Wednesday, March 26, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Riley’s push for micro-apartments draws complaint from Morrison

A push from Council Member Chris Riley to revise Austin’s Land Development Code to include new provisions to encourage the construction of micro-apartments raised concerns from Council Member Laura Morrison at Council’s Tuesday work session. There, Morrison argued that the move – set for approval at Thursday’s Council meeting – would run counter to work completed as part of an agreement that solidified Vertical Mixed Use zoning.

 

“I want to express my concern about the intent for doing this, because on transit corridors and core transit corridors, we have vertical mixed use, which does, among other things, provide a program for waiving minimum site area requirements and reducing the parking,” Morrison told her colleagues. “That VMU overlay…resulted in the whole – I hate to mention it – opt-in, opt-out process that involved thousands of hours of discussion and evaluation from hundreds and hundreds of citizens.”

 

For his part, Riley argued that the code change is essential. “As you know, the vertical mixed use provisions do not allow, for instance, for elimination of parking requirements. There still are significant parking requirements associated with VMU.”

 

He continued on to note “other constraints” that “have resulted in fairly limited application of those provisions.”

 

“We haven’t seen as much VMU development as some people had expected,” he concluded.

 

Riley’s amendment would initiate a code change process that would, if successful, end in a rewrite that decouples parking requirements from units that are less than 500 square feet in size. The resolution that would start the process calls out affordability as a major driver for the change.

 

“Micro-unit development offers the potential of placing more affordable dwelling units within reach of those who want to live an urban lifestyle, often accompanied by reduced car ownership,” it reads.

 

Council Member Bill Spelman echoed those thoughts Tuesday. “We’re really talking about a different animal in a way,” he began. “With VMU, the way you provide affordable housing is you raise the rents on 90 percent of the units so that you can lower the rents on 10 percent of the units. You’re providing some affordable units, but there is a cost to it.”

 

He continued: “This is a different way of providing affordable housing. The idea here is that people will pay a little bit more per square foot for a smaller number of square feet.”

 

That kicked off a supply and demand debate between Spelman and Morrison, each unwilling to back away from their differences on the matter.

 

Morrison also suggested that Riley’s proposal would undermine compromises crafted as part of Council’s passage of VMU zoning. She cited the affordability component baked into those rules.

 

Later, she told the Monitor by email that her concerns in this regard linger. “We need to be concerned that allowing a waiver to minimum site area requirements on (core transit corridors) and future CTCs as contemplated by the resolution, could ruin the effectiveness of the VMU affordability tool that we have: it’s probably safe to say that if a developer has a choice of waiving the requirement with or without providing affordability, often if not always, we would see the developer choosing to do it without including affordable units,” she wrote.

 

“That would be very unfortunate, especially considering that VMU is one of the few if not the only program we have that requires on-site affordability.”

 

Morrison reminded the Monitor that core transit corridors are among regions where the city allows use of vertical mixed-use zoning.

 

“Fundamentally, any effort under this resolution needs to very carefully understand the interaction and impact it could have on how density on our corridors evolves; be sure to not obliterate the progress we’ve made; and respect the 1000’s of hours by 100’s of residents who worked through the VMU adoption process,” she concluded.

 

Morrison also called for Riley’s proposed revisions to be incorporated into the ongoing wider conversation that would retool the city’s land development code. As he did last week as part of Council discussions about a reduction in maximum occupancy limits, Riley insisted that all upcoming code changes need not be tied to the code re-write.

 

“I do not believe that we should think of CodeNEXT as some black box that will just take care of itself in a few years,” he said. “I think that is putting too much expectation on the process.”

 

Riley added that that conclusion is based on conversations with the consultants working with the city on the land development code rewrite. He noted that they have suggested that Council members continue bringing forward code amendments.

 

Developers have suggested that Austin’s red hot housing market could support micro-apartments, and that such facilities – as is envisioned in Riley’s resolution – would help achieve wider affordability.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

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.

CodeNEXT: CodeNEXT is the name given to the land development code rewrite process undertaken in the early 2010s by the City of Austin.

Vertical Mixed Use (VMU): According to the city's website, "A vertical mixed use building contains a mix of residential and commercial uses. Typically, commercial uses (i.e. retail shops, restaurants, offices) are located on the ground floor, while residential units (condominiums or apartments) are located on upper levels."

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