Herman: One Austin council member’s big small idea

Thanks to Austin City Council Member Bill Spelman, who’s concerned about spiraling local housing costs, the city will look into a possible way to help more folks get a little place of their own.

The operative word here is little, and Spelman, who doesn’t shy from big ideas (he also thinks we might need a local subway system), is serious about this small idea. It’s called “micro-housing.”

“This is an affordable housing issue,” he told me. “What we’ve found in other urban markets is that, as construction prices get close to $300 per square foot, young folks are willing to consider living in much smaller than traditional apartments.” (See, it’s not just us less-young folks who daydream about downsizing.)

Affordable housing math is simple: Costs can be reduced by cutting per-square-foot prices or by buying or renting fewer square feet. Focused on the latter, Spelman won the council’s OK on Thursday to direct the city staff to research “recommendations for making micro-unit development legal and viable in Austin, including any necessary code amendments.”

Spelman is thinking pretty small, as in apartments of 300 to 500 square feet. The idea is one of several now pending at City Hall to deal with the problem, caused by our coolness, of high housing costs.

Also in the works is a proposed property tax break for older and disabled folks, which could lead to higher taxes for others.

And in a move that can be seen as anti-affordable housing, the council on Thursday set a Feb. 13 public hearing on a proposal to allow only four unrelated people to live in a house. The limit now is six, and that’s contributed to “stealth dormitories” in which too many students pack into too small a house, sometimes annoying the neighbors.

The stealth dorms proposal kind of meshes with the micro-housing idea, which might be a low-cost alternative to house stuffing. Spelman’s resolution notes that lots of local college kids need housing and that 33.9 percent of Austin households house just one person.

Micro-housing is going on elsewhere, including the place Austin always looks for the Next Big Thing (or, in this case, the Next Small Thing). No, not Portland. The other place we always look.

“Seattle has allowed development and construction of some small apartments on an ad hoc basis and is now looking closely at its codes to ‘ensure we have clear and consistent regulations in place,’ ” Spelman noted.

It’s not without controversy, as KPLU, Seattle’s public radio station, said in a report headlined “Micro-housing boom has some Seattle neighborhoods up in arms.” (Oh, good, something else for us to fight about.)

New York City also is looking into micro-housing, a concept that might or might not be affected by the fact that 5-foot-7-inch Mayor Michael Bloomberg was replaced this year by 6-foot-5-inch Mayor Bill de Blasio. Out west, a San Francisco developer recently won approval for 295-square-foot apartments.

“All of this may or may not be good public policy,” Spelman told me. “My intent in sponsoring this resolution is to see whether small apartments can be built in Austin now. If not, we should think through whether we should change our codes and practices to allow them.”

Spelman referred to “Ikea’s oh-so-hip solutions to the ‘small spaces’ problem.” So I headed to everybody’s favorite Swedish furniture/wash cloths/fjälkinges/meatballs store to see displays of how to furnish apartments of 236, 376 or 623 square feet. Seems to involve lots of hanging things on walls (as well the patience to assemble lots of stuff without coming up with Swedish-sounding curse words.)

“Micro-housing,” Spelman said. “It’s hip. It’s happening. And it may be a reasonable response to $300 per square foot building costs.”

If it’s hip and happening, we want it now. Small: the new big?

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