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Council moves forward with proposal to allow micro apartment units

Friday, March 28, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

The discussion about micro apartment units boiled down to a few small details at Thursday’s City Council‘s meeting.


Council members approved a resolution 7-0, initiating a code amendment that could decouple parking requirements from units that are less than 500 square feet in size. This decoupling already exists in the University Neighborhood Overlay, where some residents can choose to rent parking separate from their living space.


“We lowered occupancy limits, but I recognize that really did not get to the root of the problem. The root of the problem is we have inadequate housing stock to meet the needs of our community… The big challenge in front of us is how we are going to meet the needs of our population,” said Council Member Chris Riley. “This proposal that we are talking about today is aimed at one part of the problem.”


“It does not address all of the housing needs that are out there, but it will address one housing need, and that relates to those people that would be willing to opt for a housing unit that is smaller than we typically see today and that might have less parking provided than we typically required in our code in the past,” said Riley, who pointed out that this type of housing could appeal to the roughly one-third of Austinites who are single.


Though Council Member Laura Morrison hoped to change the process from a code amendment initiation to “developing recommendations” for a change, she backed down when the city’s Law Department explained that Council wasn’t posted to make that change from the dais. The resolution will go through the normal code amendment process, and specifically asks for input from housing stakeholders and the Community Development Commission.


Morrison also reiterated concerns that the micro-units could negatively affect affordable housing created by Vertical Mixed Use (VMU) zoning on Core Transit Corridors (CTCs.)


Morrison attempted to insert a Whereas in the resolution that noted “there is a risk reducing or eliminating site area requirements on (core transit corridors) and future (core transit corridors) may decrease the effectiveness of VMU as a tool for housing affordability in Austin.”


Riley said he was skeptical, but didn’t mind acknowledging the argument. In that spirit, he agreed to the added clause, changing the language from “may decrease the effectiveness” to “could decrease the effectiveness.”


Austin Neighborhoods Council Executive Member David King told Council that he shared Morrison’s concerns.


“Will this ordinance encourage developers to scrap single-family homes and replace them with micro-units?” asked King. “Why rush this ordinance right now? The  CodeNEXT process is taking a comprehensive look at zoning and housing in all the neighborhoods across the city … When we rush things through the process we usually have things we have to come back and solve later on.”


Council did respond to concerns expressed by Joanne Bartz, who noted language in the resolution that promised to protect inner-city neighborhoods. Riley explained that the language was not solely intended to protect inner-city neighborhoods, and changed the language to reflect that.


The resolution also asked staff to continue their work looking at other cities’ experiences with micro-units, and potential unintended consequences of their implementation.


“I think we want to move forward with this having a better sense of what the success has been,” said Council Member Kathie Tovo. “A few of the emails we got, for example, suggested that there may not be a connection to reducing the size and producing affordable units. I think I would like to see some information about what it that looks like in some of the cities that have micro-units… I do think some additional information could be useful.”

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