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Council mulls granny flats, garage apartments

Wednesday, November 18, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

Ahead of a Thursday vote that could loosen rules for building accessory dwelling units such as granny flats and garage apartments, City Council debated the potential benefits and risks of the move at a work session on Tuesday.

Council Member Greg Casar, who chairs the Planning and Neighborhoods Committee and has recently led the effort to make it easier for Austinites to build accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, argued that the measure could result in more affordable housing stock coming to neighborhoods facing housing shortages. “Not deeply affordable housing, but also not subsidized housing,” he said.

“We did have a lot of people come to our committee saying, ‘I want to build a granny flat in my backyard, but the city’s current restrictions require me to build two parking spaces, require me to build a driveway that paves through my yard to get to the accessory dwelling unit, requires so much of a setback away from my house but a certain setback away from my neighbor’s house, or doesn’t let me build it if I have a standard-sized lot (in most neighborhoods),’” Casar said.

The proposed ordinance reduces building separation from 15 to 10 feet, allows an entrance within 10 feet of a property line, removes the driveway placement requirement, reduces the unit’s parking requirement to one off-street space, prohibits owners from using the units as Type 2 (non-owner-occupied) short-term rentals, reduces the minimum lot size for two-family residential use to 5,750 square feet and applies citywide. to all properties on which ADU construction is currently allowed.

Council Member Delia Garza raised public input concerns similar to those that Council discussed before adopting the ordinance on second reading at its Oct. 15 meeting. She stated that stakeholders have told her they feel the ordinance has changed substantially since Council closed its public hearing and adopted the item on first reading on June 18.

As a result of these concerns, Council appeared to come to a consensus that it will invite testimony from stakeholders prior to taking a vote.

Council Member Ann Kitchen said that although she agrees with the goal, she does not see a “direct connection” between loosening ADU restrictions and gaining more affordable housing.

Council Member Ora Houston expressed skepticism about whether more ADUs would increase affordability. “I don’t believe that it’s going to make affordable anything – I think that people will rent them out for market,” she said.

Casar cited data he’s received from local real estate agents showing that the average rent for properties leased through agents in Austin this year is about $1,600, while the average rent for ADUs leased through agents was about $1,150 per month. “Clearly, it’s cheaper because they tend to be one-bedrooms, they tend to be smaller, they also tend to be in high-opportunity areas.”

A report that the city commissioned, Casar said, identified restrictions on ADUs as a barrier to fair housing and racial and economic integration. “That was enough of a sell for me,” he said.

Kitchen raised concerns about making the proposed changes to the city’s Land Development Code, which is undergoing an overhaul – called CodeNEXT – that the city expects to be ready for adoption in late 2016.

“To me, it seems more prudent to make the initial changes that were agreed upon by all the stakeholders, make those changes, see what kinds of results we get and then have further discussion during the CodeNEXT process,” said Kitchen. “To me, it doesn’t make sense to go beyond what was agreed to.”

Kitchen was referring to a public stakeholder process that informed an earlier draft of the ordinance that was recommended in May by the Planning Commission and then amended by the Planning and Neighborhoods Committee before forwarding to Council.

Casar, who held a press conference prior to the meeting with supporters of the proposal, said that part of his goal in facilitating its drafting was “to think about what a moderate stance might be between now and CodeNEXT to create those options for folks, especially in other neighborhoods (that have not chosen to opt in to more ADU-friendly regulations).”

Casar referred to allowing ADUs only on lots that are of standard – 5,750 square feet – size or greater as a “middle-ground solution.”

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said she regards the Planning Commission recommendation as “the middle ground that Council Member Casar mentioned” but that she does not consider the current proposal to be middle ground.

“I think even the stakeholders who were concerned about changing the restrictions for ADUs outside of CodeNEXT felt reasonably comfortable with what came forward from Planning Commission because it … represented a balance,” said Tovo. “It would loosen up enough of the restrictions to allow more units to be constructed without going so far absent a broader analysis.”

Casar defended his perspective. “Just to get us through CodeNEXT, I said, ‘Just a standard lot, if you have a standard lot and you can build an extension to your house of a particular size, why can’t it be an apartment with a kitchen and a door on it?’” he said. CodeNEXT, he added, would “sharpen that pencil” in terms of policy.

Council Member Leslie Pool raised concerns about impacts to the city’s drainage system. “The real key here is our aging drainage infrastructure,” she said. “ADUs and rapid redevelopment in areas with this aging infrastructure will also see increased rates of flooding, and the drainage systems that we have in place currently were laid before we had modern drainage criteria.”

Council Member Sheri Gallo pointed out, with confirmation from Planning and Zoning Department Director Greg Guernsey, that the proposed ordinance would not allow property owners to build more impervious cover on their land than they could if they chose to add on to existing structures.

Impervious cover describes material on the ground, such as concrete, that rainwater cannot penetrate, and it is seen as a contributing factor to drainage and flooding issues.

Guernsey provided staff’s perspective. “In general, we would like to probably calm down any activity to certainly expand the code, but this is an item that has been going on for quite a while,” he said. He stated that staff would not object to reducing the minimum lot size to 5,750 square feet, but that it is difficult to say whether he believes all of the changes should apply citywide.

“We do feel very strongly that whatever you come up with should be done in a manner that’s easy for staff to administer,” Guernsey added.

Photo by Czech Wikipedia user Packa (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

This story has been corrected in order to accurately reflect the properties that will be impacted by the proposed changes.

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