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Make it easier to build ADUs, city staffers tell Council

Thursday, July 8, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

In response to a City Council resolution last year aimed at making building accessory dwelling units more feasible for low- and moderate-income Austinites, city staffers have come back with several recommendations for Council action in the form of a memo from Rosie Truelove, director of the Housing and Planning Department. 

ADUs, which are smaller homes built next to larger single-family homes and typically rented out, are seen as a strategy for creating denser, more affordable housing in single-family neighborhoods. City code allows one ADU on lots with Single Family-Standard Lot (SF-2) and Family Residence (SF-3) zoning, as long as the unit is less than 1,100 square feet and is 10 feet from all other buildings. 

One of staff’s primary recommendations included loosening regulatory barriers to ADU construction – something that anyone, but particularly low- to moderate-income homeowners, could benefit from.

The biggest barrier, according to the memo, is the requirement that ADUs be detached from the primary residence. Though attached or internal ADUs – called “accessory apartments” – are allowed, city regulations “require at least one of the occupants to be a person who is 60 years of age or older or physically disabled.” Getting rid of this requirement would allow more accessory apartments and save people the cost of building a new structure. Staffers also recommended allowing garage apartments and accessory apartments whose entrance is visible from the street – two things that are currently not permitted.  

Another recommendation included creating a “menu” of pre-approved building plans developed by design and architecture professionals. Having ready-made plans would let homeowners skip part of the development process and save them from having to hire an architect to draw up custom plans.

Financial assistance policies rounded out the list of recommendations. The memo stated that people with low and moderate incomes find that financing detached ADUs is difficult or impossible. The construction costs are often prohibitive, and many don’t qualify for loans. Accordingly, staffers recommended that Council explore grant funding and loan assistance opportunities for ADU construction in partnership with nonprofit organizations. Though property tax abatements were also considered, staffers recommended against them.

The recommendations came with some caveats. Staffers noted that because restrictive covenants often prohibit ADUs, residents of some neighborhoods can’t build them. They also said that pre-approved plans will only speed up part of the permitting process and won’t work on all lots because of site constraints.

The biggest caveat was that ADUs are unlikely to help prevent displacement of existing residents, as Council members had hoped. Council in part created the resolution to try out ADUs as a potential anti-displacement tool – a homeowner could build an ADU and use the income to remain in their home. But staffers said this strategy would “yield low impact for preventing displacement due to gentrification,” mostly due to the steep barriers facing low- and moderate-income homeowners who want to finance and build an ADU. According to a Housing and Planning survey, “homeowners facing displacement pressures identified property tax reductions, low or no-cost home repairs and saving money on utilities as more helpful for staying in their homes than income from an ADU on their property.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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