Planning Commission Fiddles While Austin Rents Burn

Austin’s new City Council members were elected on a platform of affordability. In a recent zoning case, the majority have turned to the straightforward, economically literate explanation for why our central city prices are burning so hot: too many people want to live in not enough homes (1 2). But Planning Commission, made up of citizens appointed by the previous Council, hasn’t gotten the message.

Last June, the previous City Council kicked off the tortuously slow process to change a rule in Austin. In this case, the rule in question regarded building “granny flats” (aka back houses/garage apartments/accessory dwelling units/in-law apartments, etc.). These are secondary homes associated with a main house: either in the backyard or attached, but with a separate entrance.

People like granny flats for a lot of reasons. For multigenerational families, they allow proximity with privacy. For owners, they provide extra income; for renters, they provide central city homes without central city home prices. And for the city at large, they provide a modicum of the greater supply we need to handle the demand we have, without pushing people so far out that they have to clog up the freeways to get to work. Will they, alone, solve the city’s problems with high rents in the core? No way; there just aren’t enough places where they can be built. But still, a lot of people are pushing for them not because they are a solution the size of the problem we face, but because they are low-hanging fruit. If homeowners face too many restrictions to build extra homes literally in their own backyard, then where can we build? (Georgetown and Dripping Springs are not acceptable answers.)

Although many rules need to be changed to allow more granny flats, the biggest burden is parking. To build a granny flat in your backyard, you must build a driveway and a parking space. Whether or not the granny flat you’re building is for somebody with a driver’s license, whether or not there’s plenty of street parking available, whether or not you live close to a bus line, you must devote some of your yard to parking. Additionally, if you live in the central city parts of Austin built before parking requirements, building an ADU can end the amnesty for your existing home, requiring you to build up to 3 total spaces (2 for your existing home, 1 for the ADU), often on lots better adapted for housing people than cars.

Hyde Park Car Map -2015-4-23 Final
Map of parking availability by block care of Friends of Hyde Park

Unfortunately, judging from their response, the Planning Commissioners saw this plan not as a commonsense proposal to allow more people to figure out what they want in their own backyards and help ease the rent burn a bit, but as a dire threat to Austin’s way of life. When the Friends of Hyde Park neighborhood association presented their research that, despite some people’s perceptions, there is usually on-street parking available in Hyde Park, many of the planning commissioners responded to FoHP’s data with their own “feelings” that their neighborhood would be overwhelmed with cars. One commissioner (a resident of the western edge of West Campus), argued that, as her area didn’t have sidewalks, if new parking-free ADUs forced her to walk a single block from her parked car to her home, that was too much. (As an aside, the UNO neighborhood has two mechanisms for adding great sidewalks: UNO itself, and a parking management district.)

When the President of UT’s chapter of Habitat for Humanity said that his organization–built around creating housing to alleviate poverty–believed ADUs were a good solution, Commissioners aggressively demanded he renounce owners building granny flats to put out on AirBNB as a threat to our housing supply, completely oblivious to the fact that this cut against their own arguments to keep the rules which prevent more granny flats from getting built.

If you, like me, are upset by this, and want to see more action, let me suggest a few courses of action:

  1. Watch the videos below of people testifying about granny flats to learn more about the subject, and about how our government works.
  2. Sign UT Habitat for Humanity’s petition to allow granny flats to be built more easily.
  3. Join AURA, AURA (an organization I co-founded) has been a leader in this fight, and is very much a grassroots, membership-based organization.


Research from Jacob Wegmann, faculty advisor to UT Habitat for Humanity:

NexusHaus, an organization UT Habitat will be working with that has created a gorgeous design for small homes.

Andy Elder gives compelling testimony about their attempts and desires to build granny flats for their families:

Cory Brown on how granny flats have served as affordable starter rental housing for both his parents and himself:

An opponent of loosening parking requirements for granny flats argues that more granny flats would turn the city into a “concrete jungle:”

3 thoughts on “Planning Commission Fiddles While Austin Rents Burn

  1. Useful stuff. Any additional comments on internal ADUs? What prevents that from condoning over-crowding? Is it that the units have to have their own kitchens etc.? ie. same requirements as external ADUs but just in the same building?

    1. internal ADUs are in the same building but would have to have a separate, locked entrance. not sure if the kitchens are regulated. Since internal ADUs are illegal right now, I doubt we have rules about kitchens in them on the books. Near campus you’ll see units for rent without kitchens or with only teeny kitchens though.

      Right now internal ADUs are illegal unless they are either for an infirm relative or servant’s quarters (I kid you not). Of course, there are some grandfathered internal ADUs around from before they were made illegal.

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