Council moves toward halting some home demolitions

Miller2015-10-15-Austin-City-CouncilFrom today’s Austin Business Journal:

Council moves toward halting some home demolitions under small-lot development rules.

In a year in which Mayor Steve Adler has said he wants to tackle housing affordability, Austin City Council has given preliminary approval to a measure that city staff said would make it harder to build affordable homes.

The measure amends the city’s rules regarding small-lot amnesty, which permits development on property that is less than the minimum lot size requirement of 5,750 square feet. The small-lot amnesty program is only available in areas with a neighborhood plan that allows it.

Under the amendment, narrowly approved on first and second reading at the Feb. 11 Council meeting by a 6-5 vote, developers would be prohibited from demolishing one home that straddles two small lots and then breaking up the lots in order to build homes on each lot. They measure is still subject to a third reading and vote by Council before being passed into law.

Greg Guernsey, director of Austin’s Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department, said the amendment goes against the city’s broader affordability goals.

“It would negatively impact the implementation of some of the imagine Austin visions goals and priorities related to household affordability,” Guernsey told Council members at the meeting. “ It would also negatively impact land-use zoning opportunities for affordable housing development and impact the cost of development negatively and negatively impact the production of affordable housing.”

Still, Guernsey said staff were in support of the amendment because they never anticipated that it would result in the demolition of homes that straddle lots to make way for a new home on each separate lot. Rather, they envisioned it as a step to allow development on lots where no demolition was required.

“Staff felt very strongly about this because this is something that we went to the neighborhoods and told the neighborhoods how this tool would be used,” said Guernsey. “There’s a trust factor here.”

Critics of how the small lot amnesty program’s use has evolved gave voice to the notion that trust could be breached at the Council meeting, highlighting examples of top-dollar homes built where a single, larger home once stood.

“My neighborhood, Northfield, feels like we have been duped. In good faith we opted into small lot amnesty just as we have been proactive for over 15 years in welcoming density to the neighborhood. And now we are staring down the barrel of this SLA loophole,” said Clay Crenshaw during his comments to Council. “Now some developers are pointing to 100-year-old land plans and claiming technically all of the houses in certain neighborhood areas are built on two lots and, therefore, have been legally separated.”

Those against modifying the small lot amnesty program tried to appeal to macroeconomics to back their case, noting that more supply equals lower cost.

“I built homes in the North Loop area on small lots, and the simple truth is homes on smaller lots cost less at market rate,” said David Whitworth, a housing developer. “If you remove this option, all you’re leaving on the table tonight is the $800,000 options that is incentivized by our zoning. The banks love it.”

Councilman Greg Casar (District 4), who voted against the amendment along with Council members Delia Garza (District 2), Don Zimmerman (District 6), Sheri Gallo (District 10) and Ellen Troxclair (District 8), said that the unintended application of the small lot amnesty rules had long-term benefits that were worth keeping around.

“Long-term, if we’re requiring homeowners or renters to pay for 6,000 square feet of dirt, which is what is actually expensive, then it’s going to be unaffordable,” said Casar. “We need to be able to give people the opportunity, the choice and the option to live on less than 6,000 square feet of dirt. Because otherwise what will end up happening is only those that can pay for 6,000 square feet of dirt will be able to live in Central Austin, and we already see that occurring”

Adler, who voted for the measure along with Mayor Pro Tem Kathi Tovo and Council members Ora Houston (District 1), Ann Kitchen (District 5), Pio Renteria (District 3) and Leslie Pool (District 7), said that the original intent of the tool needed to be clarified but said he was open to further modifying it.

“I just think that when the city went through the process and adopted this tool, the analysis that was done was done for a very different purpose,” said Adler. “The way that it’s being used is something that should be discussed and go through our process.” Additional information>>>