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Measure to set residential occupancy limits headed for City Council

Thursday, January 23, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

An effort to curb stealth dorms that would radically limit how many unrelated people can live in Austin’s residences is heading quickly back to City Council.


This past November Council started the process of limiting occupancy to four unrelated adults in single-family zoned property. Currently, the city puts that limit at six unrelated adults.


Though there were advocates on both sides of the issue at this week’s codes and ordinances committee of the Planning Commission, in the end, the panel voted unanimously to move the change forward to the full commission, where it is on the Jan. 28 agenda.


“We’ve been hearing about this for 12 years or more, and it has accelerated,” said Commissioner Danette Chimenti. “The neighborhoods are suffering. I don’t think we want to just continue to postpone it and do nothing, and look at the problem more. We’ve been looking at the problem for a very, very long time.”


“I think we have to do something. I think we have to do something now,” said Chimenti.


The ordinance will move forward despite an unorthodox approach. The resolution passed by City Council explicitly asks for input from an already-formed Stealth Dorm Working Group. But that input is scheduled to come before a March 31 deadline. City Council is scheduled to act on the maximum occupancy rates more than a month earlier, on Feb. 13.


Despite the odd scheduling, Planning Commissioner Jean Stevens, who heads up the working group, is taking her charge seriously. She told the subcommittee that the group had expanded, reaching out to immigrant groups, Workers Defense and Austin Interfaith. Stevens said the outreach was a means of identifying issues citywide, not just in neighborhoods impacted by stealth dorm construction.


This work might not be in vain, as outlined by the subcommittee. Though they opted for speed on the occupancy limits, it was on the condition that a more “holistic” solution from the working group would follow posthaste.


Planning Commissioners also expressed a need to look further at potential legal liabilities in relation to the Fair Housing Act, and asked for an analysis of how the change could impact affordability in less-central areas of town. Both issues will be addressed by the full commission.


The committee supported both the idea that the ordinance should be citywide and a strict limit of four unrelated people for properties that are zoned single-family – even in the case of duplexes and properties with garage apartments. This means that duplexes will allow four unrelated people total – two per side.


The committee steered clear of delving into how the change would apply to already-built properties, and expressed a desire to leave that in the hands of City Council and, later, the working group.


The change in occupancy requirements is an attempt to head-off the proliferation of so-called “stealth dorms” in some neighborhoods. Stealth dorms have, largely, flown under the city’s regulatory radar, and some have complained that the city’s current occupancy rates make fixing stealth dorm problems harder.


But there is a dramatic range of opinions about how the change would impact affordability.


Original University Neighborhood Association President Nuria Zaragosa argued that stealth dorms, and high maximum occupancy limits, were negatively impacting affordability in the city.


“I think this very generous occupancy of six is creating a market where the rents that they can bring in are so high that we have families that can’t buy into our neighborhood. They would have to have $700,000 or $800,000 to be able to pay what a developer would be able to pay, given what he could bring in rent,” said Zaragosa. “So we can keep that mix of families, of students, of young professionals living in the center of Austin, we need to look at this phenomenon that has led to these dorm-style houses that bring in incredible sums of rent a month.”


Others who spoke at the subcommittee meeting were less clear that maximum occupancy rates would fix the problem, and worried that the change could negatively impact affordability.


Julie Montgomery said she was part of a large group of Austinites working on affordability in the city.


“I think it’s a lot easier for folks who have been adults for a long time and have bought their houses when the market was cheaper to come to you and say, ‘We need a crackdown on housing’,” said Montgomery. “One voice that you are not hearing in the room today is students, and low-wage workers… I would hope that you would consider the effects that reducing the occupancy limit would have on everyone.”


Despite the push for a fast pace by those who were supportive of more strict occupancy rates, concerns were raised about the speed of such a sweeping, citywide change, and the unintended consequences that change could have.


Darla Gay, senior planner at the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, works with the Re-Entry Roundtable. She said that she hadn’t even heard about the proposed change until last week, and had initially thought it was a geographically-limited conversation about housing near the university.


“As it relates to 97 percent occupancy, and affordability issues here… I think we are creating some scenarios where we are going to make housing instability go up, and we already have dramatic housing instability now,” said Gay, who said that when she phoned stakeholders that she worked with, “they had no idea this conversation was happening.”


“To say now is the time for action – I’m just now starting to find out about an ordinance that is citywide that could impact housing that is serving peer-to-peer support for recovery. Thank you for bringing up Fair Housing. The city has yet to do a codified, reasonable accommodation under Fair Housing… That’s going to have to be addressed at some point,” said Gay.


Gay was joined in her concerns by groups such as the Austin Board of Realtors, who asked for a slower pace and more conversation around the change.


Emily Chenevert with ABoR points out that an already-formed Stealth Dorm Working Group has not met since the Council action. She says that the months of work done by that group should be incorporated into the discussion of the occupancy limits which are intended (at least in part) to address the stealth dorm problem in parts of the city.


“If we’re going to really address the perceived nuisance problem, and the issues of the stealth dorms themselves, unless we address the fact that the market is driving the demand for these stealth dorms, it’s just not very effective,” says Chenevert.


Though AboR doesn’t yet have a position on the occupancy rates, Chenevert stressed that it was important, when facing complicated issues such as stealth dorms, to have a comprehensive discussion on proposed solutions.


Others disagreed


“I really think the time for talking is over. Neighborhoods are being destroyed. It’s time for action,” said Betsy Greenberg, who lives in the Heritage Neighborhood.

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