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Stealth dorm regulations head back to Council

Wednesday, February 18, 2015 by Sunny Sone

The stealth dorm issue has lived to see another City Council. The Planning Commission took the next step to combat occupancy limit violations at its regular meeting last week.

Commissioners voted unanimously to forward a recommendation from the Stealth Dorm Working Group to Council. Those recommendations address code compliance, development and nuisance management, and even suggest creating a new zoning category.

Multi-Family Lite, the proposed category, would encompass duplexes, fourplexes and sixplexes, or all structures with designs typical of “stealth dorms.” The relabeling is an effort to eliminate some misuses of single-family zoned property in the city.

Commissioner Stephen Oliver voiced concern about the proposed zoning category, saying that the commission has to take the ongoing land development code rewrite, CodeNEXT, into account. The creation of a new zoning category could have ramifications during the implementation process, he said.

“I think there’s questions to be raised with that,” Oliver said. “I want to make sure we do put focus on some serious process issues.”

According to the recommendations, newly permitted buildings with designs typical of over-occupancy would have to agree to an inspection after one year. The inspection would ensure the building adheres to the occupancy limit ordinance and houses no more than four unrelated individuals.

The written recommendations note, “The Planning Commission does not expect the Code Compliance Department to inspect every single structure. However, this provides the department with a tool to inspect homes identified through complaints.”

The recommendations also address issues that have kept the Code Compliance Department from enforcing the existing ordinances. Commissioners approved recommendations that establish a system of escalating fines for repeat offenses, each tracked by a “Notice of Violation.” Commissioners also encouraged staff efforts to coordinate communication between departments, which they say will aid in tracking violations.

Perhaps more critically, the recommendations ask the city to institute civil hearings for code violations. Currently, Code Compliance must try to resolve complaints through criminal proceedings, whose much higher threshold of proof makes it hard to process violations.

Parking violations, trash collection, noise and overcrowding would be added to the nuisance provision of the Property Maintenance Code to strengthen compliance accountability. If trash cans are left out for more than three days, for example, Code Compliance can investigate the home for over-occupancy.

Additionally, grandfathered structures with repeat code violations would lose the grandfathered status that allows them to maintain an occupancy limit of six unrelated individuals.

Council will also consider expanding the ordinance beyond the affected neighborhoods, outlined in the McMansion Ordinance. Those properties stretch from Research Boulevard to William Cannon Drive and Loop 360 to Ed Bluestein Boulevard.

Council will also review the effectiveness of the occupancy limits ordinance and consider expanding the ordinance beyond its two-year time limit. Council passed the ordinance after media coverage of “stealth dorms,” or single-family homes designed to house college students. The occupancy limit ordinance, passed last February, limits the number of unrelated individuals in a household to four, down from six.

The Stealth Dorm Working Group was assembled in June 2013 and is composed of stakeholders from real estate groups, the Austin Neighborhood Council and affected neighborhoods, the Code Compliance Department, the American Institute of Architects and students.

In addition to considering the recommendations in the future, Council will review the stealth dorm issue during a policy deep-dive this Thursday.

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