12 Reasons You as a Single Family Homeowner Should Support Density

12 Reasons You As A Homeowner Should Support More Density

 

Austin sprawled worse than any other major American city between 2000 and 2010. We are now restricting new housing supply and densification of Austin’s core so badly that in just 66 months (Jan 2012 to June 2017) the median price of a single family home in the 4 zip codes closest to downtown more than doubled, from $290,000 to $658,000. Fitch, the international rating and research service, found in 2014 that we had become, relative to local incomes, the most overvalued market in the country, and Martin Prosperity Institute in Toronto announced in February 2015 that Austin is now the most economically segregated major urban area in America. And of course, there’s traffic. We’ve steadily climbed the list of most congested cities.

 

What’s going on? It’s probably not what you think. In fact, if you’re one of the many who rarely dabble in the politics of real estate development and instead spend your days doing your job and taking care of your family, it may well be the opposite of what you think. Our problem is not some new influx of Californians, or the construction of gleaming new expensive residential towers now dotting our skyline; it is a low-profile, almost invisible dynamic that has been around for decades now; it is that we have refused to allow density in most of our city, particularly in our central residential neighborhoods, where it makes the most sense. That is the common thread that has devastated our residents’ ability to buy or rent within the core of the city, and that continues to increase congestion on our roadways, where more than an eighth of a million people try to travel from their low density suburban homes into the city and back again on a daily basis.

 

Since about 1980 our land use policy in Austin has centered around a rejection of residential density and a rejection of the less expensive building types that produce that density. It is time for that to change. Too often we hear that density is bad. Density is actually extraordinarily beneficial. Here’s a partial list of reasons why:

 

  1. Higher population density means higher taxpayer density – a much bigger property tax base and more taxpayers to foot the bill when it comes to tax time.
  2. Higher density is far more environmentally friendly than sprawl, and has been supported for many years by the national Sierra Club.
  3. Higher density is the #1 requirement for making cost effective mass transit possible. An efficient bus system requires about 8,000 people per square mile; rail requires about 19,000. Only when we accept density can we transition to a significantly better mass transit system and begin to ease our traffic problem.
  4. Higher density is far more supportive of small scale local businesses – small retailers, restaurants and other businesses need a certain number of homes and people within a certain radius of their establishments in order to stay in business and be successful.
  5. Higher density reduces the number of automobile miles travelled, with a proportionate reduction in wasted time, traffic congestion, air pollutants and auto-related accidents. Sprawl has a definite cost in human injury and death.
  6. Higher density allows for greater affordability, by allocating land costs and hard construction costs among a larger number of homes. It even reduces soft costs per housing unit, such as interest expense and architectural and engineering costs. Experienced homebuilders will tell you without hesitation that, within any particular market, there are only two tools with which to significantly impact affordability:  density and square footage.
  7. Improvements in affordability in turn reduce gentrification in our neighborhoods, thereby reducing the level of social injustice and economic and racial segregation. As many of you know, Austin was recently declared to have the highest level of economic segregation of any major city in America.
  8. Improvements in affordability are needed to save our live music community, which is absolutely key to saving Austin’s identity as the live music capital of the world. The lack of affordable housing for our musicians is widely known, and Austin has in recent years already lost 1200 music-related jobs, mainly due to affordability issues.
  9. Higher density drastically reduces water and energy consumption, and thereby greatly reduces the strain on our limited water supply and on our energy grid.
  10. Higher density, in most cases, raises the value of your property, but not your taxes. In fact, within a few years, as our “taxpayer density” increases to a meaningful degree, your tax bill should drop. In the meantime, as long as your home is used as a residential homestead, the tax assessor must, by state law and the state constitution (the relevant amendments to the Property Tax Code and the constitution were passed in 2009), continue to value it (and value any comparables used in your home’s annual tax appraisal) only as a residential homestead, regardless of its highest and best use. In effect, you have a more valuable property without higher taxes.
  11. The majority of Austinites have expressed a clear preference for higher density, and that choice should be honored. During the process of creating a new comprehensive plan for the city, voters were given 5 density scenarios for future growth. The people chose the highest density option by a wide margin (as many voters chose the highest density option as those who voted for the other four options combined). Austin is now in the process of writing a new development code to implement the comprehensive plan, and that new code should allow and encourage the density that the people of Austin have supported.
  12. Higher density was an important part of Austin’s history, a history that is now being silently undermined. Austin is currently 30% less dense than it was in 1950. Going back even further, Hyde Park, for example, became highly successful only when the developer, in the early 1900’s, decided to change Hyde Park from a low density enclave for the affluent to a much denser neighborhood marketed as a place for “the working man and woman”.

 

Bottom line: We should, in the new development code and in future city policy more generally, give the private and public sector the option to provide a wide range of affordable (and by definition, denser) housing options in the core of the city, and let the market decide which of those options our residents want to buy or rent. Our current policy of prohibiting those choices is not working. It has prevented the operation of cost-effective transit, and has destroyed Austin’s affordability, as well as its ability to support economic fairness among those wanting to live here.

 

It’s time to defeat sprawl, recapture our affordability and our history, champion social justice and economic fairness, and make possible an efficient and cost effective transit system. The only path available to us leads through a definitive policy of meaningfully higher density.

 

Frank Harren

July 2017

 

 

 

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