The Austin Chronicle

Public Notice: Devil’s in the Details, Part 47

Why can’t we walk the walk on housing?

By Nick Barbaro, April 2, 2021, News

Remember cheap Austin? Before ever-­escalating housing costs became a permanent part of our collective landscape? With foreign investors sinking millions into area properties and Austin still A-listed as one of the country's hottest real estate markets (see last week's column), there's little reason to think the big picture will change anytime soon. But you'd think we could make a difference around the edges.

Which brings us to the plight of a good friend we'll call Alice (not her real name). Alice recently became the caretaker of her 60-year-old brother; we'll call him Bob. Bob has had serious mental illness since his teen years and is now also medically fragile. He needs assistance, but many of his symptoms and habits (which are loud and frequent) make him a challenging roommate, especially as Alice has been forced to work at home during the pandemic.

Alice had planned to remodel her attached garage into a separate unit for Bob to provide both of them with much-needed privacy while still allowing her to care for him. Her garage already has plumbing and electricity, so, figuring this should be a relatively simple project, she refinanced her home to cover the costs and hired an architect and builder.

Here's where the shit hits the fan. Turns out city code prohibits Alice from converting her garage into an apartment for her mentally ill brother – even though her lot is zoned SF-3, which clearly allows two units. Even though she's never used her garage for anything but storage in the 25-plus years she's owned the house. Even though she has a large carport and driveway capable of accommodating at least six vehicles, and she's within a half-block of an activity corridor and so has zero need for a garage.

In fact, city code will not allow her to convert her garage into an apartment for Bob – even under the code section that specifically allows construction of a separate unit for a person who is disabled or over the age of 60, which, as you'll recall, Bob is. You can build a separate unit in your house for such a person – just not in your garage. She's also prevented from converting her garage under the code section that allows duplexes, because the garage doesn't share enough of a wall with the main house to qualify as a duplex – another arcane prohibition.

No, Alice's only choice is to spend a bunch more money to build a completely separate accessory dwelling unit (ADU), which, per code, must be at least 10 feet away from her existing house. Not only will this new construction be far more costly – requiring new plumbing, electrical, foundation, roof, exterior siding, etc. – but it'll take much longer to build, meaning Alice is looking at many more months of trying to conduct professional Zoom meetings while Bob bellows, watches nonstop TV, or – on the very worst day so far – walks by naked in the background.

Now at this point you might be thinking, "Hey, if we'd just passed CodeNext, this would all be fine." But you'd be wrong.

Actually, there was a plan to fix this particular issue at one point during the CodeNext process. Back in April 2018, the Planning Commission's Residential Working Group introduced an amendment that would have simplified the draft code by reducing the number of residential uses to single-family, two-family, and multifamily. Under this amendment, if you were allowed to have two units on your lot, it wouldn't matter where you put them. They could be attached or detached, your call, as long as you met other code requirements.

The Opticos consultants (remember them?) thought this was a great idea and were fully onboard. But city staff disagreed, saying there wasn't time to add this highly sensible amendment to the final draft, which was then being rushed forward to Council. Without staff support, the amendment failed on a vote by the full Planning Commission.

That was three years ago, and CodeNext is still tied up in court. But even if it weren't, the amendment that there wasn't time to add – which could have saved a lot of time and money for Alice, and presumably many others – still wouldn't be in it, because by the end, that process became more about making political statements than about making good city code. Meanwhile, the city has yet to come up with any preapproved ADU plans that homeowners like Alice could use to reduce costs and permitting time, despite multiple recommendations to do so over the last five years.

So Austin's housing costs keep climbing while our friend Alice is climbing the walls. Guess that's fine, as long as none of those walls are in a converted garage.

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