Austinites Protest Building Code Restrictions on Accessory Housing

Austin has been feeling a housing crunch for the past few years now, and as the tech explosion continues to bring transplants to Austin, it’s only getting worse. Many homes in Austin feature “accessory dwelling units” (ADUs)—also known as granny flats, mother-in-law units, garage apartments—or have room to add one.

Property owners and potential renters alike see these dwellings as a potential solution to the housing crisis. Unfortunately, the city’s restrictive municipal building codes are preventing accessory structures from being built at a pace that could help resolve the crisis.

According to the City of Austin, ADUs are small dwellings that share a lot with a larger residence. The code allows for ADUs of up to 850 square feet to be built on lots no less than 7,000 square feet by right, of on lots of 575- square feet if the neighborhood allows them.

But the code also stipulates that a nine-foot driveway plus off-street parking space be made available for the ADU resident, and that the units be located a particular distance from frontage, setbacks, and the primary dwellings. These are difficult to accomplish in older neighborhoods, and can cost would-be landlords a small fortune.

In June of last year, the Austin city council passed a resolution that would make it easier for people to build ADUs on their property. The measure seeks to relax the regulatory barriers to construction for ADUs that are 500 square feet of less in size. Unfortunately, nearly a year has passed and the planning commission has yet to pass the proposal. This holdup has left Austin property owners very frustrated.

Andrew Elder is one of those frustrated Austinites. He wishes to build an ADU in the backyard of his 9,000-square-foot lot so that his mother can live near the family. Later, the unit will be occupied by his developmentally disabled daughter so that she can be close but still have some independence. The unit will be metered separately but will be built immediately up against their home’s rear wall in a style that matches the main home.

Unfortunately, the city codes do not allow for this. The current code stipulates that ADUs be at least 15 feet from the primary home of 10 feet from the back of the property line. Although the lot size is mch larger than necessary, the layout of the Elder family’s lot leaves a tiny five-foot-wide area within which to build a living space.

Elder says that he would have to pave over our garden, pave over our yard, our water tank… all of the things that we try to do make this a sustainable household… would have to be torn out in favor of a driveway,” even though his mother and his daughter do not drive and the street has plenty of room for on-street parking.

Austinites like Elder have recently begun circulating an online petition that will be presented at the next city council meeting. They hope to get the issue on the agenda so that it can be resolved.

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