Council member Riley and co-sponsor Mayor Pro Tem Cole are is proposing to make it easier to build accessory dwelling units (e.g., garage apartments) smaller than 500 square feet.
The garage apartment regulations in Austin are a mess. Garage apartments are ostensibly legal on SF-3 lots with at least 7,000 sf (and on smaller lots in some neighborhood planning areas). But the Land Development Code imposes all sorts of regulations that often turn out to be de facto barriers. For example, the LDC requires a secondary apartment to be served by a driveway at least 9 feet wide unless the apartment is on an alley. Some houses are set too close to the property line to allow a driveway, so secondary units are essentially forbidden on these lots. Even when there is enough room for a driveway, the driveway chews up the lot's ration of impervious cover, and costs a bunch of money to boot.
Ditto with parking. Lots of single-family homes in our older neighborhoods were built without parking. Adding a secondary apartment not only requires adding a parking space for the secondary unit, but also adding two parking spaces for the principal dwelling -- even if the principal dwelling isn't being enlarged at all. (At least, that's how I've been told staff is interpreting the Code.)
The draft Code Diagnosis calls out our secondary apartment regulations in a section entitled "Lack of Household Affordability and Choice":
As one of the key Missing Middle housing types, secondary apartments can provide increased density in existing neighborhoods without sacrificing neighborhood character. However, the LDC places many regulations on new units that could serve as a barrier to their development, including requirements for lot size, a paved driveway, on-site parking (even on lots that do not currently have off-street parking), site configuration, and water supply, etc. In many neighborhoods, secondary apartments are not allowed, reducing the flexibility homeowners have to stay in their neighborhoods. However, in these same neighborhoods, detached garages with bathrooms but not kitchens are allowed. These detached garages sometimes serve as temporary housing. If a diversified housing stock is a city and community goal, regulations for secondary apartments could allow for pre-approved designs, streamlined/user-friendly permitting, impact fee waivers, and the “grandfathering” of existing site elements, as long as they don’t pose a health and safety hazard.
Riley's resolution would direct Staff to draft Code amendments that eliminate the driveway and parking requirements for units with less than 500 sf. It would also convene a stakeholder group to identify other possible regulatory barriers to these small units.
This is great. But why limit this to units with less than 500 square feet?
Garage apartments and secondary apartments are capped at 850 square feet. Fashioning a specific set of regulations for 500 sf units will add another layer of complexity to an already complex Code: one set of regulations for structures that have 500 sf or less; another set for structures that have between 501 and 850 sf. The Code already distinguishes between secondary units allowed as a matter of right on SF-3 lots with at least 7,000 sf ("two-family residential use") and secondary units allowed as a matter of right on smaller lots in certain neighborhood planning areas ("secondary apartment special use"). We'll need a special matrix just to keep up with the garage apartment regulations.
What would we get in exchange for this extra complexity? Obviously, we'd get fewer 850 sf units and more 500 sf units. But it's not at all clear that 500 sf units are more affordable than 850 sf units. 850 sf units are big enough for two bedrooms, which means they're more easily shared by unrelated roommates. Splitting the rent of an 850 sf unit is often be cheaper than shouldering the rent of a 500 sf unit by yourself.
We'd also get slightly larger principal dwellings. The McMansion ordinance limits the gross floor area on central city single-family lots. A 7,000 sf lot, for example, can hold a maximum of 2,800 sf of buildable space, including the floor area of the secondary unit. Are we better off encouraging 2,300 sf principal dwellings with 500 sf secondary units? Or are we better off with 1,950 sf principal dwellings and 850 sf secondary units? I'm not sure either question makes any sense. Regardless, it's hard to see how encouraging larger principal dwellings is a sound affordability policy.
The only "downside" to eliminating the barriers across the board is that two-bedroom units are more likely to be inhabited by a tenant who parks on the street. But if we intend to dismiss any Code reform that increases the demand for on-street parking, then we will leave ourselves precious little room for real reform. Secondary units are a relatively unobtrusive form of infill that can be designed and built quickly, that allow families maximum flexibility over the several stages of their lives, and that provide options to renters who would like to live in the central city without living in a large apartment complex on a busy street. Our goal should be to manage trade offs rather than pretend they can be avoided.
Update: Although the staff posting says that Mayor Pro Tem Cole is a co-sponsor, I understand that was an error, and that Councilmember Martinez is a co-sponsor.