Austin City Manager Marc Ott made the right move tapping former state District Judge Bob Perkins to mediate issues regarding the city’s proposal to expand urban farms. Perkins brings independence, heft and cultural competence to zoning matters that also touch on race and class.
At the core of the controversy is the integrity of Austin’s single-family zoning ordinance, which increasingly has come under attack by well-meaning and commercially driven interests that have set up their businesses in residential neighborhoods. The proliferation of urban farms and “stealth dorms” should be added to that list along with short-term rentals. They might not rise to the level of major business or industry, but their potential for damage exceeds by far the typical home business, which operates behind closed doors with little, if any, disruption to a neighborhood.
Perkins will facilitate discussions between opposing parties. But it is the Austin City Council that will make a final decision in coming weeks. When making its decision, the council would be wise to keep in mind the purpose of single-family zoning, which was established to create commercial-free zones in which people could live, raise families and retire. That is under assault.
Urban farms already were given preferential treatment under a 2011 ordinance, which permits them to set up and do business in any neighborhood in Austin. Such farms, however, are concentrated in East Austin in predominantly minority neighborhoods because of the area’s rich soil that is conducive for growing vegetables and other produce. That also is where the most affordable housing and land is to be found in Central Austin, so residents have rightly expressed concerns that land gobbled up by urban farms no longer is available for affordable housing. Add to that mix the impact of gentrification that is changing the economic, racial and ethnic characteristics of East Austin along with the arrival of mostly white urban farmers, and the pot starts to boil.
Perkins has his work cut out in bringing down the temperature. That should be done without compromises that further erode single-family zoning. One such provision, called market gardens, would create a whole new category of urban farms on a smaller scale, increasing their number in East Austin. Another provision that runs counter to neighborhood zoning is one that gives new license to urban farms to run commercial enterprises, such as hosting weddings and other events. That would increase traffic, noise and parking on residential streets.
Also problematic is a measure that permits more than one residential structure on a farm. Farm advocates want additional living quarters to rent to tourists who want an overnight farm experience in Austin. Among the most egregious changes is language that writes slaughterhouses into law. As we’ve noted, the ordinance should specifically ban the slaughtering and composting of chickens, rabbits and other animals. An abattoir (to borrow Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s word) of any size doesn’t belong in a residential neighborhood.
That also is true of so-called stealth dorms, which are defined as single-family homes or duplexes that house more people than city rules allow. The American-Statesman’s Sarah Coppola reported this week that stealth dorms are increasingly replacing single-family homes in certain neighborhoods near the University of Texas. By some estimates, as many as 400 stealth dorms have spread to neighborhoods zoned for single families. They have become neighborhood nuisances, bringing loud parties, traffic and parking problems to neighborhoods.
Critics point to Austin’s lenient occupancy rules that permit six unrelated adults to live in homes and duplexes in most single-family neighborhoods as the reason for the rising trend. As small homes are turned into larger ones, their rooms are being rented out to students, often more than six. In some cases, the rental rates approach $1,000 for each bedroom.
Like urban farms, stealth dorms are commercial enterprises that are encroaching on protections of residential zoning. It is true that stealth dorms are filling a need for more student housing. Similarly, urban farms are helping in small part to answer a huge demand for locally grown food. Those issues should be addressed without degrading residential zoning protections.
Next week, the city could take up a proposal to deal with stealth dorms by Council Members Mike Martinez and Chris Riley, who want the city to pass a measure to reduce its occupancy limit from six unrelated people in a home or duplex to four. That’s a good start. But any solution for stealth dorms or urban farms must maintain the integrity of single-family zoning.
It should be that commercial enterprises bow to that principle — and not the other way around.