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Friday, March 4, 2016 by Eva Ruth Moravec

Occupancy limits made permanent

City Council on Thursday eliminated an expiration date from the occupancy-limits ordinance, making permanent a cap on occupancy in new single-family homes.

Council voted to amend the ordinance in a 9-1-1 vote, with Council Member Ellen Troxclair opposed and Council Member Don Zimmerman abstaining.

The original ordinance was passed two years ago and limited the number of residents in a single home to four unrelated adults in parts of town where McMansions are banned – along with areas zoned as single-family. Existing homes and duplexes are not affected.

The goal at the time was to stop homes from being torn down to make way for higher-density buildings, sometimes called "stealth dorms." Opponents at the time said that the decrease in occupancy limits would lead to an increase in rent.

"From the two years of results, we can tell that it actually works," Mike Wong, president of the Northfield Neighborhood Association, told Council members Thursday evening. "The reason why is because occupancy reduction reduces the financial incentive for tear-down."

He said that between 2012 and 2014, about 100 homes were demolished for higher-destiny housing. Since the adoption of the occupancy limits, only about a dozen homes have been torn down, Wong said.

But Civic Analytics' Brian Kelsey – who was tasked in 2014 with hurriedly studying whether the occupancy limits would affect rental rates – said that the evidence once again has not been thoughtfully considered.

Kelsey's study was inconclusive, and he said he needed more than the three weeks he was given to gather real results, although he noted that in at least one neighborhood he surveyed – the 78751 ZIP code – leasing costs rose by 75 percent in five years.

In an emailed statement Thursday night, Kelsey said that Council's latest actions were based on a "lack of evidence since we don't seem to be all that interested in investing the time and resources into what's necessary to conduct a careful study of the impacts."

Kelsey added that tenants in high-occupancy units have not been heard from, though "a handful of vocal neighborhood representatives who, apparently, moonlight as housing economists" have.

Stuart Harry Hersh, who rents, told Council that making occupancy limits permanent would "make it a permanent and criminal offense for three unmarried couples to live in the same place" in a new home, even if it otherwise met standards.

Council Member Greg Casar said he originally shared Hersh's worry that the limits would criminalize "folks trying to make ends meet" by renting with other unrelated adults. But, he said, his concerns were quieted after learning "that no one has been cited for living together trying to make ends meet" and the rules have only regulated building types.

Casar added that capping occupancy is an "awkward" way to regulate development. Council Member Sheri Gallo asked if the issue would be addressed in CodeNEXT, the city's effort – currently underway – to revise development code; staff answered that it will.

Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

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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.

occupancy limits: The limit on how many people may occupy a specifically zoned dwelling.

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