Across the country, cities have been rethinking the idea of single-family zoning. Partly in recognition of the racist origins of the concept, and partly in response to the need for more housing in rapidly urbanizing areas, cities are reconsidering what it means to be a neighbor. Exploring new ways for more than one family unit to share a lot, cities are changing their land development code to allow more missing middle housing (things like duplexes and townhomes) throughout their neighborhoods. The Central Texas chapter of the Congress for New Urbanism, an organization providing resources, education, and technical assistance to create socially just and people centered places, recently held a panel to discuss the challenges that 3 cities are facing amidst this rethinking: Atlanta, Portland, and Austin. Civilitude’s Conor Kenny and Fayez Kazi, our planning gurus, had the opportunity to be a part of the panel to discuss their ideas on the matter.
The panel was moderated by Jake Wegmann, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He has published research on the racialized restructuring of metropolitan space, microhousing infill, and the measurement of affordable rental housing cost efficiency. Along with Conor and Fayez, the panelists included Eric Kronberg, who is the Founder of Kronberg Urbanists Architects in Atlanta and is an advocate for just and walkable communities, and Garlynn Woodsong, a geographer, urban planner, and real estate developer who developed groundbreaking missing middle housing projects in Portland.
Conor and Fayez’s presentation focused on how we are using Affordability Unlocked to design and build affordable townhomes in Austin, and why Single-Family Zoning needs reform. With Affordability Unlocked we have been able to design and successfully achieve affordable housing lots with up to 20 units/acre, trees included! Yet, we are still running into lots of problems. The zoning laws in Austin still steer developers towards Single Family Zoning — and this is made clear by the fact that mansions don’t pay impact fees while middle housing options like townhomes do. If zoning laws were tweaked just a little bit, such as by allowing more impervious cover per lot, we could see more affordable housing options popping up in rapidly growing areas (so, all of Austin) that are more efficiently designed than your average development is today. While zoning law reform is a perpetually controversial topic, we believe that if we want our world to be an equitable and sustainable one we’ve got to ride the wave of urbanization and make cities the best they can be — and that means keeping families in their own neighborhoods while also making room for new ones.