The ADU Controversy: Two Opinion Pieces

From Karen McGraw

There are many questions surrounding the Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) resolution initiated by Council Members Chris Riley and Mike Martinez.  It was adopted June 12 on a vote of 4-3 (Council Member Spelman and Mayor Leffingwell concurring and Council Members Morrison, Tovo and Cole voting no) to allow small second dwellings on every lot as small as 5,750 square feet all across Austin. The resolution directs the city manager to hold a stakeholder process and come back with a recommendation by October 12.  

In addition to reducing minimum lot size for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), the Council resolution triggering this proposal specifically contemplates changes to eliminate driveway and parking requirements, reduce building separation requirements, increase the maximum gross floor area for second-story ADUs, and allow a legally non-complying structure to add an ADU (for example, if your neighbor’s original garage is built on your property line without the setback required under current code, they’d be allowed to add a dwelling unit to it).  For details, visit http://www.austintexas.gov/edims/document.cfm?id=213071.

The resolution would potentially allow two dwelling units on almost every lot in Hyde Park, regardless of impacts on traffic, parking, infrastructure, and the privacy of nearby neighbors without appropriate zoning protections.

It’s been claimed these new units will increase affordability, though given escalating construction costs, rising property taxes, additional home insurance, and ongoing maintenance, the math on this is far from clear. Further, homeowners contemplating such an addition should be aware that they will lose their homestead property tax exemption on any portion of their property that is rented out, as one City Council member recently learned the hard way.

ADUs have also been touted as a way to increase available housing stock in Austin, but the current proposal makes no mention of prohibiting their use as short-term rentals (STRs, aka hotel rooms). Absent such a prohibition, many of these new units will likely not provide actual housing options for Austin residents.

Hyde Park neighbors spent years working to establish a type of zoning called a Neighborhood Conservation Combining District (NCCD) to protect many of the things we all love about this area. Our NCCDs allow two-family use on lots at least 7,000 square feet with standard city parking requirements (currently three spaces for two-family use in the urban core, or four spaces elsewhere.)  Since two of the required parking spaces may be “tandem” or stacked in a driveway, we already have extra cars on the street for many existing dwellings. Waiving all parking requirements for these new units will only add more cars to our streets.

Council Member Kathie Tovo countered (seconded by CM Morrison) the R/M proposal by suggesting it be established as a planning tool of choice, to be implemented only via the well-defined neighborhood planning process but these proposals were rejected by the makers. Because each neighborhood is different and certain areas within neighborhoods present different lot sizes and parking patterns, this sensible approach would allow for more fine-grained changes, ensuring that any new additional units do not overburden existing infrastructure or negatively impact the health, safety and privacy of immediate neighbors. It does not make sense to override all neighborhood plans by forcing this type of change as a blanket citywide policy. While the HP Contact Team has been discussing this issue and has not reached a position, it remains that the City Council could enact a measure that could completely override Hyde Park’s NCCDs. This is the reason for a stakeholder process and I think we should participate in that opportunity.

The current chair of Hyde Park’s Contact Team, Pete Gilcrease, stated at the September 8 Hyde Park Neighborhood Association (HPNA) meeting that if City Council enacts a version of an ADU proposal that applies citywide to all neighborhoods without any qualifications, “it won’t matter” what neighbors think. For this reason, I strongly believe we should weigh in on this issue as a group during the current stakeholder process and we should consider the issue as individuals in deciding whom to vote for in the upcoming City Council election.

To that end, I have asked the HPNA Steering Committee to place the item on the October 6 agenda for discussion and the November 3 agenda for a vote. I have also requested the Hyde Park Contact Team take a position on this issue at its October 27 meeting. The City Manager is expected to bring the ADU proposal back to City Council on October 12, but action will not likely occur before the November election.

In closing, I believe the City Council should respect the city’s well-established neighborhood planning process and allow changes such as this only after careful local consideration and widespread notification and input. I hope you will join me in urging a more considered approach to a proposal that has the potential to change the fabric of our neighborhood—and the daily lives of many residents—for a long time to come.

 

From Adrian Skinner

Much press has been given to matters concerning Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) over the last several months, both at the city and local level.  As residents and property owners in Hyde Park have debated the issue locally, City Council is considering a new ordinance, led by Chris Riley, which would ease parking requirements and other restrictions in an effort to encourage the development of homes less than 500 sq. ft. on existing residential lots around the city.

Many of our community members are concerned about the impact a citywide ordinance could have on Hyde Park.  Austin is growing and with growth comes change; the central question in the ADU debate is how Hyde Park ought to grow and change with Austin.  Opponents of the Riley ADU proposal fear the worst—bumper to bumper parking up and down the avenues, eroding property values, loss of green space, and mounting noise and trash issues as the neighborhood population increases. Some have also concluded that building affordable housing in Hyde Park through ADUs is not financially feasible.

I agree that these concerns must be given their due attention.  The city has a responsibility to enforce the codes around trash left curbside and noise violations that disturb the peace.  However, it would be misguided for us to assert a “right to park” on public streets.  The public street in front of my house does not belong to me; and unless a resident parking permit zone is established, anyone may lawfully park there.  Certainly, I’d rather have a view of my neighbor’s lawn and trees but the equity of public services, like our streets, is that they exist for the good of all.

Rather than focus on personal household decisions like financial feasibility, we ought to view the current Hyde Park Neighborhood Plan requirements that allow some property owners to build an ADU through an equity lens.  Provided that the requirements pertaining to impervious cover, floor to area ratio, setback, off street parking, design compatibility, and preservation of heritage trees are met, is it equitable to treat the property owner of a lot smaller than 7,000 sq. ft. differently from the property owner of a lot larger than 7,000 sq. ft.? It is not.
We should adopt a philosophy of equity instead of focusing on our fears and asserting property rights that are more akin to a caste system.  By doing so, we can address the big city problems that affect our daily quality of life together.  Instead of dividing our community by property lot size, let’s come together and find solutions that are equitable for everyone.

–Adrian Skinner