Limits on ‘stealth dorms’ needed to protect neighborhoods
BY MARY SANGER, MIKE WONG AND NURIA ZARAGOZA – SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Last month, the Austin City Council gave its initial approval to an ordinance to reduce occupancy limits for new structures and some remodels in single-family zoned neighborhoods.
The decision reduces the limit from six to four unrelated adults. The ordinance is limited to two years within the so-called McMansion area, which covers neighborhoods stretching from William Cannon Drive in South Austin to U.S. 183 (Research Boulevard) in the north. Occupancy limit reduction is about restoring balance to single-family areas and providing a sense of certainty to those who have invested their life savings into their homes.
Since 2005, the Northfield neighborhood, a once stable, moderate-income area in North Central Austin, has seen more than 100 affordable homes scraped off and replaced by dorm-style, multi-family structures. This causes a domino effect, squeezing out the homeowners and renters who don’t want to live among these monstrous developments that, in essence, are unregulated multi-family developments masquerading as single-family. Ridgetop Elementary School, which serves the Northfield neighborhood, had lost so many students that it was threatened with closure, and only because it became a special dual language school has it remained open.
Across the city, real estate operators are gaming the single-family zoning land use rules to build “stealth dorms,” often side-by-side on multiple adjacent lots, that can rent upwards of $1,000 per bedroom per month. This trend is not isolated in Northfield or the University area; it’s happening across the city, from Cherrywood to Crestview, from Blackshear to Allandale, from Coronado Hills to Zilker. Our neighborhoods, which have historically provided a range of housing options for renters and homeowners, from bungalows to small cottages, from ranch style to two-story, for retirees and new homeowners, are now under attack. This can take place next door to you.
Until the late ’80s, Austin limited the number of renters in a home to four. During that period, long-standing neighborhood protections in the City Code and enforcement policies began to unravel, leaving exposed our older neighborhoods that do not have adequate deed restrictions. Among other university cities across the country, the average occupancy limit for homes is 3.5 unrelated adults. For other university cities in Texas, the number is under three. These cities’ occupancy limits were created as a direct response to the deterioration of single-family neighborhoods. Austin’s own Code Compliance Department has said the limit in our single-family neighborhoods should be reset from six to four.
Occupancy limit reduction is not about evicting current renters. The City Council decided that all existing structures will be “grandfathered,” meaning that existing uses will be allowed to continue.
For those who argue that occupancy reduction will affect affordable housing, “stealth dorms” are not “affordable housing.” Building dorm-style housing in the midst of single-family neighborhoods only serves the interest of those who profit from renting out these structures.
Our neighborhoods provide stability, cohesiveness and diversity. These are the same neighborhoods that today have affordable housing and have been working earnestly to provide appropriate places where affordable housing, that follows City Code, can be located in the future.
The City Council did the right thing by initiating a change in occupancy limits. When it adopted its 30-year plan Imagine Austin in 2012, it assured neighborhood residents that our unique neighborhood characteristics would be protected and enhanced while they evolve.
We all seek to preserve and sustain our core single-family neighborhoods’ characteristics that most urban planners seek: walkable streets, sense of community, nearby retail, neighborhood schools and parks, and a range of home prices. Unless we do so, we will witness the continued flight of families from our urban core, and without them we lose the vibrant neighborhoods that form the heart of our city.
We hope that the council completes this process without delay and then proceeds next to accommodate growth based on preserving our communities, while maintaining the principles of social equity, diversity, and stability, using sound land use principles.
Sanger lives in Austin’s Hancock neighborhood; Wong is president of the Northfield Neighborhood Association; Zaragoza lives in the West University neighborhood