In Austin, 5,750 square feet is a magic number.
It’s one-tenth of a football field. Half of an Olympic standard swimming pool. And precisely the size of the American dream.
“If you’re driving around urban Austin, through Hyde Park, Clarksville, Crestview,” said Scott Turner, a local homebuilder, “then most of [these lots] are going to be 50 feet wide.” And 115 feet deep. Which gets us to 5,750 square feet, the amount of land Austin requires to build a house in most parts of the city.
In land use terms, this number is called minimum lot size. Austin’s minimum lot size is larger than that of other major Texas cities. (Houston’s, for example, is 1,400 square feet.)
Turner, unsurprisingly, is not a fan. Austin’s minimum lot size means he can’t build as many homes as he’d like. But it also means that anyone looking to buy a house has to buy 5,750 square feet of land — and likely the large home built to justify that amount of land.
“Until we start to try and address our minimum lot size problem, all we’re going to get are big expensive homes because that’s all the code will allow,” Turner said.
Austin tried to address its “minimum lot size problem” — and the problems many people saw in the land code as a whole. Nearly a decade ago, the City Council embarked on a rewrite of the city’s land development code, a lengthy manual dictating what can be built in the city and where. Elected officials reasoned they needed to tweak regulations like minimum lot size and height restrictions to let developers build more in central neighborhoods — to better accommodate the city’s population, which had more than doubled in three decades.
But, ultimately, these revisions never came to pass. After spending a decade and more than $10 million on the project, the city was stopped short in 2020 when a group of property owners successfully sued and halted the land code revision.
Since then, the cost of housing in the city has skyrocketed and builders and advocates for more housing have turned to the state for help. What Democratic-led Austin couldn’t get done, now the Republican-led state may do, much to the chagrin of local leaders.
Housing prices have gone up, up, up
Many housing experts believe a shortage of homes across the country is to blame for a historic rise in housing costs over the past two years.
Austin, it seems, has been the foreground for these rising prices. From the start of the pandemic until last summer, the median sales price of a home in the Austin area rose roughly 62%, while rents increased at the fastest pace experts had ever seen. (Because of rising interest rates, housing prices have since declined, although rents are still increasing.)