Council: Headaches for the Holidays

In the home stretch, members wrangle short-term rentals

Photo by Steven Walling / CC BY-SA 2.0

City Council enters its 2015 stretch run this week, a little shorthanded (with Mayor Steve Adler out of town) but nevertheless addressing more than a few vexing questions in its two final meetings before year's end: today (Dec. 10) and next week (Dec. 17, with Adler back). They've bitten off a couple of things that will likely take quite a bit of pre-holiday chewing: today, at the very bottom of the agenda (Item 81), the final revisions to the short-term rental (STR) regulations, and next week, a similar attempt at revising the regulations governing transportation network companies (e.g., Uber, Lyft, etc.). Since both agendas are not exactly lightweight (the Dec. 17 working draft already has 72 Items), those two Big Deals were the subject of some anticipatory juggling at Tuesday's work session, and even included the prospect of postponing STR revision into earlier next year.

That didn't happen – Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, the most vocal proponent of stronger STR regulations, argued that at least some of the provisions (e.g., eliminating "testing the waters" advertising) need immediate action, and the consensus was that they'd move forward as much as possible today. And though it's nominally a "zoning day" – three dozen cases in the queue, and no music or proclamations – there's plenty of other business on the list.

If they do wrangle STRs, the numerous revisions to be addressed include: regular inspections, limitations on clustering, septic inspections, eliminating "testing the waters" advertising, sound and music limits, occupancy limits, etc. Finally, as drafted, the regs include a "phase-out" of all Type 2 STRs (non-owner occupied) over the next several years (by April 1, 2022). That proposal seems to have replaced earlier ones to confine Type 2 STRs to commercial zoning only, but it's still not likely to go down easy with folks who have made either small businesses or supplemental income out of STRs. City staff has recommended the changes, and the Planning Commission supported the new regs Tuesday evening – their recommendation is on Council's desk as well.

The STR public hearing is expected in the early evening, although considering the other 80 Items on the agenda, getting there will take some doing.

Among the potential arguments:

• Items 2 and 11: This is a combined land sale and budget amendment to support Austin Resource Recovery's creation of a remanufacturing hub for recycled materials in Southeast Austin, near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

• Items 5 and 6: Resolutions authorizing the Circuit Events Local Organ­iz­ing Committee (CELOC) (largely business reps) to represent the city in applying for state funding for future MotoGP and Summer X Games events at Circuit of the Americas; not a financing question, but considering the current tenuousness of the COTA Formula One races due to a financing dispute with the state, these might also bear additional scrutiny.

• Item 12: A resolution ratifying amendments to the Meet and Confer contract with the Austin Police Association, primarily concerning staffing of the "spring festivals" (mostly SXSW week) but also potential incentives for APD officers to live within the city limits. On Tuesday, CM Ellen Trox­clair wanted to know more about the eventual costs, and Council might return to the subject today.

• Item 14: A contract extension for Repub­lic Services Inc., which handles Austin Energy's non-hazardous waste; the issue is complicated by the closing of Republic's landfill and the substitution of Waste Man­age­ment's – both of them in the embattled 290 East/Giles Lane neighborhood and the bane of the neighbors. But that hasn't happened yet: The contract is about to expire, and staff is asking for a 12-month extension while all waste contracts are revised. At work session, as is his habit, CM Don Zimmerman went into his full Angry Uncle mode, and berated staff for insufficient information and supposedly misleading responses. Although he's not likely to have the votes, he may want to try to draw a line in the sand on the extension and let staff pick up the expensive pieces.

There are also a half-dozen other public hearings scheduled, and although none are likely to be as contentious as the STR discussion, Tovo will have her experienced hands full chairing the debate in the absence of the always implacable mayor. He's returned from Paris and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (as has CM Leslie Pool) – where he took part in the city responses to global warming – and this week he's in Cambridge, attending Har­vard's Seminar on Transition and Leadership for Newly Elected Mayors (last year his run-off prevented his attendance). He released a statement focusing on "mobility and affordability" challenges, adding, "As much as Austin is an example to other cities across the world about fostering innovation in technology, culture, and renewable energy, I'm always in the market for new ideas that we can put to good use in Austin."

Speaking of new ideas, it may be that the Nov. 19 Council action to soften restrictions on homeowners' accessory dwelling units might eventually have a broader effect than seemed likely from the Council discussion, focusing as it did on the "9,000 units" that would become newly ADU-compatible in certain zoning categories. (See "Council: Choosing Sides," Nov. 27.) After the meeting, CM Greg Casar and his staff provided additional information, indicating that in addition to the nearly 9,000 tracts added by his proposal – a compromise brokered with the mayor, after other CMs objected to a broader swath in committee – the softening of ancillary regs on construction of already permitted ADUs, coupled with the elimination of parking requirements near "transit corridors" – will result, as Casar calculates it, in roughly 56,000 lots where it should be easier for homeowners to add ADUs, either for family members or long-term tenants.

The parking and other costly construction requirements (driveways, additional water lines) have kept the issuance of new ADU permits to an annual average of about 40; Casar hopes that making it easier and cheaper to build "granny flats" will increase the available smaller units all over the city. We should learn in the next year or two whether the changes will begin to make a dent in the large need for more (and less expensive) housing.

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