Will Cooperatives Survive CodeNEXT?

We’ve seen some great victories for Austin cooperatives in 2017, one of the most notable being the inclusion of Cooperative Housing as a defined use in the draft text of CodeNEXT  (the first update to the City’s land development code since 1984!) Before this draft, cooperatives were broadly lumped in with other group residential arrangements, putting us in the same category as fraternity houses and group homes.

Wait, why were we lumped in with fraternities and group homes in the first place?

Because cooperatives often straddle grey areas in policy and law. When Community Housing Expansion of Austin opened its doors in 2002, they found they were checking boxes labeled “None of the Above” so often that they named their first house the South Austin Sacred Order of the Nones of the Above, known more broadly throughout the community as Sasona Co-op. There was no box labeled “cooperative” that would let neighbors, city officials, or land planners know what exactly that property was being used for.

But we have that now, right?

Yes, but not yet. We were thrilled to see a definition of cooperative housing in CodeNEXT, but came to find that it didn’t fit what cooperative housing actually looks like in Austin. Ryan Nill wrote a pretty dang good explanation of what’s going on with that here. Some members of the cooperative community asked for a new definition in a letter to the Code Advisory Group, and soon enough we saw a Q&A go up on the CodeNEXT website. On June 12th, we we're thrilled to see our recommended definition passed by the Land Development Code Advisory Group. This doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods yet though - our recommendations still need to pass the Planning Commission before they make it into the next draft of the Code.

Current status: We’ve made a ton of progress, but we still have a little further to go.

Cool, thanks guys! So it’s all good?

That’s still up in the air. You see, CodeNEXT is really a two-part deal - the text of the code defines cooperatives as a way to use land, and tells us what types of land that use is permitted on. But that doesn’t tell us a lot without a map to put it all in context, which was released by the City on April 18th. We looked into it and found out that the following cooperatives have been downzoned, meaning that the land they sit on is no longer zoned for cooperative housing:

  • Rosewood Co-operative
  • Roots Cooperative
  • Avalon Co-op
  • Eastside Treehouse
  • Royal House Co-op
  • Sunflower Cooperative
  • Taos Cooperative

If you’re in one of these houses, don’t panic just yet - since your cooperative was there before the code, you’ll likely be grandfathered in. But any major renovations or additions could still cause your house to lose its shiny new “cooperative housing” designation. We mapped all of this out, and it became clear that cooperatives outside of the boundaries of West Campus are by far the ones most affected by downzoning. Not to worry though: you still have time to comment on a specific property’s zoning on the CodeNEXT website. If you or one of your friends lives in a downzoned housing cooperative, you can and should voice your opinion to the City there. In the meantime, the ACBA will be sending out volunteers to cooperative houses all over the city to help people understand what new draft code means for them and what they can do about - look out for our visit on your house’s announcement boards and meeting agendas.

Current status: Good for some cooperatives, not so good for others---but if we help each other out we can put things right for everyone.

But if the definition gets changed, and we comment on CodeNEXT to get our houses re-zoned, then cooperatives are going to be fine?

Oof. Not quite. If you want to develop a new cooperative, things aren’t looking that much better than before. There’s not that many zoning classifications that allow for cooperative housing. In fact, if you black out all of the places that you can’t live in a co-op on the draft map, it looks a little like this:

 

With Austin in an affordability crisis, our future development has been limited to some of the most expensive parts of the city. Under the current draft map, it's going to take a lot more money than it did before to start a new co-op house. While cooperative housing tends to be the most affordable in its neighborhood, new co-ops will be limited to some of the least affordable parcels of land in the city, where we’ll be competing with profit-driven (and very wealthy) developers. So much for “affordable housing.”

Current status: Yikes.

Oh, snap! How do we fix that?

The ACBA is asking for some concrete changes to the draft of the Land Development Code and its associated map that will help our community continue to grow in Austin, and there’s tons of ways to get involved! The drafting stage won’t last forever though, so we have to move quickly and strike while the iron is hot. We’re advocating on your behalf for the following changes:

  • Change the definition of Cooperative Housing in the text of the Land Development Code to: “A housing arrangement in which residents share expenses, management, and/or ownership, and in which all profits or surpluses are allocated to purposes that benefit current or future residents.”
  • Cooperative housing should be a by-right use in the LMDR, MDR, MHP, and SF-3 through SF-6 zoning areas.  
  • Cooperative housing should be given the option for development through a Minor Use Permit in Very Low Density, Low Density, SF-1, and SF-2 zoning and a Conditional Use Permit in Rural Residential.
  • Cooperatives should be encouraged to develop in areas where the upcoming Density Bonus Program is applied.

With those changes in place, the definition will actually fit what we’re already doing, and our opportunities for expansion will look a little more like this:

These might sound like small victories, but as you can see, they’ll make a big difference.

I want to help! What can co-opers do to make this happen?

  • Contact the Planning Commission and let them know that you want fair development rights for co-ops in Austin through the changes listed above. Not sure who to call? Click the link below to find out who represents you on City Council, and then check who your Commissioner is here.

  • Contact your city council member’s office and let them know, too. Not sure who represents your house? Find out here.

  • Comment on the CodeNEXT website to support your fellow co-opers whose properties have been downzoned.

  • Talk about CodeNEXT with your fellow co-opers! Share this info with your friends on social media, send it out on your email list, bring it up at dinner, or put it on the agenda for your next meeting.

  • Hold a letter-writing event or comment party at your house where your members are encouraged to get together and write letters to the CAG and your city council members. If you're not sure where to start, get in touch with us and we'll give you everything you need to become a Co-opNEXT organizer.

  • Subscribe to the ACBA email list for more updates and opportunities for action!

We’re at a pivotal stage in Austin’s development, and we need as many people as possible to join in with the ACBA to let the City know that the time to commit to co-ops is now. In the days to come we hope to see more faces in the fight, and we look forward to building a better tomorrow with you.