major arterial. I would have definitely limited the hours, no outside amplified sounds. In terms of the parking requirement, that’s an issue where we’re trying to make it a walkable city. But you can sometimes limit a use by limiting the hours and as well as the parking requirements.

You would limit the parking?

No, I’m saying that’s the intent of Imagine Austin. But you could use parking in this manner to increase or have them make sure they have parking. They have those businesses back there. What is the intent of those businesses going to be – that pizza place back there, are they going to provide parking back there? There was just a lot of stuff that wasn’t discussed when I watched the Council session.

I don’t want it to sound like a cliché, but I really think the property owners who were adjacent should have been there at the beginning, talking with him. What about vegetative buffers? Create the setbacks and create vegetative buffers, some trees and bushes that help absorb the sound. Limit the access just onto Burnet.

I probably would have went with the residents just watching it, because they were just so passionately angry and upset, which said that they were not given the proper due process. Or at least postponed it and gone to the arbitration meeting.

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 like the tree ordinance. I don’t even like that they waiver more than they do already. I think it’s a shame. And if they were going to replant trees, they should replant them on site. They should not move them somewhere else. There are some trees that do well, even large mature trees, pick them up and plant them somewhere else. But look at the water you’re wasting, the run-off, those deep roots. If I was going to revisit the tree ordinance, I would make it harder to remove them.

How would you make Austin affordable?

We need to extend our incentives for affordable housing to the work force development housing, and not waiver. We have affordable housing density bonuses, but it’s downtown, and it’s in TOD [transit-oriented development] zoning. I think we could extend it along major corridors, and they [developers] don’t waiver and do payment-in-lieu. A lot of developers downtown have been using that payment-in-lieu option. Well it’s cheaper for them, and they don’t have to put it on site. For affordability, fine downtown, but in the neighborhoods, that’s a good one. And the reason why too, is because in the houses that sell, sell at a smaller rate which then helps offset someone else’s coming in.

I really want to explore full disclosure of commercial properties – that’s another excellent option that we could probably adopt as a home rule city.

Transportation impact fees – that gives us less dependency on bonds, which means less money we’re paying in our property taxes.

There’s another option, I don’t know how people feel about it – maybe a 10-year tax abatement for qualifying home buyers. If they move during that time and they took the abatement, you pay back those 10 years in taxes. You could put a tax lien on their house to make sure they pay it back – can’t sell your home without it.

Reform of corporate incentives. Programs that will help low-income people in low-income housing and seniors. So the incentives could then go to helping them. Tax breaks to corporations hurt us. That makes housing more expensive.

Because we’re not getting as much revenue and so …higher taxes?

So tell me more about transportation impact fees. What scale are you talking about?

New development. When a developer comes in and buys land… it might not work for us in the southern part of the district, but all that land in the northwest and northeast of the district, they’re going to need infrastructure up there. Well what ends up happening is they buy that land and we’re going to build right here, and the city has to go in and build the roads to provide the services. Well you require them to build it.

And that’s how it works in Florida?

That is how it works in Florida. Now there are council people or commissioners who will waive these fees, but the ordinance says it’s required. And it works in Ft Worth, Texas, and they’re successful at it.

It doesn’t pay for a deficit that’s already there. If it’s on a failing road, you can’t charge them money to fix the failing road. You could only charge for new impacts on the neighborhood that they’re adding. That might be, like putting a stacking lane, or fixing the intersection improvements.

So you have to be careful how you use it, but Ft Worth has a great program. It’s not as extensive as Florida’s, but they’re doing it here, and they’re doing a great job.

So how do you achieve affordability over the long term?

Now we’re providing this density bonus [some zoning categories allow developers more building height in return for providing affordable units]. So what you do is put restrictions on that housing, like a zero lien. Say you buy a home, when you turn around to sell it, you can’t sell it – the lien triggers.

