Stealth dorm vote will help Austin in the long run

Last Thursday at 2:30 a.m. the Austin City Council took an initial vote to limit the number of unrelated adults that can live together in a single-family zoned property. Since 2002, that number has been set at six. But Thursday’s 6-1 vote was the first step toward amending the city code and reducing the occupancy limit to four.

To many Austinites and UT students, this amendment seems problematic, especially since the move to reduce the city’s occupancy limit is targeted at “stealth dorms” in the neighborhoods north of campus. Although it’s hard to define the term with precision, a “stealth dorm” is essentially an apartment-like structure built on a single-family zoned lot, intended for co-habitation by unrelated adults and hardly suitable for use as a true single-family residence. And since many UT students call these structures home, it makes sense that the UT community would be skeptical of a plan aimed at combating  stealth dorms in central Austin neighborhoods. 

Yes, opponents of the plan have raised valid concerns — namely, that it could limit the availability of affordable housing for UT students and stymie the effort to encourage much-needed, high-density development near Austin’s urban core. But we would do well to take a step back and consider the amendment for what it truly is: a solid plan that addresses a real problem.

One crucial aspect of the plan is often overlooked by knee-jerk opponents: The amendment only applies to new construction. In other words, any structure that already exists and currently houses five or six students would be unaffected. Students who live in these houses would not be forced out, and their landlords could continue to lease the property to up to six unrelated adults for as long as the property exists in its current form. The true goal of the amendment isn’t to force students out of neighborhoods like Hyde Park or North Loop; it’s to preserve the single-family homes that have existed in these neighborhoods for decades, and prevent predatory developers — who often live out-of-state and lack any ties to Austin — from taking over.

And it’s not just the fact that these developers are young and disconnected from the communities in which they rent their properties. They are also building astonishingly cheap, shoddy structures to replace reliable, decades-old housing stock. According to Ellie Hanlon, a member of the steering committee for the Hyde Park neighborhood association, one developer in particular builds  stealth dorms for $85 per square foot. Which is much less than the average. According to Hanlon, “if you talk to construction company, [the average] is $150 per square foot at a minimum. So you think, ‘what are they building?’ It’s the disposable house that they’re building to make a lot of money.” Developers are attracted to the idea of building  stealth dorms because they don’t require an investment of millions of dollars like a true, multi-family apartment complex would.

This might be excusable if it were done in the name of creating affordable student housing. But these shoddy structures are often more expensive than the single-family homes they replace. “The developers are coming in and destroying older, single-family structures that are affordable,” Hanlon said. “There’s one duplex on Red River [Street], and each side rents for $3,200. So that whole lot is bringing in $6,400. Whereas the house next door to me, which has three students, rents for $2,500. So a family could move in there. Or students could live there, which is great.” 

Sebastian Wren, the chair of the North Loop Planning Team, agreed. “There’s absolutely no doubt,” he explained to the Texan. “The older structures are cheaper. But the older structures can’t house as many people,” hence the incentive for developers to build stealth dorms. 

But all of that is not to say that there aren’t problems with the amendment. Wren admitted that, with 110 people moving to Austin every day, “we do have to create housing” in the city’s urban core, “and we have to create a lot of it to accommodate the need.” Increasing density must be one of the primary goals of Austin’s urban planning efforts, but, according to Wren, building  stealth dorms “disguised as single-family housing is not the way to do it. There’s a better way.” 

We agree. Right now, it’s cheaper for developers to build  stealth dorms on single-family zoned property than to build true, high density multi-family housing, which by law must include adequate parking, dumpsters for trash, sprinkler systems and other amenities. This amendment will effectively eliminate the financial incentive to build  stealth dorms and will, in turn, encourage developers to invest in building on upzoned properties that are suited for high-density housing. Moving forward, we would like to see the city upzone more land in central Austin to allow for the high-density housing that the city’s urban core desperately needs. This way, we can preserve historic neighborhoods such as Hyde Park while still allowing Austin to move forward as the fastest growing city in America.

Ultimately, this amendment isn’t targeted at pushing college students out of historic neighborhoods for being disruptive neighbors or for not knowing when to take out the trash. The goal of the amendment is to eliminate the incentive to build shoddy multi-family housing, and its adoption could encourage true high-density development. This would only benefit Austin as the city continues to grow, and it is a plan that we should all get behind.