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Council starts process aimed at putting limits on ‘stealth dorms’

Friday, November 22, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Council members Thursday unanimously approved a measure that kicks off changes to the occupancy limits for Austin residences. When completed, the move could drop the allowed number of unrelated adults living in one place from the current limitation of six to four. But Council Member Kathie Tovo’s more ambitious set of proposals failed to win majority support and she withdrew those items without a vote.


Council approved the process for changing occupancy limits after Council Member Bill Spelman offered an amendment that initially sets the occupancy limit at four. However, it also leaves room for the Planning Commission to recommend a different figure, or use different occupancy limits in different portions of the city.


Spelman argued that, though occupancy limits could address such problems as stealth dorms in some portions of the city, they might provide unintended consequences for others. Approval was unanimous.


Meanwhile, a set of pilot programs that would have begun rental registration programs in three areas of the city was withdrawn after Tovo determined that she wouldn’t have support for the items. “(There) clearly (aren’t) enough votes to support it, but I have now heard from several colleagues that they would like the opportunity to consider it in the future,” she said.


Tovo had considered the registry that targeted a large section of downtown near the University of Texas as somewhat of a companion to the change in occupancy limits. Both that registration program and the occupancy limits item were designed to cut down the number of stealth dorms.


However, her colleagues remained skeptical of the registration programs, items that would have forced most landlords in the targeted regions to register property, regardless of their respective caretaking histories. Indeed, representatives of both interest groups and individual landlords worried about the effects the occupancy limits might have.


“We would reiterate that the policy tool of a blanket registration program, in our eyes, would not support the efforts to solve the issues associated with some rental properties (in the city),” offered Emily Chenevert, director of government relations for the Austin Board of Realtors.


Chenevert also expressed concerns about a work group formed to deal with the issues brought by stealth dorms. “There’s been some good work there,” she began. “Unfortunately, that work group has not been well resourced. I haven’t seen a Planning Development Review staff member there yet, I’ve got several questions for the city attorney’s office about the legal implications of some of the solutions that were considered. So, I’ll look forward — I hope — to a formal stakeholder process that will be resourced well where we can have some answers to some of those questions.”


Self-described “good actor” landlord Bob Thompson refuted the notion that the registries would have no impact on affordability. Thompson suggested that the “wholesale inspections” under the Tovo programs would “crush” affordability throughout the city.


Tovo suggested that one internal Neighborhood Housing and Community Development study of the matter had found that any affect on affordability would be “neutral.” Spelman then called NCHD head Betsy Spencer up. He asked Spencer if her department had taken maintenance costs into account as part of their work. She confirmed that they had not.


Council Member Mike Martinez, who told In Fact Daily this week that affordability is a red herring as part of the occupancy limits discussion, remained skeptical of that argument. Martinez also noted that, if approved, the occupancy limits item would simply initiate a process that could end in an ordinance change.

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