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Council resolution would move city closer to allowing very small units

Thursday, August 7, 2014 by Tyler Whitson

The City of Austin may soon designate a clear path within its Land Development Code for residents to legally construct and dwell in very small houses pending approval of a resolution to be voted on at today’s regular Austin City Council meeting.

According to the draft discussed at Tuesday’s Council work session, the resolution would direct City Manager Marc Ott to “identify obstacles to building, parking and living in single-family detached homes that are less than 500 square feet in size and are often on wheels.” It notes, “there may currently be barriers in our Land Development Code, specifically the Zoning Code and Building Codes, that make tiny house development difficult or impractical.”

The term grew out of a social movement that advocates for small, affordable dwellings as viable alternatives to large, multiple room homes that are cost-prohibitive to many potential buyers in metropolitan areas.

 Council Member Chris Riley told the Austin Monitor in an email why he is sponsoring the resolution alongside co-sponsor Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole.

“More and more people in Austin and elsewhere are choosing to live in smaller spaces,” he said. “As a city, we have every reason to step and embrace that trend: It offers real benefits in terms of sustainability and affordability, and our Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan calls on us to provide more housing options.”

The resolution draft suggests that the study’s findings could influence CodeNEXT, an ongoing overhaul of the city’s Land Development Code that is planned for completion by 2017. Riley went further in his email, saying, “we can’t wait until 2017 or later to begin addressing our affordability and housing choice constraints in Austin. Our housing needs grow every day, and we need to do the best we can to address them now.”

 Council Member Laura Morrison requested the agenda item for inclusion in Tuesday’s meeting and sought clarification as to whether the intent of the resolution is to integrate the proposed study’s findings into CodeNEXT or to act on them outside of that process.

“I guess my concern is that if there is a small tweak that opens all of the neighborhoods up to tiny houses on wheels, that’s a major shift in the way we do residential,” Morrison said. “I think that’s the kind of conversation that really should be part of CodeNEXT.”

Riley responded that the resolution’s passage would not trigger any change to the Land Development Code.

“If the recommendation comes back saying we should address this in CodeNEXT, then we can certainly consider that then,” Riley said. “On the other hand, if there are quick and easy things that we can do now without waiting until the completion of CodeNEXT, then that would be something to consider as well.”

The resolution’s introduction follows the May 5 release of the Land Development Code Diagnosis. The study, conducted as part of CodeNEXT, reported in its key findings that “lack of household affordability and choice” is the fourth most important issue for the city to consider going forward.

It also succeeds the council’s adoption of two resolutions that could scale back regulations on the development of micro units and accessory dwelling units as designated in the Land Development Code.

The most recent draft of the tiny houses resolution listed Sept. 15 as the deadline for Ott’s report, though this is likely to be pushed back, following discussion during Tuesday’s meeting. If the deadline has changed, it will be addressed at today’s Council meeting.

(Due to an editing error, the very small houses were incorrectly referred to as “granny flats” in an earlier version of this story.)

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