Do my eyes deceive me? Is the Raleigh City Council actually going to make downtown developers share the wealth when building high-rise towers, putting some of their profits toward affordable housing downtown?

Maybe. Maybe it will.

Which is a better answer than absolutely not, as past councils have said to any hint of an inclusionary zoning policy anywhere in Raleigh.

You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.

Council members Russ Stephenson and Kay Crowder, who saw the future in Austin, Texas, a couple of weeks ago when much of Raleigh officialdom visited on a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored trip, are more than dreaming. They’re pushing an Austin-style policy overhaul that the council’s pro-developer majority is having trouble sloughing off.

Stephenson and Crowder lost an early round when they opposed rezoning a property the city owns on Hillsborough Street, opposite the Clarion Hotel, for buildings up to 20 stories in height. The two objected to the absence of any requirement for affordable units or in-lieu-of fee as a prerequisite for a developer to build the full 20 stories. The rezoning was approved last week on a 6-2 council vote, along with a twin rezoning on adjacent lots not owned by the city.

The Hillsborough Street case was a mere skirmish, however. Hard on its heels, city administrators were urging the council to rezone the entire downtown district, as part of the citywide remapping under the new Unified Development Ordinance, to allow buildings up to 40 stories in some places, 20 or 12 in others. Again, with no requirements for affordable housingor as Crowder prefers to call it, workforce housing.

Riding into this battle, Stephenson came armed with Austin’s battery of affordable-housing policies, good for 18,000 units since 2000, plus the news that Austin won the Urban Land Institute’s “2014 Housing Policy Leadership Award.”

Two things: Austin is to Raleigh as ancient Sparta was to Athens, a bitter if respected rival city; and ULI is no radical reformer, but rather a nonprofit funded by development interests and planners.

In other words, Raleigh, a state capital and university town, hates losing to Austin, also a state capital and university town, but with twice Raleigh’s population. Or, to be more precise, our Chamber of Commerce types live for Raleigh’s rank on lists of the fastest-growing whiz-bang cities. Lists that always include Austin.

When the list is ULI’s, and Austin wins, well, that’s just embarrassing.

On Monday, Mayor Nancy McFarlane convened a special work session of the council where Stephenson made his pitch. Rezoning the downtown for up to 40-story buildings, he said, would bestow “hundreds of millions of dollars” on fortunate property owners in the form of higher land values. Before doing so, Stephenson argued, the city should negotiate for a share of those higher values to be applied to affordable-housing or other public-benefit programs when the land is developed.

That’s what Austin does, Stephenson said, busting out a long list of incentive programs the Texas capital uses to get developers to include units that low- and middle-income residents can afford or else contribute money to programs that subsidize such housing.

Do these programs discourage high-rise development? No, Stephenson said. Raleigh visitors saw 28 cranes at work in downtown Austin. Coming soon: a 58-story building, the tallest west of the Mississippi, for which the developer will pay more than $800,000 into housing funds via Austin’s Downtown Density Bonus program.

The immediate question facing the Raleigh council is whether to schedule a public hearing in July on the downtown rezoning plan, setting in motion the process to approve it. Or should it delay, giving staff time to complete a study of housing and community development policies, also due in July?

Council member Wayne Maiorano said delay would send an “absolute wrong signal” about the city’s commitment to growth. He said other issues can be considered after the hearing.

Stephenson worried that if the hearing goes ahead, the council will be one step closer to never being able to negotiate on a downtown project.

His and Crowder’s proposal: Rezone downtown, for now, to leave heights under the UDO equivalent to where they’ve been under the old code. Then, adopt Austin-style programs that allow the council to negotiate with developers when they want to go 20 or 40 stories or, Stephenson said, maybe even a great 58-story project.

That makes sense. Under the UDO, once a property is rezoned for, say, 40 stories, the council has no ability to negotiate for any public benefits, whether affordable units or a ground-level plaza or in-lieu-of paymentsnothingas long as what’s built is 40 floors or less. Not the council. Not the public.

And it’s not like the council has a great record on affordable housing. The last time these issues came up, in 2009, a task force proposed mild reformsand the council ignored them. This time, McFarlane indicated she’s listening, which perhaps makes three council votes out of eight. Maiorano and Bonner Gaylord, too, said they’re all for affordable housing.

Well, then. There should be no problem.

This article appeared in print with the headline “No more lip service?.”