The Planning Commission has initiated a squirrelly amendment to Austin's Land Development Code to create yet another overlay district in the university area, this one to be called "the Central Austin University Area Overlay District."
This new overlay district would have one and only one regulation: the "group residential use" would become a conditional use in MF-4 districts. That would force anyone building a dorm, cooperative, or fraternity house in an MF-4 district to get Council permission first, subjecting them to the patented neighborhood shakedown and to Council lectures about the need to provide "community benefits." The conditional use permitting process is a great way to slip in surreptitious heightened parking requirements and other things to jack up the cost of these projects.
Obviously, dormitories, cooperatives, and fraternity and sorority houses are an important source of cheap housing for students. Land already zoned for medium-high density multifamily a stone's throw from the university is a logical place for such housing. If we were to make it a conditional use in only some of the city's neighborhoods, these should be the last to get that treatment. But the Planning Commissioners evidently believe it's a good idea to make the cheapest forms of student housing get special permission in the neighborhoods that most need it.
Staff couldn't swallow it and, commendably, has recommended against creating a dopey new district which has the sole purpose of discouraging new cheap student housing in mostly student neighborhoods. It has calculated that it would affect only two tracts in the Hancock neighborhood and none in the North University planning area. But the change would affect 34 of the 59 MF-4 tracts in the West University planning area, which contains the city's densest cluster of student housing. (Group housing was already prohibited on the othe 25 tracts through the neighborhood planning process.)
I suspect that there are only a handful of tracts that pose real concern to the homeowners in the area, if only because there are so few homeowners in the West University planning area. And staff suggests that if there are problems with individual tracts being inappropriately zoned today that they be handled on a case-by-case basis.
But there's the rub. A petition to rezone a given MF-4 property would require a three-quarters Council majority if the property owner objected. The neighborhoods don't have enough reliable water-carriers on Council for that. Better try a stealth down-zoning: create a brand spanking new "overlay district" to do essentially the same thing and try to squeak out a majority Council vote. Although all Council members pay lip service to affordable housing, perhaps enough are willing to ignore it when it matters for this strategy to work.
Council was scheduled to vote on this on August 16 but it was postponed which (coincidentally) has allowed students filing back in to campus to weigh in. They have circulated a petition against this. I encourage people to sign.