🔑 The key to Austin's housing crisis
Source: City of Austin
- 6 min read

🔑 The key to Austin's housing crisis

Plus, what to watch for from City Hall this week.

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Introduction

🌧️ G'morning, Austin.

Raise your hand if allergies are kicking your *ss this week? ✋ We're dying.

We've got a breakdown for you on how Austin's zoning laws have contributed to its housing shortage.

Then, check out three things to watch for at this week's City Hall meeting. And see how the eclipse will impact Texas' power grid.


How does zoning in Austin really work?

We don’t need to tell you that the city has a housing and affordability crisis.

Well, a lot of it can be traced back to one thing: zoning laws.

It’s how cities like Austin decide what can be built on what land, as well as what the minimum amount of land each home legally needs.

For 40 years, they’ve been largely frozen, even as the city’s metro area population has multiplied. But that miiiiiight (and is already starting to) change.

The larger the lots, the fewer the homes and the higher the prices — or so it’s been

Austin’s OG zoning laws were put in place in the late 1920s, but it wasn’t until 1984 that an ordinance really set the stage for today’s Austin.

From then until just recently, the city required that each single-family home sit on at least 5,750 square feet of land. For comparison, Houston’s minimum lot size is 1,400 square feet for most of the city. 

That means a good chunk of Austin’s housing stock comprises large lots. And since homebuilders don’t tend to build small homes on big lots, it’s bigger homes that usually wind up getting built. Not great for low- and middle-income folks.

And it doesn’t help that today, most of the city is zoned for single-family residential use. Just look at this zoning map from 2017: The yellow represents areas zoned for very low to low-medium density housing.

Source: City of Austin

So what can the city do to help?

It was driving a sweeping code rewrite for about a decade, fighting for things like a reduced minimum lot size and loosened height restriction for developers. 

But Austin halted it when a judge in 2022 ruled in favor of a group of property owners that sued the city, claiming it didn’t individually warn them that zoning regulations for their properties would be changing.

So the city started making piecemeal code changes instead:

  1. City Council voted to reduce the minimum lot size by more than half to 2,500 square feet last summer. 

Simply put, that means more families can live on one plot of land. Say a lot is twice that size — the owner could divide it and put two homes on the entire lot.

It’ll likely be a while before we start seeing the effects of this show up around town, though. And it might not show up at all in some parts, like affluent West Austin, where some neighborhoods have more restrictive land contracts.

  1. In December, the city also started allowing up to three housing units to be built on just about any single-family-zoned lot, no matter how small.

So think of A-B units like townhomes or duplexes on one lot that could house more families per lot than before. Supply ⬆️. 

  1. In November, the city stopped requiring new developments to allocate space for parking spots, so they can use it for housing instead.

In a perfect world, that’d be great since we’d also have the perfect mass transit system that allows folks to live here without a car. 

One day …

— Katie Canales, Editor


Temperature: 70 degrees | Sun: Hidden | What to Expect: Strong storms and heavy rain

The same weather system that plagued us with rain and storms over the weekend will take its final curtsy today. It will move across the region with a good chance of storms through the evening. Some of these storms may be strong with high winds, large hail, possibly an isolated tornado and heavy downpours.

Mary’s Tip: Skip the rooftop Happy Hour and head underground to Here Nor There for something a little cozier.


A dice showing it's 3 side

3 things we're watching at City Council this week

  • Getting serious about wildfires. Just this past month, the largest wildfire in Texas history burned over 1 million acres in the Panhandle. But the threat of wildfires isn’t just something that happens elsewhere in Texas. Austin is considered a highly at-risk community for wildfire-related structure losses, but the Austin-Travis County Community Wildfire Protection Plan hasn’t been updated in nearly 10 years. It was first written after the big fires in and around Austin in 2011. This week, Council will consider a resolution to begin updating that plan. A roughly $200,000 grant from the Texas Forestry Service will be used to hire a contractor to update the plan. The city and county have both agreed to contribute up to $100,000 more if more funding is needed.
  • Making sure the kids are all right. The city is considering agreements with six social service agencies to provide a variety of early childhood services for an initial 12-month term starting in April with the possibility for four 12-month extensions. The overall price tag? Roughly $13 million. For the first year, the cost is around $2.6 million. Each of the agencies will provide services with a slightly different focus, including care for children overcoming homelessness, professional development opportunities for early childhood education teachers, and drop-in childcare for Black mothers. 
  • Looking for more highway money. Last week, the city was awarded a $105 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to help fund the I-35 highway caps. These caps would turn I-35 into a tunnel after the state lowers the highway between Holly Street and Airport Boulevard. TxDOT is refusing to pay for the caps but will install them if the city and the University of Texas provide the funds. Austin is considering spending upward of $881 million on the project. To help raise the needed funds, City Council will vote this week to borrow $193 million more from the State Infrastructure Bank.

Heads up, Texas power grid: Here comes the eclipse


Y’all, we’ve got a little over two weeks before the total solar eclipse in Central Texas. And the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (the state’s electric grid operator) is ready to rumble.

Why? Because it says the eclipse will impact solar energy production. 

ERCOT released a report earlier this month predicting that solar generation will drop from 99.2% around noon April 8 to 7.6% at around 1:40 p.m. ERCOT likened the eclipse to being like a “sunset and sunrise in the middle of the day” and said it’ll pass over its region between 12:10 p.m. and 3:10 p.m.

At 1:34 p.m. Wednesday, solar energy accounted for 31.3% of ERCOT’s total generation capacity. Natural gas represented 43.6%, nuclear was 8.8% and coal and lignite 8.4%.

ERCOT has an 11-day plan leading up to the event to help its power suppliers get ready for the eclipse.

Source: ERCOT

So should we worry? Well, ERCOT said in a Tuesday post on Twitter (we refuse to call it X) that it “does not expect any grid reliability concerns during the eclipse.”

It also said it’ll keep folks updated. So, fingers crossed.


Were so glad you found us. Find our bios and contact info here, or reach out at hello@austindaily.com. Behind todays send: Katie Canales, Cat DeLaura and Mary Wasson.