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Op-Ed: Austin Should Lower Occupancy Limits to Stop 'Stealth Dorms'

Stop Stealth Dorms

This Thursday, the Austin City Council takes up an ordinance that would lower occupancy limits on single-family zoned property. If approved, the maximum number of unrelated adults allowed to live together would fall from six to four. 

Supporters of the change is needed to stop the spread of so-called "stealth dorms" – neighborhood homes built or remodeled to hold as many renters as possible. Opponents say the change will hurt Austin's declining stock of affordable housing.

For over 30 years, Mary Sanger has had a professional career in community organizing and electoral politics with a focus on environmental issues, and growth and development issues. 

What is before the City Council? In November, the Austin City Council unanimously passed a resolution instructing the city manager to initiate a code amendment to reduce occupancy limits for structures on single-family zoned properties from six to four unrelated persons over the age of 18. The resolution covers both duplexes and houses. It does not apply to apartments or buildings not in single-family zoned areas.

Will tenants be evicted if limits are reduced? No. There has been much misinformation about this question. No one is proposing that anyone be displaced under the new rule. What is proposed is that existing uses be grandfathered, which is explained below.

Why did the Council act to lower occupancy? Our neighborhoods are bleeding. They are under attack by builders and owners of incompatible structures designed to house unrelated adults in large numbers – sometimes called “stealth dorms.”

In the Northfield neighborhood alone, an average of six affordable homes are being destroyed every month to make room for these structures. This is also happening in North Hyde Park, Heritage, West University, Blackshear, Chestnut, Zilker, Bouldin Creek, Coronado Hills, Rundberg, Hancock, North University, Cherrywood and other central city neighborhoods.

What is the urgency? Homes are being knocked down like dominos at an alarming pace. When a modest home can be demolished and replaced with a building that rents for as much as $6,000 per month, developers are motivated to build as many stealth dorms as possible, as quickly as possible – all in neighborhoods zoned as single-family.

What are stealth dorms? A more accurate term is "Dorm-style housing," which refers to single-family houses and duplexes that house a number of unrelated adults in excess of three or four per building. Sometimes they are built or occupied illegally. Despite being classified as single-family homes, these structures are in reality stealth dorms.

Why reduce occupancy limits on single-family properties? It will be a huge step towards stopping the needless and painful disruption of the lives of individual families who are threatened by stealth dorms. Read why Austin residents want to stop stealth dorms here.

The City of Austin allows up to six unrelated adults to occupy a residential structure in a single-family neighborhood. The national average is 3.5. For Texas cities, the number is under three.

Austin has the highest occupancy level in the state. It also has one of the highest in the country. Not only is Austin an outlier, it is an extreme outlier. Reduced occupancy limits will take away the incentive for investors to destroy existing affordable housing, and it will alleviate many of growing nuisances arising from stealth dorms in existing houses and duplexes.

How would this protect single-family neighborhoods? Reducing occupancy limits in single-family zoned districts should stop most of the ongoing demolition of affordable single-family homes. However, unless the rules apply to all existing houses and duplexes, developers of dorm-style housing will start converting existing housing to dorm uses. The new limits must apply to houses and duplexes alike.

Do Stealth Dorms provide affordable housing in single-family properties? No. Newly built stealth dorms in the urban core are being rented at $1,000 per bedroom per month. Developers are demolishing older, modest single-family homes that today provide affordable housing to families and young adults alike. City staff and advocates of density for the sake of density should be challenged to bring forth hard facts and data to prove that increased density in single-family neighborhoods increases affordability. City staff has produced no evidence to prove its assertion that a reduction of occupancy limits in single-family neighborhoods will lessen affordability in the urban core.

Why should we protect our neighborhoods? Central Austin neighborhoods are the core of the city, and are the densest neighborhoods in the city. They are exactly what Envision Central Texas, Imagine Austin and city planners recommend. Imagine Austin also identified the need for more owner-occupied housing.

Austin’s own city demographer described what will happen if we start to lose our single-family neighborhoods to developers: "... with only a few exceptions, the urban core is also becoming almost devoid of families-with-children households ... this has significant implications for the city’s several school districts, but AISD will feel the greatest brunt of the effect ... it has been middle class families that are becoming increasingly less common with the urban core."

Allowing investors and builders to tear down affordable single-family homes and build incompatible, high-rent stealth dorms in our neighborhoods is not the answer to density or affordability.

Mary Sanger is a member of Stop Stealth Dorms, which is supporting the occupancy limit change. This op-ed was adapted from a longer piece you can read on the Stop Stealth Dorms website.

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