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Mueller houses

February 18, 2012

I like the variety of housing types at Mueller (although I’m not crazy about the ratio of single-family to multi-family). These in particular illustrate a kind of housing Austin needs:

Mueller House 2

Mueller House 2

Muller House 3
These are four-plex condominiums on Symond called “Mueller Houses.”  The buildings have a single front entrance; the individual condos open off a common vestibule.  The units have individual, one-car garages accessible from an alley in the back.

Muller House 3

This is a six-plex:

Mueller House 1
Calling these “Mueller houses” rather than “four-plexes” or “six-plexes” is a clever bit of marketing, but it is also in a sense accurate marketing.  These four-plexes and six-plexes look like houses. They illustrate that it is possible to build small multi-family buildings that will blend seamlessly into a block of single-family homes.

Mueller House 1

These are actually a good bit larger than you could build on a typical central Austin lot given current regulations (the Mueller house units are quite roomy, ranging from 1,300 to 2,400 square feet).  But you could build “Mueller hosues” half that size and still have room for four modest-size apartments.

Austin doesn’t leave much room on the zoning maps for this niche, which is a shame.  I am partial to this type of housing because I lived in a four-plex like this for a few years out of law school.  It was an 80-year-old, Tudor-style house in an old, central neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi a lot like Austin’s Hyde Park.  I could not afford to buy or rent a whole house at the time, at least not where I wanted, and I frankly didn’t need a whole house.  But I didn’t want to live in a big apartment complex.  I wanted to enjoy living in this quaint, leafy old neighborhood, close to work, without having to buy.  My four-plex gave me that chance.  I loved it.

The tenant across the little vestibule from me was a school teacher who had lived there for years before me.  She couldn’t afford a house in the neighborhood either, and, again, didn’t really need one.  The ground floor tenants were a rotating cast of young professionals.  We parked in the back or (like many of our neighbors) on the street.  There was never a problem with noise or parties or trash.

Why not allow these as a matter of right in SF-3 zoning? We have a shortage of small, affordable apartments in Austin.  These units would likely be cheaper than the new multi-story, mixed-use apartments being built on commercial arterials.  And a lot of people would like to live in the interior of, say, the Zilker or Hyde Park neighborhoods, but are priced out.  Frankly, a single-family home shouldn’t be the price for admission to these neighborhoods.  

Mueller houses eliminate the aesthetic objection to small, multi-family buildings.  It’s possible to build four-plexes that look simply like nice homes.  Adopt some reasonable design regulations, like requiring a common front entrance and exit and parking in the rear.  It’s not that hard.

Lots of people would worry about noise, of course, but without cause.  This kind of housing would really appeals to young professionals, secretaries, teachers, and others in the large Austin demographic of “nice, quiet people who would like to live in a pleasant old neighborhood but can’t afford a whole house.”  And having a single-family home next door is no bulwark against noisy neighbors, anyway.  I would prefer living next to a four-plex than to a single-family home rented out to a group of college students.  When you live next to a four-plex, your first lines of defense against a noisy tenant are the tenants in the other three units.   When a group of college students rents a house together, the nucleus for a cool party is always there.

If we’re really interested in “workforce” housing, we should make more room for these houses outside Mueller.


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