A Simplified Argument In Favor Of The Density Bonus

The debate surrounding downtown Austin density is postured as affordable housing vs. height. Height being a proxy for density, and if you want more of it you’ll have to pay for it.  If you believe in pro-density new-urbanist principles (like I do), then you might see the underlying debate as affordable housing vs. the environment.

If you are shifting your society away from sprawl, then you increasingly need to house people vertically.  As long there is available virgin hill country to pave over, that land will be cheaper than downtown Austin land, and there will be economics favoring construction of affordable housing on that land outside of downtown.  Until the region can coordinate an urban growth boundary, integration of socio-economic classes will not happen naturally without regulation.  The density bonus seems to be that regulation.

Many intelligent people believe that the the bonus is really a tax.  “Why should we tax density?” or “This makes development downtown more expensive” are reasonable concerns to anyone that wants to see more vertical development.   Sprawl occurs when it is convincingly more affordable to live outside urban core.  But, for every person that lives in the urban core, less pavement is needed outside of it.   Every person counts.  It’s far from a comprehensive solution, but I’m considering a new perspective that the density bonus is a positive for curbing sprawl.

Is it worth allocating affordable housing funds to 1 person in downtown, for the same cost to house 3 people in east Austin, or 7 people south of Ben White?  The answer might be yes.

About Jude Galligan

Jude Galligan, REALTOR, Principal of TOWERS Realty and publisher of Downtown Austin Blog (aka. "DAB"), spends his time matching remarkable people with remarkable properties in Austin’s urban core. A resident owner in downtown Austin, Jude has served on the Board of the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA) and the City of Austin Downtown Commission. Contact Jude.


  1. shmooth, downtown is now the only place in the city where the city will allow density of any kind to be built – even as few as 6 stories are effectively now off-limits everywhere else. If we’re to achieve any kind of improvement in sustainability, we can’t then limit to 6 in this small area where something more than the typical 3-floor low-density MF-3 apartments is actually allowed.

  2. But Jude, I still think you’re missing the central issue. You wrote:

    “Downtown is going to grow and unless there is mandated integration of sub-market rate housing, then there will be no sub-market rate housing and therefore comensurately priced (more affordable compared to downtown market rate) housing will remain sprawl.”

    Again, you have provided no argument for why dense new projects are the ones that should include or pay for such housing. Why shouldn’t we force a development that is failing to max out its F.A.R. to include affordable housing or pay a fee? Why must greater density be the sole criterion for determining who must pay the “tax”?

  3. Has it been established that there is a market for these density bonuses?

    Without a demand for the bonuses, this will just be another program that makes us think that we’re doing something to promote affordability while producing no real market results.

  4. i don’t understand enough about ‘affordable housing’ to comment on that aspect. can anyone recommend a book/blog?

    i do know i hate skyscrapers — i prefer 6 stories or less — the DC height limits, based on a ratio of building height to width of the street, seems like a good idea. don’t hate on the sun — it’s your friend.

    the title of this post has a typo.

    and those underlined phrases really look like links. confusing. 🙁

  5. If the fee-in-lieu is substantial enough then many developers will opt for the affordable housing component. Downtown is going to grow and unless there is mandated integration of sub-market rate housing, then there will be no sub-market rate housing and therefore comensurately priced (more affordable compared to downtown market rate) housing will remain sprawl.

    The density bonus incentive may be a weak force to curb sprawl, but for every person it takes out of sprawl and places into an urban setting by removing the economic hurdles, then it is in fact reducing the demand for sprawl. Just because sprawl isn’t taxed [yet] doesn’t make this an inherently flawed mechanism.

  6. Yeah, what Roger said. Your argument about where to PUT the affordable housing is certainly valid, but it doesn’t argue at all that downtown development should be taxed for it, while sprawl development isn’t taxed for it.

  7. I don’t see how any of what you wrote argues for a density bonus program downtown.

    Allocating affordable housing funds to downtown may or may not be a good idea, but it is a completely separate issue from whether downtown “density bonuses” are the appropriate funding mechanism.

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