Owner+Broker Drew Johnson explains the City's proposal to increase urban infill housing. But is it enough to abate Austin's affordability woes?
But fear not, brave Austinites! Your City Council is on the way to...uh...supposedly save the day with the 3rd draft of CodeNext! Well, actually, this much needed land development code remains embroiled in controversy, even on its third go-round. In fact, some suggest scrapping it altogether, which would leave us stuck in 1984, the last time the city updated its zoning. Living in the time of Stranger Things isn't as cool as it sounds ,and what's stranger is that nothing will appease the neighborhood associations nor the developers alike.
So what is something that all parties agree will be a major tenet of CodeNext? Enter the Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU). This type of small house crammed behind a larger one has more nicknames than a multi-platinum rapper would bestow upon himself. Granny Flat. Garage Apartment. Back House. B-Unit. ADU. Casita Bonita (okay, we made that last one up). But while the idea to widely implement granny flats--which we'll refer to them as from now on--is agreed upon, the question is HOW the City will do it.
Where will these granny flats go? The City is saying they will be allowed near transportation corridors and activity centers, but not as easily in interior neighborhoods or areas outside the urban core. The City defines the urban core as the area bound by HWY 183 in the north and east, MoPac on the west, and William Cannon on the south side. If they are to be outside of this urban core, they have to meet tighter size and affordability requirements.
But if I'm gonna live far away and have to deal with Austin's heinous traffic, I'ma at least be able to fit a pool table and a shark tank in my living room. But how big can these granny flats be? Right now, they must be on lots that are zoned SF3, which is a lot of at least 5,700 sq ft, and the limit for the actual house is 1,100 square feet, or .15 floor-to-area ratio (FAR); whichever is smaller. They must have one parking space. However, the CodeNext v3 suggests a tier-based system derived from lot size. This allows for smaller granny flats on smaller lots: a 600 sq ft home on a 3,500 sq ft lot is in the realm of possibilities. The idea is to limit the square footage of granny flats on huge lots to 1,100 sq ft still. The thinking here is "bigger isn't better"...once a granny flat is a certain size, it exceeds the realm of reasonable affordability and thus defeats the purpose of urban density in the first place.
Proponents of an increased allowance of granny flats call them an organic way to increase density. However, building a granny flat in your backyard isn't economically feasible for many Austinites, nor would they necessarily want someone else living in their backyard. And developers are already building them, just drive down any street on the Eastside. Another threat to the cause is owners over-utilizing them for Short Term Rental (STR) purposes...imagine if your neighbors on both sides were pimping out their granny flats on AirBnB to raucous bachelor parties every weekend.
In conclusion, while we at ACR believe that granny flats can play a role in helping to promote urban density, we feel that the City Council and CodeNext writers are spending an inordinate amount of time focusing on the small potatoes of urban infill on single family home lots and not the necessary time on the mass scale development that Austin really needs to thrive. Row houses. Transit-Oriented Developments. Affordable condominium communities. Let developers uninhibitedly build so the supply of housing goes up, thus abating entry prices.