AUSTIN -- Two recent reports on land development regulations shed light on why Austin is the most economically segregated large city in the country.

A study by two Harvard Professors, Daniel Shoag and Peter Ganong, determined cities with strict zoning regulations also exhibited high levels of economic and racial segregation.

"With constrained housing supply, the net migration of workers of all skill types from poor to rich places is replaced by skill sorting," the study said. "Skilled workers move to high cost, high productivity areas, and unskilled workers move out. Finally, income convergence persists among places unconstrained by these regulations, but it is diminished in areas with supply constraints."

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Shoag and Ganong said rules limit the number of unrelated adults in a home and aim to preserve neighborhood character further economic disparities. Austin caps the number of unrelated adults in a home, and impact development has on neighborhood character plays a key role during project reviews by commissions and the City Council.

"We have laws in place that only allow you to build the most expensive kind of housing, which is a single-family home and a big yard. It's not the kind of home that most Austinites live in," Niran Babalola, Founder of Desegregate ATX, said. "It's the kind of home that most White Austinites live in; it's the kind of home that a minority of Black and Hispanic Austinites live in. People are fighting for these laws without knowing what they are causing, and I don't think they care."

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Local urbanists say easing restrictions on the types of homes that can be built--and how many are allowed in a certain area--could reduce racial and economic divides. Roger Cauvin created Friends of Austin Neighborhoods as an alternative to the established neighborhood groups.

"In order to have diverse character in terms of people, you have to have diverse character in terms of housing types," Cauvin said.

A draft of Austin's new land development code though CodeNEXT is expected in January. It will reflect the city's comprehensive plan, Imagine Austin, which aims to create pockets of mixed use developments across the city and along major roads. The Real Estate Council of Austin said developers have focused their projects on Austin suburbs due to increasing amounts of red tape.

"Sprawl creates a lot of issues with congestion, it takes people away from where they work," Ward Tisdale said. "More than anything, sprawl hurts the environment."


TWC News reached out to the president of Austin Neighborhoods Council, which has been very active in the CodeNEXT process, but did not receive a response.