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.