Email to my Mom on Austin's Minimum Lot Size

Hi Mom,

Yes, what they say is true.  Someone could tear down a house on a
large lot and build 9 houses .  And, yes, it is the intent of the
resolution.  And I don't think it goes far enough --- Austin would be
better if we allowed people to build 50 houses on a large lot!

The thing is that "allowed" is not the same as "will people do it".
Your neighbors are allowed to paint their house orange with purple
stripes.  Or keep weird statues in their front law.  But most people
don't do it, because they want to be friends or, at least, get along
with their neighbors.

I don't believe people will tear down a house on your block and build
9 houses.  First, the houses on your block are in good repair.
Second, most people would not want to be the ones living in one of
those 9 homes, because they want to get along with their neighbors.

But I do believe there are lots in Austin where an old, poorly
maintained house should be torn down and replaced with multiple
townhomes.  Let me explain why.

Austin has grown by 33% in the last decade but the number of lots in
Austin has fallen 3%.  Right now, the Austin metro area has 1,000,000
families while Austin has only 180,000 single-family lots.   No matter
what we do, only 18% of households in the Austin metro area can get a
lot in Austin.   Like most things, we hand out this limited resource
to those who can pay, so the richest 18% get a lot in Austin.  The
richest 18% of households earn $158,000 per year.  So, right now, no
family earning less than $158,000 should expect to be able to live in
Austin.

I don't like that.  And the obvious solution is to create more lots.
We have 180,000 lots and we need about 400,000 more.  So, we need to
split existing lots.  The most common lots are zoned SF-3 and with our
current large minimum lot size, 5 out of every 6 of those lots cannot
be split.  The minimum lot size is the problem.  It is what's driving
up the price of lots and housing in Austin.  It is what's keeping
teachers and firefighters from living in Austin.

We should get rid of the minimum lot size law.  That seems too radical
to City Council, since most cities have a minimum lot size law.  Their
choice of 2,500 sqft with up to 3 units on the lot is what seems like
a major step without removing the law.

With this new law, I expect that when an older, poorly maintained
house is torn down, it will be replaced by more than 1 house.  I don't
know if it will be 2 or 4 houses.  It might even be 9 townhomes in
some cases.  I'm willing to let the developer and new home buyers
decide how many houses.  The more houses built elsewhere, the less of
a reason to build more houses on your block.  That's why I think we
should get rid of the minimum lot size.

I know you care about your block and this law sounds like it could
change radically.  And the law's opponents play up that fear.  While
there is a risk, I don't think it is a big one and I think we need
this law to help poorer families.  If you think it is a big risk for
your block, you can get your neighbors to agree to a minimum lot size
privately by contract.  This can be done as a deed restriction or HOA.
But, as I said, I don't expect this to happen on your block.   It will
happen to older houses or ones very close to downtown.

This law is one I've been hoping for for a long time.  Every major
economist agrees that it will help lower lot prices and make houses
more affordable for middle-class Austinites.  It is the kind of change
you taught me to value.  I hope you'll agree that it is a good thing
for Austin to do.

Love,

Mike