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Micro unit ordinance fails to win over commission

Monday, September 29, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

A proposed micro unit ordinance got a small amount of support at the Planning Commission last week, but it was not nearly enough to win its recommendation.

Commissioners made it clear that they were not opposed to the idea of micro units. However, their concerns about the timing of the change were strong enough that they recommended to deny the ordinance in a vote of 6-1-1, with Commissioner Brian Roark voting in opposition and Commissioner Stephen Oliver abstaining. Commissioner Richard Hatfield was absent.

“I’m really frustrated with this ordinance,” said Oliver. “As I understand it, it got really complicated. Much more so than the original intention of Council. I fundamentally don’t think this will do any good if this was put into place … the likelihood of this being meaningful is, unfortunately, lost.”

“It’s going to upset people on both sides of the fence, and that is the real travesty,” Oliver continued. “Because this is a fantastic idea. And we’re losing it.”

Oliver said that he was in complete support of micro units, and that in “many ways” Austin was ready for them. On the other hand, he agreed with the need for a comprehensive transportation study. He said that, as a body, the Planning Commission needed to address affordable housing issues that couldn’t wait for CodeNEXT and had to decide how to do that.

Commissioner James Nortey explained that the commission’s Codes and Ordinances committee had voted unanimously to deny the recommendation.

“I think we all understood that this could be a great tool to provide additional housing supply, and possibly affordability, but it seemed very, very clear that Austin — at least how it exists today — isn’t ready for micro units,” said Nortey.

Nortey explained that other cities studied had a more robust transit system and fewer issues with parking. He said it did not make much sense to introduce micro units now, while the Land Development Code is rewritten.

Chair Danette Chimenti agreed, saying the committee thought micro units would be a good tool to have eventually, and hoped it would be considered in the context of CodeNEXT instead of “shoving it through right now.”

If approved by City Council, the ordinance would amend the portion of the code dealing with efficiencies. Micro units are small efficiency units. Currently, the city’s code makes it hard to construct micro units because of density and parking requirements.

In March, Council asked staff to draft the code changes to make construction of small units of 220 to 400 square feet easier. That ordinance has been drafted.

Planning and Development Review senior planner Greg Dutton said that micro units might persuade people to downsize their cars for a nicer building with more amenities. He explained that, similar to Vertical Mixed Use projects, micro unit developers get more density and are required to provide less parking, but must provide on-site affordability in return. Dutton clarified that the affordability requirement was not on individual units but applied building-wide.

“It’s very similar to VMU, but without the mixed use on the first floor,” said Dutton.

Housing advocate Stuart Hersh reiterated his belief that the proposed ordinance will not increase affordable units in the city and that it does not comply with the Fair Housing Act, nor the building code.

“Usually in the zoning code, we don’t speak to the building code. The building code lives on its own, and the zoning code really doesn’t get into the detailed level that the building code does,” said Dutton, who explained that, as a matter of practice, the law department does not like to cross-reference other sections of the code.

Nortey said the commission would like to see the changes implemented in concert with a Residential Parking Permit program and comprehensive transportation plan.

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