So you get density bonuses. You cap your density for say a 4-story project, and they want to go higher. Or maybe they’re wanting to do a development up in the northeast or northwest. The code says 8-units per acre. The developer wants 16 units an acre to make the project work. Well 20% of the additional units need to be affordable. But we would make that in perpetuity, by putting a lien on those affordable housing units so that when they get resold, we know they will still stay affordable.

So you’re talking about a mechanism to make sure affordable units don’t get flipped at market rates.

And that’s the long term. It helps to keep taxes low as well, because it continues to stay in that inclusionary housing. You know it’s risky here in Texas, and some will say no, but inclusionary housing is a density bonus program that we can do. You’ve got to put your affordable housing on site. That keeps taxes lower too.

We’ve had a lot of examples of variance requests for higher density up until now. But if you’re going to form-based code where everything, the height, is already defined in respect to what’s next to it, are you still going to have these types of requests?

Sure, they’re going to be even worse, because you’re going to have to do density on a floor-area ratio (FAR). If you do form-based code, they’re going to come in and go, in order for this project to work, I’m going to have to go up 60 ft. Even though we’re capped at say 45 ft. Well, right there that extra feet is going to increase density.

But if you’ve already defined the transition zones around that site and the relative heights…

You don’t think they aren’t going to come in and ask for more?

You’re thinking the City’s going to allow them to do it?

No, I don’t know if they’ll be allowed to do it. But I’m saying that with these form-based codes, there’s still a mechanism to allow them to go in and ask for more. And the misconception about form-based code – they can still come in and ask for more. And you do density by floor-area ratio, so you’ll be able to determine the size. And you can kind of determine the size, unless they want to do all efficiencies.

Do you support adding more housing?

We do need more housing, absolutely. Do we need to demolish the interior of our single-family neighborhoods to provide it? Absolutely not. No. And you can’t convince me, because there’s been studies at the Brookings Institute, Urban Land Institute, there’s studies done by the London School Economics, that say, you have a greater return on sustainability and you do more for the environment and sustainability when you go from low density to mid density, than if you went from low density to high density, or if you went from mid density to high density. So your greatest impact is just from low to mid. Everything else, not that it doesn’t work, because you’ve got Manhattan and all of that. But the point is, our greatest impact is because we’re doing this to be sustainable. If you use the sustainable argument, then all these studies – I’m very impressed with the Brookings Institute and the Urban Land Institute – they’ll tell you that low to mid is where you get the greatest achievement.

The other thing, in the London School of Economics there was a study maybe a year and a half ago where they talked about in economics there’s a human factor. Once you reach a certain height, you start to lose the human factor, because it becomes just these tunnels. Yeah you can put wind turbines to help circulate the air, but you get that dark – in New York people are angry. You need that light factor.

When you say low density to medium density, what’s your definition of low?

Going from 1 dwelling unit an acre to sixteen units an acre isn’t as sustainable for a city as going from 1 dwelling unit to say, eight or ten per acre.

I think Crestview in some parts is five to six. We’re in a five. We’re about 1/5th acre [per lot]. That is mid-range. And it depends. In New York, density’s double digits. You can’t compare us to that. But you can typically in the plan we think of eight dwelling units…

Let me take you to the next question since you’re verging into it anyway… middle density 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?

An owner occupied, meaning like the owner has to be on the premises, those Accessory Dwelling Units work, because there’s more accountability. Because the owners have that person to go to. So I think having an ADU is great because if we wanted to have someone, we would be great landlords, because we’re here. Maybe Phil’s son wants to live with us for a summer or a year. That’d be a great starting point. But if we have a house and then we have an accessory dwelling unit, and then we’ve converted our garage, now all of a sudden it’s almost like a mini-hotel, isn’t it? Because we’ve got three…

We went looking for housing when we were going to buy. There were several times when there would be five guys in a three bedroom house. Some are using the living room. And it’s because it wasn’t owner-occupied. So that part I’m not comfortable with at all. I understand them restricting the parking. They said, oh, now it’s more impervious area. Correct, and there’s no way to know if that tenant who says “no I don’t have a car” if they do have a car or not.

