The Benefits of Density

Do We Want Affordability? Transit? Fairness?
Then We Must Support 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 (mostly in the form of excessive city government regulation) that in just 42 months (Jan 2012 to July 2015) the median price of a single family home in the 5 most central zip codes rose 95%, from $290,000 to $565,000. Fitch, the international rating and research service, found in 2014 that we are now the most overvalued market in the country, and Martin Prosperity Institute in Toronto just 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, it’s probably the opposite of what you think. Our problem is that we have refused to allow density in our central neighborhoods. We have become the most sprawling major city in America. 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.

Affordability requires Density. Period.

Experienced homebuilders will tell you without hesitation that, within any particular submarket, there are only two tools with which to significantly impact affordability: density and square footage. Since square footage reductions without density do nothing to solve the problem, the critical factor becomes the level at which we accept density.

For too long our land use policy in Austin has centered around a rejection of 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 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 is supported by the national Sierra Club.
3. Higher density is the #1 requirement for cost effective mass transit. 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 significantly better mass transit and begin to ease our traffic problem.
4. Higher density is 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 and air pollutants.
6. Higher density allows for greater affordability, by allocating land costs among a larger number of homes, and in some cases, allows for efficiencies in the construction process.
7. Improvements in affordability in turn reduce gentrification in our neighborhoods, thereby reducing social injustice and economic and racial segregation.
8. Improvements in affordability are needed to save our live music community, which is absolutely key to saving Austin’s identity.
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. The majority of Austinites want higher density, and that choice should be honored. From at least the late ‘70s to the present, Austinites have voted for more density and more walkability, and that choice has been repeatedly ignored by city policymakers.
11. Higher density is an important part of Austin’s history. Hyde Park, for example, became highly successful only when the developer 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”.

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 desperately needs to encourage the density that the people of Austin have supported.

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 past 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 is higher density.

Frank Harren
September 2015

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