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Council rejects tightening McMansion standards for East Austin

Tuesday, January 22, 2008 by Mark Richardson

The City Council could not agree to one group’s solution to the problem of gentrification in East Austin neighborhoods last week, turning down a proposed amendment to the city’s McMansion ordinance. The Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods (OCEAN) had proposed amending the McMansion ordinance in the OCEAN planning area to keep the 0.4 floor-to-area ratio, but eliminate the 2,300 square foot minimum building allowance for substandard lots.


The proposed regulation would mean that a new house on a 3,500 square foot lot could be no larger than 1,400 square feet. City staff said that about 650 lots in the planning area would be affected by such a change. That represents about 5 percent of the total number of lots in the OCEAN planning area


OCEAN’s proposal was to keep the homes built on lots smaller than 5,750 square feet small in order to keep them affordable and prevent real estate speculation.  OCEAN president Rudolph Williams told Council members that speculators have been buying up small lots in the neighborhood, tearing down the homes, and then replacing them with homes costing up to $300,000.


“That means that the poor people that used to live there and lived in affordable housing are being forced out of the neighborhood,” he said.  “The primary affordable housing mechanism in Central East Austin is the rental property. It is one little house on a small lot. It is not Austin Housing Authority, it is not any other, like apartments or anything. It is small houses. The pressure to tear down those small houses because of the appraisal system and because of the taxes is just tremendous.”


OCEAN members did not unanimously approve the proposed amendment. According to Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, who opposed the measure, it took five or six meetings before the OCEAN board finally voted its approval.


“What we are here to talk about is how we got here,” he said. “They had four meetings of votes on this issue. This issue – in my understanding from sources inside – passed 8-7 in the meeting. That’s not a mandate.”


Henderson, who sent some 275 letters to area homeowners urging them to oppose the measure, said the net effect would be to depress land values and make the area more of a target for predatory land speculators.


“Do you want to be the City Council that (has to explain to) a little unsuspecting old lady, African American lady, or grandpa, the heirs in our community, when a predator comes in and says to them, ‘You know, your property was worth a lot more before they passed that .4. Now your property is worth about 30 or 40 percent less than that.’ ”


East Austin resident Stella Roland said passing the amendment would be tantamount to taking away people’s property rights.


“Property rights are vital to your freedom, and it’s inseparable from it,” she said. “Without them, you are nothing more than a tenant paying taxes on property over which you have lost some, most or all of your rights. And if I’m a property owner, I don’t want to lose my rights to my property . . . If we don’t stand our ground now, then whose ground will we stand on in the future?”


Michael Casias, a member both OCEAN and the McMansions Task Force, told Council members that both sides’ arguments had merit.


“I generally agree with all the sides, for and against, and that’s kind of a dilemma that you guys have to deal with, because we want everything,” he said. “We want diametrically opposed end results. We want affordable housing in our neighborhood but we also don’t want to deteriorate our property values. We want increased property values but we don’t want to pay higher property taxes.”


There were approximately 10 to 12 people speaking on both sides of the issue, which took about two hours total before Council ended the public hearing.


Council Member Sheryl Cole asked OCEAN’s Williams if he knew of any other cities that had used this approach to preserve a neighborhood. Williams said he did not know of any such program.


Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley said the law currently on the books was sufficient for homeowners.


“We want the McMansion ordinance – it is on the books, and that’s the standard that we use today,” said Dunkerley. “So all of the other restrictions on the height, the impervious cover, those kinds of elements already restrict the size of the lot. And all the McMansion ordinance really says is that you can do the .4 or up to 2,300 square feet in compliance with all the other rules. And I really think that is adequate to cover these things.”


Council Member Mike Martinez said the proposal was not the way to solve East Austin’s housing problems.


“I’m also going to be supporting the denial . . .  Specifically because I don’t think this amendment addresses the issues that have been raised, which are rising property values and gentrification and degradation of the neighborhood. Those three issues are not addressed by limiting the FAR to a .4 ratio regardless of lot size. It’s just not,” Martinez said.


Council members voted 7-0 to deny the amendment.

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