On Thursday, October 1, our city council will make a final decision on the latest East Austin gold rush. Will they side with land developers or support the community’s protest rights?

In August, at the first reading of the Montopolis zoning change, the council majority voted with developers and did not honor the neighborhoods’ valid petition rights. If they do the same this Thursday, the displacement of people of color in Montopolis and the East MLK neighborhood will be accelerated.

Click here to contact our mayor and council members. Tell them to honor the neighborhoods’ protest rights and stop the East Austin gold rush!

One of the items the council will take up on Thursday is the rezoning application for 508 Kemp Street (C14-2020-0038). During  first reading, the applicant dangled the prospect of affordable housing using the Affordability Unlocked program. The developer’s agent claimed that if their request was not granted, 10 $840,000 homes could be built. If SF-6 zoning was granted, the developer’s agent claimed, 33 units (15 times the density of the surrounding property) would be built, 17 of which would be affordable. (More on this in a moment.) Both of these outcomes were pure speculation, but the council majority took the bait.

Under questioning by Council Member Kathie Tovo, the developers acknowledged they had not entered into any covenant guaranteeing the affordable housing they proposed; in other words, the developer wanted the rezoning based on the suggestion of, not a commitment to, building affordable housing.  Council Member Ann Kitchen wondered “why there hasn’t been a connection with the community, and a real conversation with the community before it’s gotten to this point.”

The Montopolis community was having none of it, and their message was clear: Don’t take our voice away. They presented a valid petition in opposition.

So let’s get back to the much-touted Affordability Unlocked program, and look at it in terms of a neighborhood like Montopolis. The 2020 Area Median Family Income (MFI) for Travis County is $97,600.  The MFI that triggers the many entitlements given by Affordability Unlocked’s home-ownership program is 80 percent of MFI, or $78,080.  However, the MFI of the census tract that includes Montopolis is around $30,000. So developers are seeking large bonus entitlements to produce housing units for people earning over 250 percent of the MFI of the Montopolis community—raising a question as to whom the “affordability” is actually intended for. As one Montopolis resident put it:

That means no one from Montopolis will be able to live there. This is not affordability unlocked, but unaffordability locked. Just another displacement scheme.

Despite the community’s valid petition, a majority of the city council passed it on first reading. Council Members Alison Alter and Kathie Tovo voted against the upzoning, and Council Members Ann Kitchen and Leslie Pool abstained.

The second zoning case to be heard this Thursday is the property at 5201 East MLK (C14-2020-0031.SH), which Community Not Commodity addressed in a previous post. This tract is surrounded on all sides by SF-2 and SF-3 zoning, and the developer is seeking to upzone the property from SF-3 to MF-3. The Stonegate neighbors have a valid petition against this upzoning, but they nevertheless tried to work on restrictive covenants and a conditional overlay with the developer’s agent (Ron Thrower) and the developer himself (Ryan Walker, a self-described “opportunistic” developer). As of a few days before the hearing, questions have been raised as to whether Walker has shown good faith in honoring their requests, and the rezoning remains contested.

In each of these projects, the city staff’s refuses to acknowledge two things:

  • The application conflicts with the surrounding neighborhood plan
  • The rezoning request cannot be properly granted without making amendments to that neighborhood plan

The East MLK property is designated “Mixed Residential” in the East MLK Neighborhood Plan Future Land Use Map (FLUM). According to the City of Austin’s Neighborhood Planning Guide, Mixed Residential requires that at least half of the property must be developed as single-family. The applicant’s project conflicts with that requirement and therefore with the neighborhood plan. By ignoring that requirement, the city’s staff is effectively rewriting the neighborhood’s city-approved plan without authorization to do so.

