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This series looks at how local, state and educational policies affect the neighborhood – everything from City Council representation to childhood obesity.

City Council Poised to Decide on 'Stealth Dorm' Regulations

The city of Austin limits the number of unrelated adults who can live in a single-family home. Right now, that limit is six.

But there’s a push before the Austin City Council to lower that number to four.  The Austin City Council meets today to decide whether to impose new rules that would lower occupancy limits – and do away with what some call “stealth dorms.”

There are neighborhoods in Austin where it’s pretty common to see four or five cars at a single house. And while some say these neighborhoods provide affordable housing, others say crowded homes cause trash and parking issues for those communities. Either way, if the new rules pass, communities across the city could feel their impact.

One of those neighborhoods is in South East Austin’s Dove Springs Community. At one of these homes, a young man in his 20s opens the door. He doesn’t want to share his name but says his cousin owns the home and he’s living there temporarily. He asks if I’d like to talk to his cousin’s son. Twenty-three-year-old Joaquin Delgadillo comes down from the second floor, entering a very tidy living room where a couple of mattresses lean against the main wall.

“There’s seven of us – dad, mom, us kids and some cousins,” Delgadillo says.

Under the possible new rules, the fact that there are seven adults living in one place would not be a problem, since everyone in the household is somehow related to each other. But, Delgadillo says he believes more stringent occupancy limits would affect other immigrant households.

Neighborhoods around the University of Texas campus also experience over-crowding. Forty-two-year-old Brian Johnson recently moved into a neighborhood that’s zoned for single-family use – right next to Eastwoods Park.

“I’m a cabinet maker so I know a little bit about building, design and architecture,” Johnson says.  “I mean ... they’re obviously old homes that have been turned into multiple-student residences.”

Johnson doesn’t mind the challenges that come with living in a re-appropriated neighborhood. Still, those challenges are very real, like sharing space with students.

“[T]hey’ll put trash bags out – just assuming they’ll get picked up, and then the raccoons rip them open. They kind of do irresponsible things like that that drive me a little bananas, but I’m crazy about the Eastwoods Park,” he says.

Johnson’s dog also loves the park and, he says, the rent is affordable.  But the things that seem like little nuisances to Johnson really upset Nuria Zaragoza.

“The parking, the trash, access … and, it doesn’t just happen close to the university,” Zaragoza says.  “The neighborhood that is hardest hit is Northfield.”

Zaragoza is in real estate, but she’s also part of a group that has been studying the impact of converted single-family homes better known as "stealth dorms." One idea she rejects – but she’s heard over and over – is that these homes provide affordable housing.

That’s certainly what Julie Montgomery believes. She’s been in Austin since the 1980’s. She’s seen the rapid growth the city has experienced over the last decade.

“We could either grow outwards, with sprawl and all of it’s negative impacts on our quality of life, or we can grow inwards and upwards and create more homes for Austinites within the city,” Montgomery says.

Nuria Zaragoza believes accommodating growth is possible, but she believes city rules need to be rewritten and respected.

One potential challenge the new rules could face, if they pass, is a possible lack of enforcement by city of Austin Code Enforcers. That’s a city department that, up until now, has struggled with large caseloads and a lack of boots on the ground.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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