Council: ADUs Coming to Your Neighborhood?

Affordable housing occupies today's agenda

Council: ADUs Coming to Your Neighborhood?
Photo by Steven walling/cc by 2.0

Today's City Council meeting (Nov. 19) may not last into the wee hours like last week's, but the 98 agenda Items display plenty of Austin's current official preoccupation: how to incentivize various forms of housing sufficient to respond to the high demand – and maybe even bend the affordability curve. One answer? Granny flats.

The official cognomen is "secondary dwelling units," also called "accessory dwelling units," or ADUs, with an ordinance that appears for its third reading (Item 80, via the Planning and Neighborhoods Com­mit­tee). Although plenty of Austin's tonier districts have long featured secondary buildings once known as "servants' quarters" (with currently politer names) – in recent years, the addition of small (usually tenant-occupied) units to the yard of a main house has been zoning-restricted by lot-size limitations and dedicated parking requirements. The notion of making it easier for homeowners to add small apartments or backyard cottages has been buffeted about by Council for a year and a half, but appears this week to be on its way to final (third-reading) approval – although the vote looks to be close, and based on Tuesday's work-session discussion, might go either way.

Some central-city neighborhood associations have objected to certain provisions on two grounds: 1) parking demands on crowded streets; 2) the apparent threat of some ADUs becoming shadow short-term rental (STR) units. The ordinance as drafted is softer on the former (on the assumption that requiring on-site parking undermines the housing incentive) and harder on the latter (basically banning the use of ADUs as year-round STRs). At an unrelated Dem forum Monday evening, District 4 Council Member Greg Casar, who supports the proposed ordinance, said he's heard from opponents saying, "This neighborhood is for homeowners, not renters, and that's how we want to keep it." That's a sentiment that won't be heard quite so nakedly on the dais, but the "neighborhood" advocates will make their case in other ways.

The land-use advocates at AURA are calling on Council to approve the ordinance as is, in the belief that as many as 500 new ADUs annually could address housing and affordability needs across the city. They held a City Hall press conference Tuesday, aimed at Council's work session – citing allies from the Austin Board of Realtors, Austin Music People, Evolve Austin Part­ners, Friends of Austin Neighborhoods, the U.S. Green Building Council of Cen­tral Texas, and others. AURA cites the city's Fair Housing Action Plan as encouraging ADUs to increase affordable housing options for renters, and in an AURA press release, Cory Brown argued, "The proposed changes to allow more backyard cottages is a win across the board: Renters and people with modest incomes get more housing options, while homeowners get another tool to offset their tax burden."

There's plenty more housing-related material for Council mastication:

• Two Items (34 and 35) from the Depart­ment of Neighborhood Housing & Com­munity Development would facilitate an affordable multifamily apartment development in District 2 (Southeast) by approving an application to the Texas Department of Housing & Community Affairs and the issuance of $20 million in revenue bonds (repaid from rent, not taxes). It's nominally on the consent agenda – with an attached public hearing at Item 96 – but CM Don Zimmerman has reflexively objected to these projects and their bonds on fiscal and policy grounds, so routine consent is unlikely. There's also a public hearing (Item 91) on an application for a similar project in the northeastern extraterritorial jurisdiction, and another (Item 97) in District 4.

• Three public hearings (Items 93, 94, and 95) are scheduled to consider (but not yet create) new homestead preservation dis­tricts that would use tax increment financing from the districts themselves to reinvest in affordable housing within those districts. HPDs were initiated under the previous Council, and one on the Eastside was eventually created, but city management has never fully implemented the financing mechanisms. Presumably this is another effort to jump-start those projects (southeast, far east, and north side).

• Also on the housing front (more or less) is Item 92, a public hearing considering an ordinance to revise the density bonus program for planned unit developments – in theory to make it more difficult for developers wanting PUD entitlements to pay "fees-in-lieu," instead of creating on-site affordable housing units. (In light of the Travis Central Appraisal District's current position on previously affordable units at Mueller – that rising market rates apply for appraisal purposes – Council will presumably be wondering if on-site affordability remains enforceable.)

Austin Resource Recovery (formerly Solid Waste Services) has for some time been trying to get its arms around construction and demolition materials, to create a recycling/reuse system. Items 79 (the code amendments) and 98 (the public hearing) address that project, which should presumably get rolling before the next economic downturn disappears all those cranes currently nodding above the Downtown skyline.

As to other matters in the wind, last week CM Zimmerman used the morning to indulge his habit of grilling department heads about the details and "performance metrics" connected to certain contracts, though when he was supplied with relevant statistics (e.g., on Obamacare enrollments by the Latino HealthCare Forum and Foun­da­tion Communities), he dismissed them as insufficient. He also objects to standard directions to staff to "negotiate and execute" most contracts – preferring that they return to Council for yet another round of review and another opportunity for more objections. (For the record, under the City Charter, Council is charged with setting city policy, staff with executing policy and daily management.) Other CMs have reportedly taken to pursuing back-of-dais staff work during Zimmerman's micro-managing moments, and last week CM Casar asked him to refer the "negotiate and execute" policy matter to a council committee – but Zimmerman declined, later issuing a press release defending his attentions. As the highway signs lament, "Expect delay."

There are a handful of proclamations for distinguished citizens, and the day's honored musician is R&B stylist Alesia Lani (catch a taste of "Sunshine" at

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City Council, accessory dwelling units, Greg Casar, affordable housing, AURA, Department of Neighborhood Housing & Community Development, density bonus program, Austin Resource Recovery, Don Zimmerman

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