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Background

In recent years, Austin neighborhoods have been devastated by demolitions of older, affordable housing replaced by very large, incompatible duplexes designed to house 6 or more unrelated adults. Sometimes they are designed and marketed for illegal occupancy. They were developed and leased by real estate investors and builders who abuse land use rules that were never intended to allow de facto apartments in our single-family neighborhoods.

Until March, 2014, the City of Austin allowed up to 6 unrelated adults to occupy a single dwelling unit. In March 2014 the City Council voted to reduce from 6 to 4 the number of unrelated adults who may occupy a single-family structure built or renovated after that date. The change had an immediate and beneficial impact on neighborhoods. In the Northfield neighborhood, for example, demolitions for these types of buildings practically ceased. But the Council put a two-year expiration on the new rules, and in March 31, 2016 it voted 9-1-1 to extend them. See the news stories summarizing the 2014 and 2016 actions under “News”.

Compared to other cities, Austin is an outlier by allowing duplexes in the majority of neighborhoods in the urban core. Due to Austin’s occupancy limits and due to a historical laxity in enforcing even those standards, these incompatible duplexes have created a tremendous burden on existing residents in Central Austin neighborhoods. The 2014 amendments have gone a long way to ameliorating some of this burden.

Real estate developers are stripping single-family affordable homes from our neighborhoods. Higher occupancy limits were accelerating the problem, oftentimes driving away homeowners to be replaced by absentee investors who have no long-term stake in the neighborhood. The real estate industry uses a very profitable business model that involves buying properties that are zoned as single-family. This land is much less costly than land that is zoned for apartment use. Once these duplexes take hold on street, a domino cascade begins, and the net result is a row of de facto apartments and quick profits for investors, builders, and rental agents.

Rents in these new duplexes are not affordable as that word has been commonly understood in our city. There is nothing affordable about $1,000 per bedroom per month. Many of the houses that have been demolished were in fact affordable, both for renters and owners. Once that housing stock is gone, it will never be replaced, and Austin is left with a smaller inventory of starter homes. And because the duplexes generate such high revenue, land values go up. What follows is a rise in property taxes for neighboring lots, to be born by either owner occupants or renters.

Other problems created by these incompatible duplexes include:

  • Traffic volume and parking problems
  • Unsafe walking and cycling conditions for neighborhood children
  • Widespread noise disturbances
  • Overflowing trash and poor sanitation conditions
  • Over-burdened sewage systems
  • Dangerous living conditions for residents

Despite the 2016 action, we must remain vigilant. Please stay in touch with us. We will be formulating an action plan for how we can best influence the action of the employees of the city’s Planning and Zoning Department who are responsible for the CodeNEXT process. In the meantime, we urge you to familiarize yourself with the positions statements of the Austin real estate industry by reading the report entitled “A Trojan Horse” that can be found here.

We ask that you join us in this effort by staying in touch with our e-mail list.

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