In Austin, a lot of the fights over density are really fights against having students nearby. I understand perfectly most homeowners' desire not to live next door to a raucous party house full of college kids. I didn't particularly enjoy that even when I was 19 (when I actually lived in a raucous party house full of fraternity brothers).
But, as a practical matter, there is a limit to how much the City should do -- or even can do -- to control where and how people live.
Take the Old West University Neighborhood Association's protest of a duplex planned for David Street. The homeowners there are worried they'll have to contend with two duplexes overstuffed with boisterous college kids. To block that, they're pushing what I think is a bad interpretation of City code which could have harmful, unintended consequences and which would make duplexes a less appealing option for developers throughout Austin.
It's natural for homeowners to want to maintain the kind of housing stock in their vicinity that will be less appealing to packs of college kids. But we, as a city, have to decide when this makes sense as a matter of policy and when it doesn't. College kids have to live somewhere, and neighborhoods close to campus make the most sense for them.
When should we adopt regulations designed to deflect college students somewhere else and when should we adopt regulations to accommodate them? That's a debatable question. But that's really a debate about how to handle neighborhoods on the cusp of a transition. It is not a debate for a neighborhood that has already made the transition. Once a neighborhood has converted from mostly owner-occupied, single family housing to mostly rental student housing, we should stop devising regulations to deflect the students somewhere else and start planning how to accommodate them.
It turns out that students have more or less claimed OWUNA.
OWUNA is bounded by South North Lamar, Rio Grande, MLK and 24th Street. When I say, "the students have more or less claimed OWUNA," I don't mean the portion of OWUNA between San Gabriel and Rio Grande. Those blocks lie within the University Neighborhood Overlay. The City upzoned those blocks a few years ago to encourage more student housing and they do, today, contain some of the densest student housing in town. The students have claimed this part of the neighborhood by (good) design.
I'm talking about the western portion of OWUNA, between South Lamar and San Gabriel (outlined in red below). This enclave contains mostly single-family homes, although it does have several apartment complexes. It includes David Street and the contested duplex, and is the area supposedly threatened by "super" duplexes.
Despite the dominance of single-family housing in the area, the Census block data for the area outlined in red shows what everyone who lives in the area surely knows: most of the residents are college students. Here is the population distribution:
Of the 1,187 residents of this portion of the neighborhood on April 1, 2010, 75% were between the ages 18 and 24. There were only 18 children younger than 18, and exactly as many 18 and 19 years olds (65) as adults between the ages 40 and 64.
Almost all of the residents were renters. Of the 642 occupied housing units, only 79 were owner-occupied -- 36 of these by a single person, and 32 by a two-person household. Altogether, only 138 of the neighborhood's 1,187 residents (11.6%) lived in owner-occupied homes.
The census blocks in the northern portion of the tract contain some multi-family apartments, so I checked the numbers for the area outlined in blue, zeroing in on the blocks most dominated by single-family homes:
And 82% are renters.
It really makes no sense to jury rig the duplex regulations to discourage dense concentrations of college kids in a neighborhood that is mostly a dense concentration of college kids. Admit the facts on the ground and plan for the density. That does not mean upzoning each of the single-family homes for VMU. Instead, I think this would be a perfect neighborhood to try Mueller houses. Focus on design criteria that would make a fourplex a palatable alternative.
If I were a homeowner next door, I would prefer a fourplex disguised as a nice, big single-family home, to an actual nice, big single-family home being used by a bunch of college kids to experiment in communal living. The fourplex would be quieter, more than likely.