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Council takes small step toward approving micro units

Tuesday, October 21, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Despite lingering concerns, City Council members moved tentatively forward with a micro unit ordinance at their last meeting, voting to approve the new regulations on first reading only.

City Council voted 4-2 to approve the ordinance, but it was clear that questions about the proposed changes remained. Council Members Kathie Tovo and Laura Morrison voted in opposition, and Council Member Mike Martinez was absent for the vote.

“Working on issues like that one by one, without looking at them comprehensively, I believe can lead us into trouble and, in fact, has led us down a road that we are surprised to get to right now,” said Morrison.

The Planning Commission and Community Development Commission both recommended to deny the micro unit ordinance, though Council Member Chris Riley subsequently offered a number of changes.

Though current code technically allows for micro units, things like parking requirements and building codes work to inhibit their construction. The staff proposal defines micro units as units that are less than 400 square feet in size. The ordinance also reduces the parking requirement from one per unit to 0.6 per unit.

Council Member Chris Riley raised concerns about whether the staff proposal would actually allow micro units to be built in any significant way. The current proposal, he said, would allow micro units in “sprinkling of places” that were fairly far outside the city.

“I think the staff recommendation actually goes in some directions that we really don’t want to be going. They actually provide a fairly complicated way of allowing micro units, and it’s very modest changes that come from having micro units, and just not all that helpful,” said Riley.

Planning and Development Review’s Jerry Rusthoven explained. The original Council resolution asked that micro units be allowed in “core transit corridors.” Because core transit corridors have commercial zoning, which does not allow residential uses, or Vertical-Mixed Use zoning already established, Rusthoven agreed that the current ordinance “doesn’t apply to many geographic areas.”

In light of that, Riley suggested a number of changes from staff recommendations that change the limit from 400 to 500 square feet, remove the requirement that the unit be an efficiency layout, removed the requirement that the units only be allowed on current and future core transit corridors and included VMU and SF-6 as zoning districts as places where micro units would be allowed, among other things.

Council Member Bill Spelman said that while eliminating parking requirements might be “too Draconian,” eliminating site area requirements could be reasonable. He said the changes were a good start, and Council “could iron out the changes in a reading or two.”

Both Tovo and Morrison expressed concern that developers would be incentivized away from building VMU units and toward micro units.

Tovo also questioned a proposal by Riley to eliminate parking requirements for micro units. Riley argued that the proposal would strengthen affordability in the city, and is consistent with the Imagine Austin plan and CodeNEXT process.

Morrison expressed concern that the changes Riley proposed Thursday were “significantly different” than what he had proposed at the work session Tuesday.

Specifically, Morrison pointed to the change that would eliminate parking requirements not just for micro units, but the entire building, if it contained micro units. Riley said that was not his intent.

Morrison said she was “very concerned” about the impact the ordinance could have on VMU projects.

“If this is going to be displacing larger units on VMU – I hope we can see a future where we have families or kids living in apartments, and we could make things walkable. That would be part of the vision, I think, and this would discourage that,” said Morrison.

Riley said he realized there had not been as much public scrutiny of the plan as he would have liked, and that was why he was asking it only be approved on first reading, which would allow for more discussion.

Housing advocate Stuart Hersh supported Riley’s changes. He said it would do more to support affordability for Austin’s poorest residents.

Dan Keshet also supported the ordinance. He said that he did, in effect, live in a micro unit and that was “exactly what he needed.” He explained that, with housing like micro units, it was possible to live in Austin without a car.

Zilker resident David King opposed the ordinance as a whole, saying it was premature and should be incorporated into the CodeNEXT process. He warned that micro units in Seattle had “created an uproar” by creating parking issues and not helping with affordability.

Mary Ingle also spoke against the ordinance, which was opposed by the Central Austin Neighborhood Planning Advisory Committee. She asked Council to respect the city’s neighborhood plans and not pass ordinances that would make the CodeNEXT process more difficult.

“There’s no reason to jump in and do something pell-mell,” said Ingle.

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