After a months-long battle between neighborhood groups and urbanists, the Austin City Council struck a compromise in November 2015. Garage apartments would be allowed in a certain type of zoning that covered about 9,000 lots citywide, but not in another type of zoning covering some 62,000 lots.
The proposed changes under CodeNext could end that truce.
Draft maps and documents related to the city’s rewrite of land use codes would allow garage apartments on many of those previously excluded lots, which have “SF-2” single-family neighborhood zoning, opening up more than 20,000 acres of property to the development of secondary housing.
“(CodeNext) is a war on single-family housing,” said Mike Lavigne, president of the Crestview Neighborhood Association. That North Austin neighborhood is set to be rezoned into a transect zone, where what the city calls “accessory dwelling units” are encouraged.
In total, the amount of land where garage apartments or granny flats could be built would jump from 32.7 square miles to 65.7 square miles.
Of the 135,000 housing units that the city’s staff hopes are built in the next 10 years, the hope is that 60,000 of those will be affordable housing — properties affordable to families earning less than 80 percent of Austin’s median income, according to the city. Garage apartments are one of the many tools city planners hope will address that.
Planning staff have few details about how a person would get the city’s OK to build a disconnected residential structure in zones where they have been prohibited in the past. That is all being ironed out and won’t likely be available for the public until the city’s advisory boards begin their review of CodeNext in September.
“It is a new concept to us,” said Greg Dutton, a senior planner.
To build an accessory unit in areas where they aren’t currently allowed, a property owner would have to go through the normal permitting process with the city, and the draft rules state that each one would have to be approved by the director of the Development Services Department. Dutton said a property owner would also have to secure an additional “minor use permit,” but he couldn’t elaborate because that policy isn’t finalized.
ADUs and affordability
Many consider garage apartments and granny flats a tool for CodeNext to address the affordability crisis in Austin by creating new, cheap apartments while simultaneously empowering longtime residents to stay in their homes by receiving rental income. Critics have been skeptical that such units would really be affordable and say they could undermine the character of single-family neighborhoods.
The plan, which urbanists and many neighborhood associations dispute, is that they would address Austin’s problem with “missing middle” housing.
The disconnected apartments are usually built behind a single-family home.
Under the current code, the city permits their construction on about 19,779 acres of property. CodeNext would increase that to 20,928 acres of property, according to Planning and Zoning. But that land area doesn’t take into account the SF-2 zones, housing that is typically outside of the city’s urban core.
Critics say there are many problems with the city’s argument that building more such accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, will create more affordability.
“I think it is much ado about nothing,” real estate developer Ed Wendler said. “They’re hard to finance if you’re an existing homeowner. … If you’re a senior on a fixed income, it’s not like a bank is going to look at your net worth and lend you $100,000 to build an ADU in your backyard so you can stay in your house.”
Austin Neighborhoods Council President Mary Ingle said her property taxes doubled after she built an apartment in 2004 behind her home in Central Austin.
“I don’t think they are a bad thing,” Ingle said. “But I don’t think they solve the affordability issue or the density issue. They only go so far, and the market dictates the rent.”
Proponents believe they can address economic segregation while increasing the city’s density and inventory of rental properties.
Developer Nicole Joslin, executive director of the Austin Community Design and Development Center, said tools like garage apartments and density bonus programs will help create lower rents because they spread out the property costs among more people. And garage apartments are a way to create “gentle density” that wouldn’t affect a neighborhood as much as a large condo development.
“We see it as an important mechanism for providing affordable housing,” Joslin said.
Even as CodeNext could open up thousands of properties to the potential development of garage apartments, in areas where they are most encouraged, it places new restrictions on where and how a granny flat or garage apartment can be built.
As a consequence, Joslin said the draft code could discourage the creation of new such units.
“It seems as if the code is written for an ideal case with no existing parameters that might require workarounds” like heritage trees, deep setbacks or oddly shaped lots, said Joslin, who also heads the Alley Flat Initiative. “It doesn’t allow for flexibility to meet household needs.”
In rewriting the code, the Berkeley, Calif.,-based design firm Opticos created certain “transect zones” in Austin’s urban core that are supposed to preserve the character of a neighborhood.
“That is the overall spirit behind transect zones,” city planner Dutton said. “The idea is to preserve the single-family home look of a neighborhood.”
Just last month, Joslin and others celebrated the completion of an affordable secondary dwelling in Clarksville in cooperation with the Clarksville Community Development Corporation. The unit, a white, two-bedroom with baby blue trim and a turquoise door, would be prohibited under CodeNext because it is too deep.
The draft code restricts the dimensions of such a unit in Clarksville and in other neighborhoods like Allandale to a structure no larger than 24 feet by 28 feet. In the case of the Clarksville unit on West 10th Street, they developed a 39 feet by 13 feet unit to preserve a heritage tree.
“There is a family living in that unit now,” Joslin said. “It probably wouldn’t be able to accommodate that family if it was any smaller.”
Austin’s rewrite of its development rules is a critical and complex topic that the American-Statesman continues to explore with in-depth reporting. Visit mystatesman.com to read previous coverage on what CodeNext could bring to Travis Heights and Bouldin Creek and how the new rules could open more areas for denser development in pursuit of affordable units.