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ADUs Should Be Easier to Build

March 6, 2015

I have lived in a granny flat. Mother-in-law apartment. Alley flat. Garage apartment. Guest house. Whatever you call them, the Austin land use regulations call them “accessory dwelling units,” or ADUs — apartments on the same property as a single-family home. They’re a proven, time-honored and useful way to create more and better options for affordale living in all kinds of neighborhoods. In fact, many Austin homes already have ADUs that were constructed years ago, before layers of regulations added up to create our current environment that discourages them.

Today, ADUs are not as easy to build in Austin as they should be. Since 2007, fewer than 250 ADUs have been built in the whole city, even as tens of thousands of new Austinites have driven up the demand for and price of rental housing. That’s why the City Council back in September asked staff to look at ways to make it easier for Austin homeowners to create housing units on their properties.

For some owners, these units provide a housing option for aging parents, college-age children, and extended families. For others, ADUs can help defray the owners’ own housing costs and property tax bills while offering Austin renters  (more than half of our city’s population) more ways to live in the places where they want to live, close to jobs, schools, and services.

Many of the changes being considered are to the kind of small-but-important details that Austin’s land use regulations are famous for — setbacks, heights of windows (to protect neighbors’ privacy), and so forth. A major issue that’s galvanizing opposition, particularly from neighborhood associations, is parking; right now, owners who build an ADU need to add off-street parking spaces, even if their main house doesn’t have any and there’s ample on-street parking.

This is a deal-killer for many homeowners who simply don’t have the room (or allowable impervious cover) to park cars that their ADU tenants may not even own.  These and other regulations being considered unfortunately make ADUs even more difficult to build, despite the clear direction from City Council.

Some of these opponents have called for any new ADU regulations to be optional on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, which is already the case for other ADU-related rules that are embedded in some adopted neighborhood plans. At RECA, we think that the whole city is facing an affordability crisis, and we are past the point where it is either fair or practical to allow certain politically powerful neighborhood associations to make and enforce their own rules on unwilling homeowners in a futile attempt to forestall change.

Allowing ADUs — the very definition of incremental, “invisible density” — is a way to address one of Austin’s most pressing concerns without doing damage to neighborhood character or quality of life. At RECA, we urge the new City Council to take advantage of this opportunity to respond to the community’s needs.

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