Infill In Hyde Park: Some Cautionary Considerations

The infill option of allowing secondary dwelling units on lots smaller than what is now legally allowed has been raised in several issues of the Pecan Press and at Contact Team meetings. It’s important to think carefully about what’s been presented and to ask serious questions.

According to The January 27, 2014 Contact Team minutes, Councilmember Riley referred to options that Hyde Park currently has in place, specifically higher density corridors along outside edges of neighborhoods, so that pressure can be lessened on the interior of the neighborhoods. The same density choice is in the Hyde Park Neighborhood Plan approved by City Council, number 8 of the Top 10 Priorities: Develop a corridor plan through future Smart Growth corridor planning effort for the Guadalupe corridor.

Would secondary dwellings on smaller lots deter stealth dorms/super duplexes?

Now that City Council passed reduced occupancy limits, the primary way to discourage stealth dorms is for the city to enforce limits, thereby making such structures less profitable in the future. Fortunately, the original part of Hyde Park is a Local Historic District. The part of Hyde Park north of 45th street is not so protected, which means demolitions are easier to do in that area. Therefore, it could be economically viable for a developer to buy a small lot, demo the existing structure, and build a sizeable house with a garage apartment for multiple renters with multiple cars in each.

How would second dwellings offer affordability?

Affordability relates to rent and to the construction of the second dwelling. At the April 28 Contact Team meeting, architect Michael Gatto estimated that a 1-bedroom/1-bath apartment in Hyde Park would rent for $1200 to $1500 per month. For whom is that affordable?

Mr. Gatto also estimated the minimum construction cost for that apartment to be $100,000. The increase in homeowners’ taxes would reduce any profit from rent.

If this cost in relation to potential rent doesn’t result in a beneficial bottom line estimate, Mr. Gatto suggested a deal with a financial entity that would lease the second dwelling portion of the lot and split the rent by some percentage over 30 to 40 years. That definitely would require expert advice to understand.

Who could potentially benefit from the secondary dwelling units on smaller lots?

Here are some possibilities: homeowners on lots less than 7000 sq. ft., commercial short-term rental owners with small lots on which to build more such units, developers who buy houses on small lots and add a secondary dwelling, and the financial entity mentioned in the previous question.

What would change as a result of secondary dwelling units on smaller lots?

Here are a few ideas: additional housing in Hyde Park, more cars parked in the neighborhood, some on very narrow streets; more impervious cover, even if it is within the legal amount; and, most important, unanticipated events when the five-year assistance is over or if the houses are sold. In addition, since many trees grow at the back of lots, some would be removed to make space for secondary dwellings and parking areas off of alleys. I’m guessing all of us have noticed, when turning off streets that border our neighborhood, that it is immediately cooler as we drive on our shady streets.

Is it reasonable to trust the city to apply building codes correctly and to enforce codes for affordable rent, impervious cover, and numbers of cars and residents?

When representatives from Austin’s permitting and code enforcement staff gave a brief talk at a HPNA meeting several months ago, one of them said frankly that they have a huge turnover in their staff, which means they cannot do everything the city needs. Many neighbors are aware of serious problems for homeowners and neighbors that this situation has caused.

How can we get the city to require affordable housing in all new apartment construction?

Councilmember Tovo at the HPNA meeting on May 5 commented that she supports requiring developers to include affordable units when they build new apartment buildings.

We’ve been offered statistics on local and national trends and anecdotes from other cities that are worth noting. Most important is that we preserve the character, beauty, trees, safety, and treasures of Hyde Park—the reasons we live here. For most of us, our home is the biggest investment we’ll ever make and we must think carefully about any permanent changes that might jeopardize what we and others value in Hyde Park. I look forward to more conversations with more neighborhood stakeholders regarding this infill option of secondary dwelling units on small lots.

–Sharon Brown

Editor’s Note: For a related article, see “The Proposal For Secondary Dwelling Units On Small Lots”.