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Friday, September 1, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

Single-family occupancy limits drop back to four in CodeNEXT second draft

There is a two-sided nature of the CodeNEXT drafting process. On the one hand, staff and third-party consultants meticulously work through the details of the new land use code on a daily basis. And, on the other, the land use commissions receive updates and weigh in every couple of weeks, resulting in some significant changes between drafts popping up as surprises at meetings.

Such was the case at the last joint land use meeting on Tuesday, when Planning and Zoning Director Greg Guernsey revealed that the occupancy limit of six unrelated adults per single-family home proposed in the first draft of CodeNEXT had been dropped back down to four unrelated adults in the second draft, in line with the ordinance passed by City Council in March 2016.

Planning Commissioner Greg Anderson asked if the consultants agreed with the ordinance, citing examples of other cities like Portland and Seattle that have higher occupancy limits. Guernsey said that opinions did not really factor into it. “Council just took action on that and gave very clear direction to staff,” he said at the meeting. “If the (land use) commissions would make a recommendation (on the occupancy limit), that might be something that Council may pay attention to, but staff is not going to change (it).”

Anderson urged his fellow commissioners to consider recommending a higher occupancy limit for Austin, citing an affordability impact statement published by the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department that concluded a lower occupancy limit would have a negative effect on affordable housing.

“Every time I turn around, we’re saying we care about affordability, and then we’re working on things that make it less affordable to (live) in this city,” Anderson said. “Eventually we have to stop.”

Planning Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza said that, on the contrary, in her experience higher occupancy has not translated into affordability. As the president of the Original West University Neighborhood Association back in 2010, she criticized developers for using the occupancy limit regulations to justify tearing down existing affordable housing stock to build new units that would maximize rent payments.

She proposed a hypothetical scenario under CodeNEXT T3 Neighborhood zoning where a site had a duplex in the front and an accessory dwelling unit in the back. Guernsey clarified that the standard occupancy limit for a single-family residence would no longer apply, because the site would be considered a multifamily product.

“So the occupancy limit of four would no longer apply to T3 sites that were developed to the entitlements of the code?” Zaragoza asked.

“That’s my understanding,” Guernsey said, “but I would need to go back and look.”

Zaragoza said that would mean that any properties currently zoned Family Residence (SF-3) that would be rezoned to T3 Neighborhood under CodeNEXT could see an occupancy limit jump from four to as high as 18. Guernsey confirmed her logic, but he also said that there were additional occupancy limits based on building size.

Still, Zaragoza said that she was disturbed that this provision of the new code had only just now come up. If she, a planning commissioner, had not known about it, it followed that the public was even more in the dark. She implored Guernsey and the rest of the city staff to appreciate how much the commissions depended on them for information on the new code and how it would impact their ability to make a sensible recommendation.

“Please have mercy on us,” she said.

Curious about how we got here? Check out the Austin Monitor’s CodeNEXT Timeline.

Photo by Matthew Rutledge made available through a Creative Commons license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

City of Austin Zoning and Platting Commission: The City of Austin's Zoning and Platting Commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

CodeNEXT: CodeNEXT is the name given to the land development code rewrite process undertaken in the early 2010s by the City of Austin.

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

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