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City fails to patch SXSW crash-pad issue

Wednesday, March 18, 2015 by Kara Nuzback

An East Austin home whose lease holders are housing musicians in exchange for promotion on social media has city officials flummoxed. Neighbors of the Waller Street property argue that it is an inappropriate use of the house, which is zoned residential. Officials are still investigating whether they are treating the property as commercial, as a short-term rental, or whether the use is actually a zoning violation.

The Planning Commission Codes and Ordinances Subcommittee attempted to take up the issue at its Tuesday meeting, but it took no action. Austin Planning and Development Review Department official Jerry Rusthoven said the city needs to investigate the situation at 1307 Waller St. further before the subcommittee can begin to discuss ways to address the problem in the future.

Less than a year ago, homeowners Blake and Toria English lost a bid at City Council to retain an extra 16.8 percent of impervious cover, including a paved front yard. Though Toria English was president of the neighborhood association at the time, the request faced strong opposition from neighbors. The English family still owns the house, but has now rented it out.

Currently, Mondelez International, Inc., the company that produces Sour Patch Kids, holds a one-year lease on the property, and opened the house to guests in time for South by Southwest. Artists can stay in the home free of charge, but they are encouraged to promote the hashtag #AustinPatch on social media.

Neighbors petitioned the subcommittee at its last meeting to address the issue. Paula Reckson, a Swede Hill Neighborhood resident, said at the meeting Tuesday that if the use is commercial, it is taking a residential unit off the market. Subcommittee Chair James Nortey agreed, adding that if the use is short-term rental, he does not want it to discourage neighborhoods from embracing short-term rentals.

Subcommittee member Stephen Oliver said the community obviously feels that the use of the house is a problem. However, he noted, “Until we know what the violation is, is there a violation?”

Oliver also expressed concern that other residential properties in town will copy the Austin Patch model. “Is it just a one-time thing, or do we think it’s going to be more than that?” he asked.

Subcommittee member Jean Stevens asked when the committee would be able to take action on the issue. “I kind of feel like we’re dropping the ball,” she said.

Rusthoven said a code complaint was filed against the Waller Street property. He did not mention who filed the complaint, but said city officials are investigating it in addition to the use of the property.

“Until we land on what it is, it’s hard to say what we need to change,” he said.

Marcus Elliott of the Austin Code Department countered Rusthoven’s analysis, saying, “We have identified it as a short-term rental.” Elliott said he could not reveal how the use of the property was identified, but that the department sent a notice of violation to the owners last week.

Elliott went on to note that the definition of a short-term rental does not rely on the exchange of money. “It’s rented for less than 30 days,” which constitutes a short-term rental, he said.

Rusthoven immediately reiterated that the city was still looking into the use of the property.

Nortey said the subcommittee would put the issue on its agenda next month. “I think it’s fair to take no action now,” he said.



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