Tuesday, February 18, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

City Council approves limits on occupancy rates on first reading

After a very long night at its last meeting, the Austin City Council had taken definitive steps toward a reduction of maximum occupancy rates in single-family dwellings.


Council voted on first reading to reduce the maximum occupancy from six unrelated persons to four in a vote of 6-1. Council Member Bill Spelman cast the lone vote in opposition.


The change is an attempt to halt the proliferation of “stealth dorms” in the central city.


Council Member Mike Martinez explained that the decision to lower occupancy rates was the result of years of thinking about stealth dorms and the limitations of what the city can do to regulate them.


“It’s very, very limited what we can do… As long as (a house) fits within our Land Development Code, and all the requirements in that code, we have to release the permit and allow that structure to be built. We have looked at many, many aspects of this,” said Martinez. “I don’t want you to think that this code change is some oversimplification of a very, very difficult issue. This is one step.”


“In my opinion, what we are doing is as good as we possibly can do at this point,” said Martinez.


Council won’t take up the issue again until March 20. That will allow time for the Austin Board of Realtors to produce data about the potential impact to affordable housing in the city. That study was commissioned from the dais at about 1:30 a.m. Friday, after much discussion from both sides about whether the change would increase or decrease affordability in the city.


If Council moves forward with the change March 20, it will do so 11 days before input from the city’s Stealth Dorm Working Group is ready. This order of operations concerned some people.


“The process that got us to this point was not inclusive,” said John Lawler. “Whoever is bringing forward this occupancy reduction did not include students, did not include renters, and came to this conclusion basically in a vacuum.”


Lawler asked Council members to allow the working group time to bring in stakeholders and come to a compromise. Council Member Kathie Tovo pointed out that the working group had reached out to student groups recently, which Lawler affirmed was true. But, he pointed out, the group had not met since reaching out to stakeholders.


The Council did opt to retain a two-year sunset for the change, in the hopes that a more permanent and holistic fix could be brought forward in the meantime, either through the working group or through the Land Development Code rewrite currently underway.


Council also took on the issue of grandfathering, which was not addressed by the Planning Commission. As it stands now, duplexes would be grandfathered to 2003 (when the super-duplex ordinance passed) and garden apartments would be grandfathered to 2004. Council also included language for both garden apartments and duplexes that would allow the four unrelated persons to be divided


Though the Planning Commission recommended that the change be implemented citywide, Council settled on restricting the change to that area of the city covered by the McMansion Ordinance – for now. After quite a bit of discussion about whether the ordinance should be limited further, and how, Council ultimately decided to save that discussion for the next reading.


“I know a lot of people are very upset about this particular decision on both sides. But what I hope people will bear in mind is that this is one small battle, and the bigger fight is how we are going to accommodate the housing demand that we know is out there, and we know we are not doing a good job of addressing now,” said Council Member Chris Riley. “I hope we can leave here tonight committing to working together – people on both sides – to figure out the solutions that are so sorely lacking right now.”


“We all want a diversity of housing options to be available. That is the ultimate goal. And that is what I hope we can achieve in the coming months and years. That’s why I’m supportive of the two year limit that the Planning Commission suggested,” said Riley.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin Board of Realtors: The Austin Board of Realtors is an 8600-member organization for real estate agents in the city. It maintains the city's Member Listing Service (MLS) database. ABoR is also a charter member of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation. As such, they have donated CoTMF. CoTMF is the parent organization of the Austin Monitor.

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

City of Austin Land Development Code: The city's Land Development Code regulates building and development in the city of Austin. As part of the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, the code is currently undergoing a rewrite in what is called the "CodeNEXT." That process is expected to be completed in 2016.

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

McMansion Ordinance (subchapter F): In 2006, Austin implemented the McMansion Ordinance in an attempt to limit the mass of new construction in some areas of the city. The ordinance does so by limiting things like floor-to-area ratio and impervious cover, as well as establishing design standards for larger homes.

stealth dorm: The pejorative nickname for buildings constructed in area neighborhoods to house multiple students, despite being zoned as single-family residences.

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