When you say restricting the parking…

Part of the ADU requirement was to get away from the parking code.

They’re saying you don’t have to provide extra parking or a driveway…

Right. Right. And so I think you have to have 25 ft for the car. So striking that out means that now the cars are on the street. We have cars on our street all the time because of the church. Some homeowners park on the street because they use their garage as storage, and there might be four people living there. So how do you account for more parking on the street. So that part I’m more cautious about. What they do down south is the residential parking permit.   So if you’re renting to someone and they say they don’t have a car, maybe they don’t get a parking permit. That’s not a full answer, but these are things I would explore. The main thing, I think, is to have the owner on site.

Did you want to say anything about duplexes, fourplexes?

Fourplexes if designed properly, they don’t detract from a single family neighborhood. But if you’re allowing fourplexes where they choose, eventually you’re going to wipe out a whole single family row. In that case, maybe it’s limiting or spacing them. You have a duplex or a fourplex, but maybe you’re having them in the transition zones, which then that works fine. Or if you’re putting them in the interior, then they’re limited to every 5,000 feet. I’m not a complete zero-no absolutely not, but it can’t be carte blanche.

On the Ryan property next to Crestview Station, you support the neighborhood position of dedicating the entire site to a neighborhood park. Affordable housing advocates want part of the site for housing. Is that site an appropriate location for affordable housing?

We wanted affordable housing in Crestview Station. The ordinance said 20% of the housing in Crestview Station had to be affordable housing. And they adopted it – they said the Ryan Property was going to be the park.

Then Council made the decision to waiver the affordable housing. We didn’t say no to affordable housing. In fact we told them we wanted affordable housing in there. We pushed for affordable housing. Council made the decision not to do it. And then, now to make up for it, you want to make [the Ryan property] public housing. Shame on you! You waived it. The developer could have done it like Mueller. And now you’re going to take it away and say, this little parcel that was designated as a park, you added the word AFTER adoption – ‘potential’ came in.

So my issue was, you were pinning the group of residents in Crestview who voted strong for affordable housing bonds both times, and previous elections have always come out, I think we’re like 70% for affordable housing, much larger than the city as a whole. We just want them to…

Pony up the open space?

Exactly. The Huntsman tract [an industrial property that became the core of Crestview Station] included 13 acres for park space. And then the City didn’t want to maintain it, so they gave it to the North Optimists. That was [originally supposed to be] our park. You owe us a park. You chose to forego affordable housing, not us.

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?

Our school population has decreased by almost half in our area. That’s significant. Downtown – they almost closed a school because there’s no one to use it. I mean the few families had to fight to keep that school open. And I don’t blame the schools to say we can’t maintain this building.

It’s expensive.

It’s extremely expensive. So I do think if there’s a school in the neighborhood, you need to have something that says, this school cannot run on 300 students – we need to have housing to support the school. Otherwise it becomes a blighted area. Absolutely.

And I don’t think we should be giving incentives to developers who are building 1-BR or efficiency dwelling units either. Because you are now offsetting with the school. And that’s a health issue for the community. Because the school people are home, they’re there, there’s kids. That whole environment. If they were wanting us to be a city that is of just thirty year olds, then just come right out and tell us. Don’t try to squirrel it in the code. Just come out and tell us and then we’ll know what we’re fighting.

There’s also housing and mobility policies that we need to develop to keep seniors and people with disabilities in their homes too. So school, but then there’s also affordability for seniors – people aren’t looking at them. And I’m like – why are we not? It’s usually a family that ends up adopting that senior person. It’s not the young kid who’s so busy on the phone. Typically that family is the eye on the senior.

See also:

Zone Interview:  Top Priorities, Experience, Community Involvement 
Candidate positions and the Burnet Corridor Plan