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Committee says Austin not ready for micro units

Friday, September 19, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Though they may not be a bad idea, it just may not be the right time for micro units in Austin.

That was the sentiment at the Planning Commission Codes and Ordinances committee Tuesday, where commissioners voted unanimously to deny recommending a code amendment that would reduce barriers to building micro units in the city.

“I don’t know why we are rushing this forward when we are in the process of taking a large-picture look at what needs to be in our code, what kinds of things are going to work, and where in the city they are going to work,” said Commissioner Danette Chimenti. “There are some good ideas I just think need to be properly vetted. I think the public can do that in the context of CodeNEXT.”

“I don’t think this is a bad idea. I think it’s bad timing,” said Chimenti.

Micro units are small efficiencies that are typically in buildings with reduced parking. The city is considering the units as a solution for some renters, given the 49 percent increase in rent since 2003 and a population that is more than one-third single people. Of particular concern Tuesday was the idea of reduced parking for the units.

Though Senior Planner Greg Dutton had studied other cities to see whether parking was a problem, or whether micro units were inhabited by people who didn’t own cars, it was tough to compare other cities with Austin accurately.

“I think the places where people are less-likely to have cars and live in micro units are the places where they were probably less-likely to have a car before they lived in a micro unit,” said Dutton, who pointed out that denser cities with good public transit like San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Portland were places where people “didn’t have cars to begin with.”

Chimenti said that while people who lived in cities with good public transit didn’t need cars, in Austin, “we weren’t quite there yet.”

“There are places that have really good public transit systems, and so there is a plethora of people who actually don’t have cars. I don’t know any people in Austin who don’t have cars,” said Chimenti.

Mary Ingle told commissioners that the Central Austin Neighborhood Planning Advisory Committee had voted against both micro units and accessory dwelling units at its most recent meeting, asking the city to respect both the neighborhood plans and the Imagine Austin comprehensive plan. Ingle said the group recommended “Council not pass blanket ordinances that will make the code revision potentially more difficult.”

Speaking for herself, Ingle said that the proposal was “a little premature.”

“If you have set transportation in place, it makes sense to get rid of parking spaces and put in more dense housing of this sort, but right now we don’t have that transportation option,” said Ingle. “It could potentially explode.”

This was not the first time micro units had been taken up by the committee. After taking the time to do more research on the topic, Dutton explained that micro units are not without their issues. Though the overall rents tended to be lower, the cost per square foot tends to be 1.5 to 3 times higher. Even less car-dependent cities with more robust residential permit parking were seeing problems with reduced parking for residential units, said Dutton. As currently proposed, 0.6 parking spaces would be required for each unit.

Housing advocate Stuart Hersh, said it was a misconception that the city did not currently allow micro units.

“City code has a definition of what a micro unit is. It’s an efficiency apartment, and it’s been in the adopted building code since the Seventies,” said Hersh, who added that they require more than conventional apartments do, and warned that some of the proposed standards were “nonsense” that could run afoul of the building code and fair housing standards.

“I urged staff to reflect what the code says, so a developer doesn’t get an approved site plan they can’t build under the building code, which is a habit we do in this city, stupidly,” said Hersh.

City Council is currently scheduled to consider Micro Units at the Oct. 2 meeting. Under the currently proposed ordinance, they would be allowed along Core Transit Corridors, Future Transit Corridors for areas that had multifamily or mixed used base zoning districts.

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