Many Austinites think the current regulations for accessory dwelling units are too restrictive and discourage property owners from building them.
By Marisa Martinez, Lauren Lowe, and Estefania Espinosa
Living in someone’s backyard without permission is illegal. However, if the property owner decides to build a little home for you and charge you a monthly fee, it becomes an accessory dwelling unit and legal if all regulations are followed.
Accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, are smaller homes built on the same lot as larger units. They are known to the general public as one of several names like granny flats, backyard cottages or garage apartments.
Many people think the current regulations for these units are too restrictive and discourage property owners from building them. According to a Zandan poll, 57 percent of Austinites believe “the city of Austin should relax its development rules to allow for more types of housing to be built.”
An amendment process began in September 2014, as a response to a resolution directing the City Manager to make recommendations for an ordinance that would reduce regulatory development barriers of the units. The Codes and Ordinances Subcommittee proposed a revised ordinance to the Planning Commission, which was approved in May.
This proposed ordinance would change the building separation requirement, which is the distance between the main home and the secondary unit, from 15 feet to 10 feet. It would also allow the units to be side by side, reduce the parking requirement from one off-street space per unit to one space per lot, and eliminate the driveway requirement. The proposed ordinance would not change the areas in which accessory dwelling units are allowed.
The Planning Commission recommended the proposed ordinance, along with pre-approved plans and submetering utilities instead of using separate meters for each unit, to the Planning and Neighborhoods Committee. The Community Development Commission also recommended the proposed ordinance, as well as developing strategies to lower the costs of building accessory dwelling units and resources to finance them.
The Planning and Neighborhoods Committee listened to public comments about the corresponding agenda item at their June 9 meeting, but postponed discussion until Monday June 15. People wanting to express their opinions about the proposed ordinance popularized the hashtag “#ADUcity” on Twitter.
Austinites for Urban Rail Action, better known as AURA, is a grassroots non-profit that drafted an ordinance as a substitute to the one proposed by city staff. The group held a rally and press conference on June 9, shortly before the committee meeting. Several members and supporters spoke at the meeting.
Mary Ingle, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, believes the root of the problem is not stringent regulations, but rather the lack of loans to build ADUs.
“I do not think these units are that affordable,” Ingle said. “It’s not that compatible with student living.”
Apart from the affordability feature, Heidi Gerbracht, representing the Real Estate Council of Austin, said there was a multigenerational aspect to be considered and believes accessory dwelling units to be a practical solution for these situations.
“I have many friends who recently had kids, interested in having their families nearby to help them babysit and spend time with their kids,” Gerbracht said.
During Monday’s meeting, Committee Chair Greg Casar set a timeline for the committee to deliberate on the issue.
They will present the Planning Commission recommendations to the Austin City Council on Thursday, but will keep the item on the committee’s agenda for the next two meetings to flesh out some of the specific components.
There will be two more opportunities in August and September for the Planning and Neighborhoods Committee to offer their recommendations. Each time the recommendations are presented, the council has the option to pass the ordinance.
“We need to take our time and really study this, so we can get it done right and it will benefit the whole community,” Council Member Sabino Renteria said.
Frank Onuorah, a UT architecture junior specializing in urban studies, is a member of AURA and supports changing regulations for accessory dwelling units.
“I hope to see more housing diversity and more housing options as soon as council lifts their restrictions,” Onuorah said.
Council Member Sheri Gallo said of the importance of this issue, “We are so desperate in need of small efficiency and one-bedroom units.”
At their next meeting, Casar hopes to address the components that had the least amount of debate at the June 9 meeting, such as loans that will allow lower-income property owners to build accessory units.
Casar wants to save the more controversial points of the issue, such as short-term rental restrictions, for their September meeting.
A popular concern at the meeting was that proposed amendments to the ordinance on the units would make it easier for owners to only enter short-term rental agreements. The goal of creating homes for families and more permanent-residents would then not be realized.
Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo urges the committee to craft the legislation in a way that allows them “to really make sure that we are creating opportunities for rental housing and not opportunities for property owners to rent out that accessory unit as a mini-hotel.”
Tovo, like several speakers at the June 9 meeting, would rather incorporate these more contentious points into CodeNEXT, an initiative to revise the Land Development Code to meet the Imagine Austin goals and offer neighborhoods the option to use or not use the infill tools.
Infill tools refer to “filling in vacant or underutilized parcels of land in existing developed areas,” according to the Austin City Council website.
Despite this difference of opinion in procedure, Tovo agrees that the Planning Commission recommendations are a step in the right direction for the time being.
Stuart Hersh, a consultant and supporter of the ordinance proposed by AURA, explained the potential of the revisions, “If it’s done right, it creates safer, more affordable housing close to public transportation.”