Nestled between Jollyville Road and Great Hills Park in Northwest Austin, Michele House and Steve Wingard’s charming red-brick home is tucked into a cul-de-sac with only one other property. In the expansive backyard, behind the home’s patio, there used to be a grove of trees, but many of them died during two devastating winter storms in recent years. Now, it’s a rocky slope of unused space.
However, thanks to a new resolution authored by City Council member Leslie Pool, the land could be easier to utilize. Homeowners now have increased flexibility to build more houses on less land, after the lot size required for a home was reduced from 5,750 square feet to 2,500 via the HOME initiative (Home Options for Middle-income Empowerment). The policy also increases the number of housing structures that can sit on that 2,500 square feet from two to three.
According to Pool, the resolution is part of an effort to “crack the nut” on affordability after a push to rewrite the entire city code didn’t work. A controversial effort called CodeNEXT tried to update city zoning policies comprehensively, but withered amid a deluge of legal challenges. Pool thinks granular changes might be more feasible, though. The resolution gives homeowners an ability to add housing on existing lots, potentially creating new rental income while adding inventory to a tight market. “You don’t have to apply for it,” Pool says. “I’m hoping it will reduce the amount of money that it costs to build and more people can afford to build.”
In House’s case, she could knock down the shed that sits cattycorner to the main house and build two tiny homes back there. She could subdivide the lot, raze the current structure and build multiple units across the two new lots—or even stack them up vertically. The couple has five kids, ages 17 to 30, who are currently living in various cities. Their ideal vision is everyone reuniting in Austin, close to the family, but the city’s affordable-housing issues make that all but impossible with median home prices currently hovering above half a million dollars.
In theory, the new resolution could allow them to build extra dwellings on their large homestead.
One major hurdle to all this would be obtaining an HOA exception. Despite the city resolution, current HOA agreements are still binding for homeowners, and the contract for House’s neighborhood suggests that their family lot is limited to one residence. “We don’t want to upset our neighbors but really just want the land for the best use,” House says. “We never thought we’d contemplate living anywhere else, but it’s so restrictive.”
Anyone would be lucky to own such a spacious home in a desirable market, but the perfect house in Austin has become a source of anxiety and indecision for House and Wingard. “We are literally at a crossroads,” she says, standing next to a pile of papers on the kitchen island that includes the home’s lot survey, an HOA agreement, and other documents. “We don’t know how much longer we’ll be here, and we don’t know how to use this space.”
A board member from the Sierra Club environmental organization opposed the rule change, suggesting that increased density could reduce impervious cover, leading to flooding and other ecological problems. And some Austinites aren’t thrilled with the idea of three- story-tall container homes everywhere, especially if they’re short-term rentals. But the resolution has seen support from local Realtors and those who feel boosting home availability helps address the affordability crisis.
The debate around a policy like this comes down to whether someone believes increased density (more housing for more people on smaller footprints) will help the situation, or will lead to overbuilding, crime, and rental cash grabs. The latter tends to sound a lot like NIMBY talking points more concerned with preserving the charm of longstanding Austin neighborhoods.
Some developers and homeowners feel that the resolution alleviates just a small part of Austin’s building woes, since the zoning codes are still complex and difficult to navigate. Jason Kahle, who owns Small Home Solutions, LLC, says he and his 10 employees are “going to be all over” the changes in a market where it seems everyone with a large-enough lot has considered building a granny pod, mother-in-law suite, or backyard office.
But being free to build on a smaller lot is not the same as being able to feasibly do it within existing rules, Kahle points out. “There’s a lot of wheels turning at the same time,” he says. “Austin Energy is a challenge. We have protected trees, impervious cover, floor-area ratio rules, the level of detail the city requires on civil engineer plans, the subchapter McMansion ordinance, temp drawings. It’s a lot to deal with.” The McMansion regulations, also known as “Subchapter F” in the city’s housing code, set detailed and strict limits, including height and setbacks from the edges of a lot.
Laura Boas, an Austin physical therapist, is building an “acessory dwelling unit” for her family behind her 1950s-era, 720-square-foot cottage in the Brentwood neighborhood. She’s seen massive 2,500-square-foot homes go up in her area, and her lot is big enough to support additional buildings. Boas lives alone and jokes, “I’m part of the problem.”
She doesn’t have a dog in the resolution fight; her lot was already large enough to expand on. But she wants more affordable housing for her fellow Austinites, something that probably means increased density. “I’d rather see multiple houses on a lot than one enormous one. Let’s build housing that people can live in.”
This article originally appeared in Austin Monthly.
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