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Austin limits 'stealth dorms' with four-person cap


In the future, no more than four unrelated adults will be allowed to live in new Austin homes and duplexes — a cap aimed at curbing so-called stealth dorms.

The City Council cast a third and final vote Thursday on the limit, reducing the current cap of six unrelated adults.

Council Member Bill Spelman was the lone “no” vote, saying the change would apply to a too-large swath of Austin instead of the few neighborhoods that have a glut of dorm-style homes.

“If this (cap) had been restricted to neighborhoods where stealth dorms are likely to be built in the future, I could live with it,” he said. “But we would be extending it throughout the vast majority of the central part of the city, and I think it’s overly broad.”

Residents in several neighborhoods, especially those near the University of Texas, have said a proliferation of dorm-style homes is bringing trash, noise and parking problems and forever changing the character of Austin’s oldest, single-family neighborhoods.

Opponents of the cap have argued that Austin, with its rapid growth and rising housing prices, needs creative, affordable options that let multiple roommates live together in the central city, close to colleges and good jobs.

The debate has raised bigger questions about Austin’s growth and affordability: Should Austin pack more people into the central city to quell suburban sprawl and high rental rates? Or should it leave single-family neighborhoods intact to slow the demographic shift of families with children leaving the urban core?

Council Member Chris Riley voted for the new cap, but added: “We still need to figure out ways to have new housing types available to meet diverse and growing demands in the central city. … That problem is going to require a lot more hard work on the part of many different people.”

The scope of stealth dorms isn’t clear. Neighborhoods near UT have counted at least 400 dorm-style homes, while research done recently by the Austin firm Civic Analytics found 1,800 properties in Austin that house five or more unrelated people, out of roughly 331,000 households citywide.

In the future, no more than four unrelated adults will be able to live on the same site, in newly built or redeveloped homes, duplexes or garage apartments, the council decided. The cap will take effect in 10 days.

Existing homes that house up to six people can continue to do so, as long as they don’t build big additions.

The new cap will not apply citywide, but in dozens of neighborhoods in about 15 ZIP codes that stretch from William Cannon Drive in South Austin to U.S. 183 (Research Boulevard) in North Austin.

The four-person cap will apply only for two years, when the city will be done with the massive task of rewriting all of Austin’s land-use and development rules.

The city has not tracked the complaints it has received or the penalties it has handed out under the existing, six-person cap. It remains to be seen if enforcement will be any tougher with the new limit. City code enforcement officers can’t enter a home to count tenants or beds without a resident’s or owner’s permission.

“I think this will be virtually impossible to enforce,” Mayor Lee Leffingwell said Thursday. But for the next two years, “we’ll give it a spin and see how it works.”


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