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Thursday, November 6, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

More questions raised about Austin micro units

It’s been a tough road for the micro unit ordinance, and so far this week hasn’t been any easier.

While City Council passed a micro unit ordinance on first reading Oct. 16, at its most recent work session, it was clear that questions about the proposition remain.

Many of those questions came from Council Member Laura Morrison on Tuesday. Morrison pointed out that while micro units may satisfy some of the city’s goals, the current ordinance could thwart others.

Morrison said that, as written, the ordinance could undermine existing incentives for ground-floor retail by offering developers an alternative to Vertical Mixed Use developments, where it is required.

She also worried that the change could discourage the construction of family-friendly housing, which is another goal of the city.

“I just wanted to point out that we have conflicting goals here,” said Morrison. “We haven’t evaluated the balance and what this will do.”

“Why aren’t we thinking about these globally? Why are we picking one goal over another?” asked Morrison. “That is a very serious concern for me … I know that it’s very difficult to get a movement toward families living on core transit corridors. But the reality is, if we want to be the kind of city we say we want to be, we need to make it possible and attractive for families to live in that dense environment.”

Council Member Chris Riley said there was no intent to undermine establishing ground-floor retail, and that he would be happy to include language in the ordinance that would make that clear. He said the ordinance was trying to meet a demand for smaller units in core transit areas and wasn’t sure that the demand for family housing was the same.

Riley added that residences such as stealth dorms have displaced families because the city had not met demand for the kind of smaller dwellings that would be encouraged through the micro unit ordinance.

“If we could supply these units, we would see a greater supply of family-friendly housing,” said Riley.

As was the case in past discussions, the conversation also centered around the wisdom of eliminating parking requirements for micro units entirely.

“I think we can fully expect some people to have cars. It won’t be zero,” said Morrison. “My concern is that some people will have cars, they will park in the neighborhoods, there’s no protection for that, and while we might be working toward an idealistic world where people really can live on core transit corridors and not have cars, I think it really makes sense for us to consider a more graceful transition.”

That graceful transition, explained Morrison, would involve a lower parking requirement, but not an elimination of parking entirely.

Riley said the idea that some micro unit residents would want cars was “a fair point.” Later, he acknowledged that there had been no comprehensive study of downtown car ownership rates.

“My belief is that there are many people who would like to have the opportunity to live in a smaller unit on a core transit corridor and not have a car, and that would be a significant advancement for affordability and traffic issues, if we could make those options available,” said Riley.

Riley pointed out that structured parking can cost $20,000 to $40,000 per space, and eliminating that cost can lead to greater affordability.

Morrison suggested separating parking from the units, with the option for people to pay for parking if they need it, and Riley said that he would be happy to consider decoupling parking requirements, if that was the will of the Council. He said he would also be amenable to including language about residential parking permits for areas where micro units were constructed.

Riley said that decoupling parking and eliminating requirements downtown and near the university has already had a noticeable impact in the city.

“It essentially provides a built-in incentive for people living in those places not to have cars,” said Riley. “I’m hopeful that we will continue to see a growing number of people make use of the opportunity to live in a setting where they don’t need to rely as much on a car, in fact can continue to avoid the expense of owning and maintaining a car.”

Though current code technically allows for micro units, related policies like parking requirements and building codes can discourage 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. Riley has offered a number of changes to the staff proposal, including eliminating parking requirements entirely.

Council members are scheduled to vote on the ordinance during today’s meeting.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

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