CodeNEXT additions may prompt more affordable ‘granny flats’


The city of Austin’s Planning Commission met yet again Wednesday, ironing out specifics for the final draft of CodeNEXT, the overhaul of Austin’s land use code. 

Members will discuss mapping out the code, but they’ll also tackle an item they didn’t get to in Monday’s meeting: bonuses for affordable accessory dwelling units across the city. 

This comes after the commission passed amendments to limit the development of new McMansions, referred to in these discussions as “very large homes.”

The McMansion amendments and the Affordable accessory dwelling units, or ADU, amendments are part of a larger anti-displacement plan for Austin that several of the commissioners are sponsoring.

The commissioners found that Austin’s current code makes it more affordable to build a McMansion than a duplex or an accessory dwelling.

Data from city demolition numbers show that as residential lots in the city are being redeveloped,  very few new units are added, which the commissioners say results in a lack of housing and higher prices. 

Planning Commissioner Conor Kenny explained that CodeNEXT already aims to simplify the process for adding on ADU’s in hopes of making it affordable for the majority of Austin homeowners add one to their property if they so chose.

The amendment he is proposing would allow homeowners to add another ADU in addition to the first one if the second ADU they add is designed as affordable housing.

For it to qualify as affordable housing, it would have to be affordable for people making 60 to 80 percent of the median family income in Austin, Kenny said.

The only areas that can receive this double ADU bonus are the ones within a quarter mile of the Imagine Austin corridors where bus services run and where CapMetro will invest in high capacity transit in the future. 

“The whole point is to put these near transit corridors as that is where you want the density in town to be going precisely because it has less impact on traffic,” explained Kenny in an email.

He said, “By allowing them in the city instead of adding affordable housing projects in the suburbs, you are also making a choice that has less congestion because people don’t have to drive through many neighborhoods to get to their jobs. The closer to downtown people live, the less likely they are to be car dependent.”

There are other efforts the city of Austin has been working on to turn the tide of gentrification for longtime residents and Kenny sees these affordable ADUs as an option for residents who’ve been priced out and are looking to move back.

He added that this is also a part of an effort to ease gentrification in east Austin by ensuring that density won’t be added to the Eastern Crescent unless it’s affordable housing. 

Under the current draft of CodeNEXT, east Austin will not be upzoned, Kenny said.  

Many Austin homeowners, like Monica Brickley, have found the cost of doing the current ADU permit process to be unnecessarily costly and time-consuming.

Brickley looked to add an ADU to the property where she and her husband got a house so that her aging mother could live with them. 

“The endless amount of fees, for any given thing, they just tap the word fee on it and pass it on down the line,” Brickley recalled, saying that there were also lots of limiting rules and permitting to consider.

She wound up having to buy a larger property than she’d planned to meet city code and found that waiting for city permitting wound up costing her money as well. 

“Year after year we’ve seen how it’s gotten more complicated, the worst of all: the cost has gotten crazier over the years,” she said.

Brickley has a lot of experience with the Austin permitting process. She was so frustrated by the process of building an ADU the first time around, she built her second home from scratch when they decided to have kids, building on an attached apartment for her mother-in-law.

“If you want to have an aging parent — or in the case of my mom a single parent — to come live with you, and help raise your children it should just be easier, it shouldn’t have to be this hard,” she said. 

Brickley wanted to make it clear, it was not easy for her family to afford this home build, and the permitting process cost them more than they bargained for. But she and her family love living in Central Austin and they want to stay there.  

She is curious about the ADU affordability measures included in CodeNEXT. 

“To know that I have this property where my mom lives, then I have this extra thing where I could, potentially if I wanted to, bring in some extra income for the family, that would be invaluable,” she said, noting that the affordable ADU bonus sounded interesting to her. 

But as the city finalizes CodeNEXT, she hopes city leaders consider what building is like for the average homeowner, or even follow residents through the process of buying and developing homes. 

“Just bringing some clarity to the process and being cognizant of the fact that these tacked-on fees and timelines and permitting hoops, they affect real people you’re not sticking it to anybody, you’re sticking it to someone like me,” Brickley said. 

Alina Carnahan, the spokesperson for the city’s Planning and Zoning department, explained that CodeNEXT already proposes several improvements to the city’s current ADU policy. 

With CodeNEXT:

  •  ADU’s will be allowed behind, in front of above, below, next to, or part of the principal unit, whereas under the current code they are only allowed behind the main house. 
  • If you have a home that is 1,100 square feet or smaller at the front of your property, you can build a larger home behind it and use the existing building as the ADU.  
  • If you maintain your existing home while building an ADU, the new building will not be counted against the total Floor to Area Ration limits on your property. 
  • ADUs will be allowed on lower-density residential properties if the ADU is rented at an affordable rate. 

KXAN looked over public data on the number of ADU permit requests in the city, we found that the city issued 149 permits so far this year.

There were 233 completed in 2017, 160 completed in 2016, 121 completed in 2015, 100 completed in 2014, 41 completed in 2013, and 17 completed in 2012. 

Kenny also explained that when it comes to CodeNEXT, the draft further efforts what the city council already passed, to phase out short-term rentals that are not occupied by the homeowner.

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