In Montopolis, the staff contends that SF-6 upzoning is allowed on the property with a “Single Family” FLUM designation. That assertion conflicts with the city’s own Land Use and Zoning Matrix, which requires a different FLUM designation (“Higher Density Single Family”) for SF-6 zoning. Unlike other lots in the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan, which are designated “Higher Density Single Family,” the lot in question is not. In other areas of town, a FLUM amendment would be required. Absent a plan amendment, a vote for SF-6 zoning would be an improper violation of both the neighborhood and comprehensive plans.

As they stand now, these rezoning cases represent a continued effort to monetize East Austin and to silence its residents, in terms of both their neighborhood plans and public testimony. In the rush to upzone these properties, corners are being cut, and reckless rezoning decisions are being pushed—all in the name of an incompatible level of housing density that the neighborhood residents cannot afford and does not want. The community has made that clear through their valid petitions.

Our city council is now presented with a pair of important questions:

  • Do East Austin residents get to plan their futures, or were their neighborhood-planning processes just another ruse?
  • Is it fair to push partially “affordable” redevelopment on low-income neighborhoods that will be made less affordable by that redevelopment?

Here are the full details on this Thursday’s cases:

Item 43
C14-2020-0038 – 508 Kemp Street – Conduct a public hearing and approve second and third readings of an ordinance amending City Code Title 25 by rezoning property locally known as 508 Kemp Street (Country Club East Watershed). Applicant Request: To rezone from family residence – neighborhood plan (SF-3-NP) combining district zoning to townhouse and condominium residence – neighborhood plan (SF-6-NP) combining district zoning. First Reading: Approved townhouse and condominium residence – neighborhood plan (SF-6-NP) combining district zoning on August 27, 2020. Vote: 7-2. Council Members Alter and Tovo voted nay. Council Members Pool and Kitchen abstained. Owner: Johnny A. Steen. Applicant: Drenner Group (Leah M. Bojo). City Staff: Kate Clark, 512-974-1237. A valid petition has been filed in opposition to this rezoning request.

Item 45
C14-2020-0031.SH – E MLK Rezoning- Conduct a public hearing and approve second and third readings of an ordinance amending City Code Title 25 by rezoning property locally known 5201 East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (Fort Branch Watershed). Applicant Request: To rezone from family residence-neighborhood plan (SF-3-NP) combining district zoning to multifamily residence medium density-neighborhood plan (MF-3-NP) combining district zoning, as amended. First reading approved multifamily residence medium density-conditional overlay-neighborhood plan (MF-3-CO-NP) combining district zoning, on August 27, 2020. Vote: 11-0. Owner/Applicant: 5201 E MLK LP (Ryan Walker). Agent: Thrower Designs (Ron Thrower). City Staff: Heather Chaffin, 512-974-2122.  Draft Ordinance

Contact Mayor Steve Adler and your representative on the Austin City Council using the information below, and tell them to stop the East Austin gold rush! Check this map if you aren’t sure which council member represents you.

Together we can build an Austin for everyone!

Mayor Steve Adler:
steve.adler@austintexas.gov | 512-978-2100

Natasha Harper-Madison (District 1):
natasha.madison@austintexas.gov | 512-978-2101

Delia Garza (District 2):
delia.garza@austintexas.gov | 512-978-2102

Sabino Renteria (District 3):
sabino.renteria@austintexas.gov | 512-978-2103

Greg Casar (District 4):
gregorio.casar@austintexas.gov | 512-978-2104

Ann Kitchen (District 5):
ann.kitchen@austintexas.gov | 512-978-2105

Jimmy Flannigan (District 6):
jimmy.flannigan@austintexas.gov | 512-978-2106

Leslie Pool (District 7):
leslie.pool@austintexas.gov | 512-978-2107

Paige Ellis (District 8):
paige.ellis@austintexas.gov | 512-978-2108

Kathie Tovo (District 9):
kathie.tovo@austintexas.gov | 512-978-2109

Alison Alter (District 10):
alison.alter@austintexas.gov | 512-978-2110

You may send a single email to the mayor and all council members using this form.