Make it Easier to Build Accessory Dwellings

The following is my letter to city council in support of the resolution sponsored by Council Members Martinez & Riley to lessen the impediments to the construction of “accessory dwelling units,” commonly known as granny flats, garage apartments, carriage houses, and in-law apartments, among others. For additional background on the current code and the resolution, Chris Bradford has provided an excellent overview.

While the adjustment is a fairly minor one, it is an extremely important step in the right direction, and I urge all Austinites to write to council in support of this resolution. Accessory dwellings are the lowest of low-hanging fruit on the path toward abundant housing in our vibrant and growing city. We should make their construction as easy as it possibly can be. Please contact the city council members to express your support.

Dear Council Member,

I’m writing to you in support of item #49 on this week’s agenda, the resolution sponsored by Council Members Martinez and Riley to facilitate easier construction of accessory dwelling units within our city.

Accessory dwellings are an excellent tool for increasing the housing supply in existing neighborhoods, and do so in a way that creates “invisible” density. They are a great way to provide extended family living, additional space for current residents, or new housing for new Austinites, often with an accompanying income stream for existing homeowners. While a superficial reading of our code would give the casual reader an impression that Austin is fairly friendly to the development of ADUs, there are a whole host of additional regulations which present real impediments to their construction on a greater scale. As such, it is still fairly rare for existing homeowners to construct ADUs on their own lots, with the only real ADU supply coming from infill builders who have the luxury of an empty site on which they have a free hand to place both a primary and accessory unit.

I am interested in this issue for both personal and policy reasons. My own house features a 440 sf garage apartment, which I rent to a long-term tenant. It was a big reason why I purchased the home I did, but it would not be legal to build today (it was constructed in 1946) as I do not have the required driveway and off-street parking. Beyond my own property, I have several friends who would very much like to construct an ADU on their land, but have essentially given up because of the onerous requirements for parking, driveway access, setbacks, unit separations, and overall size limitations. And at the policy scale, that represents lost additional housing, which hurts household affordability in Austin, as well as lost income to current homeowners who are facing ever rising property taxes.

To illustrate the specifics, I’d like to share a couple stories with you.

The first concerns a friend who wanted to construct a very small ADU, just 240 sf, but when he took his plans to the Development Assistance Center, he was told that it would “tickle the code beast.” He owns an East Austin home constructed in 1920 with zero off-street parking. Adding the ADU would trigger the need to add not just one new parking space for the ADU, but three new off-street parking spaces for the entire site. That would require paving over a huge amount of the lot, and costs aside, as an avid gardener, he has no interest in handing over so much of his land to useless concrete. He is one of those who after coming up against the code, has simply given up.

Another experience with the challenges in our code comes from my neighbor a couple houses down. He wanted to construct a new ADU on top of his existing garage, and his architect and an engineer developed plans to do this using the current walls and foundation. However, because the existing garage was 6.6 feet from the rear property line, but the code now requires a 10 foot setback, he was forced to seek a variance. After the usual months-long process with the Board of Adjustment, his variance was denied and he now has to proceed to demolish the existing structure and foundation, pour a new slab, and build an entirely unit from scratch just to add 3.4 feet of additional separation from the property line. In addition to his lost time and money at the Board of Adjustment, the need for demolition and new structure will also add needless cost to the construction of his unit. That cost could have been easily avoided with a simple amendment to our code.

These problems can be solved, and while I support the resolution, and its intent to solve those problems, I would ask that you amend the resolution to cover all ADUs and not just those under 500 sf. We already have at least two different sections of code governing ADUs, the two-family use and the secondary apartment special use, and if that weren’t complicated enough already, two-family use is controlled by McMansion while the secondary apartment special use is not. We should be simplifying this, not adding yet another layer of complexity to the code.

The only reference to the limiting the scope of the resolution to 500 sf units is that such a unit is “likely to be affordable.” While smaller units generally cost less to build, allowing larger units will actually encourage more affordability. There are two reasons for this:

1) We’re already talking about very small units. ADUs are currently capped at 850 sf. We’re not talking about the difference between 2,000 sf and 3,000 sf. Even the smallest units need an engineered foundation, full HVAC, full electrical and plumbing systems, including a kitchen, and connections to utilities. These items account for most of the construction cost, so the savings in building a 500 sf unit instead of an 850 sf unit are very small, but the reduction in livable space is large.

2) Extending this ordinance up to the current 850 sf cap makes it possible to construct a two-bedroom unit, possibly even a 3BR with creative use of loft space. That extra space may make the unit suitable for a small family–and we all know family housing is desperately needed in the urban core–or provide enough space for a roommate who can share in the rent and utilities. To best serve the goal of affordability, we should address the impediments to ADU construction for all units up to the current 850 sf cap and perhaps look into raising that cap a bit.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I urge you to support this resolution, and would be happy to share additional stories as staff investigates the current impediments and drafts the requested code amendment.

Sincerely,

Steven Yarak