How Austin’s code favors expensive homes

I just saw some interesting commentary on Twitter about ways that the city code encourages developers to turn multi-family properties into expensive single-family homes. Meanwhile, putting multiple units on a single-family lot requires a herculean (and costly) effort, if it’s possible at all:

David Whitworth, an infill developer (and valued APN subscriber) tried to make a living by tearing down big homes and building multiple smaller homes in their place.

Whitworth was exploiting an interesting historical quirk: he realized that many houses in old Central Austin neighborhoods were actually built over multiple lots. Why? Because the original lots in Hyde Park and North Loop were actually much smaller than the 5,750 square foot minimum that neighborhood associations now zealously defend as necessary to preserve their neighborhood’s traditional character.

The homes Whitworth built definitely weren’t cheap, but they were much cheaper than the large-lot alternatives in the area. But then city staff decided that wasn’t cool:

Now, three years after Whitworth had his epiphany and built a total of eight homes using it, city staffers are asking the City Council on Thursday to prevent other such developments from happening. The proposed changes to city code would stop a developer from tearing down a house straddling multiple small lots, breaking up those lots and developing each one individually.

Upon staff’s recommendation, City Council essentially voted to outlaw the construction of expensive single-family homes in Central Austin. Only super-expensive single-family houses are allowed. Four CMs dissented: Greg Casar, Delia Garza, Ellen Troxclair and Don Zimmerman.

There are still processes available to chop up lots and create smaller housing. But Whitworth explains why developers are discouraged from doing that:

Whitworth also provides some insight on why Austin established the current minimum lot size.

We went to 5,750 sf in 1946 shortly after racial covenants were banned. It was a cat and mouse game over the years and lot size stuck. I always compare it to the poll tax. It doesn’t explicitly ban black people from voting but it has that effect. The city attorney in charge when they went to 5,750 many years later was on defense attorney team for Texas fighting the ban on the poll tax.

A few years since Council took the decision to bar what Whitworth was doing, I think the political winds have shifted direction. The problem is, the folks who benefit directly from the homes Whitworth was building are generally upper middle class. Therefore, their quest for slightly cheaper homes will not elicit quite as much sympathy from Council as low-income or working-class residents who increasingly don’t have any affordable housing available in the city.

The long-term solution, of course, is to overhaul the land development code to allow multiple units on lots that are currently reserved for single-family homes, rather than to rely on historical quirks.

3 thoughts on “How Austin’s code favors expensive homes

  1. I very much support smaller minimum lot sizes. But, for context, an argument I heard from the other side at a North Loop Neighborhood Association meeting was that the original lots were (supposedly) never meant to be sold as singles. The reason they were platted at ~3k SF was so buyers could either buy 2 plots or go big and buy 3. It looks like the housing built immediately after platting supports that theory, though it’d be great to use these smaller lots (again) to provide a slightly more affordable option.

    Another comment from a member of the NLNA was basically “David Whitworth’s home’s are nice, but we can’t trust the next developer to do something as nice.” When I asked about the “niceness” of the new single family houses currently being built on double lots there was no response.

    1. Good point Witt. There are advertisements from back in the day selling one, or two, or even buy one get one free schemes. But they did indeed pretty much all sell as multiples so you are right about that. But they also sat empty a LONG time from the turn of the century up to the 40s post war boom. So I think there was an economic element at play not necessarily a developer’s unwillingness to sell a vision of single lots. By the time they did start selling and building in the 40s, city code required you to build on two lots at a time. The bottom line here, for me, is that the original lots are the same exact blueprint of cities like Chicago and Philadelphia where they have 3-4 unit row homes on each of the individual lots, with alleys, and on small blocks. 6 to 8 times the density. But those cities were well established with higher populations before the automobile. Austin was just cheap land and a there was a bunch of it and Austin really didn’t have its boom until after the automobile and also after what is very likely some social engineering with the zoning code. North Loop in particular was pretty far out of town when developed in 1914, three years before WWI, as a speculative venture and the plat was already an artifact by the time the homes were built (The developer was in Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession). To me that’s the story of why they weren’t built out individually, not that they aren’t completely viable individually and laid out perfectly for that. And yes, the North Loop boom continues, just bigger more expensive houses than what we had during that brief window of small lot amnesty.

      There is however, one single house on a single 25’x126′ lot in Hyde Park that I am fascinated by. And while it may not be mind blowing, I would love the backstory. 4309 1/2 Avenue F built in 1939.

      1. Whoops. That post wasn’t intended to be anonymous. Although anyone reading this deep into nerd land pretty much knows it is me because I’m a die-hard on this subject. It was such a revelation and an exciting adventure learning and discovering the hidden past right under our feet and how a classic land plan was lost to time and nobody knew about it. Right in what is now the middle of town. I remember reading one post on the North Loop list serv at the time from someone just absolutely convinced you couldn’t build a house on a 25x125ft lot and surely the old land plan was some kind of aberration or mistake because it made no sense and they couldn’t fathom why they lived on two legal lots when there was only room for one house. Then we built the houses on the 25ft wide lots. So fulfilling.

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