Art in the Neighborhood

By Sebastian Wren

Northfield is a lovely place to walk around.  There is so much culture, vitality, and history — things are always changing — something is always happening.  And peppered throughout the neighborhood are little examples of art and creativity.  The artistic culture of the Northfield / North Loop area is just one part of the overall quality-of-life we enjoy here.  It is just so nice to walk around the neighborhood and peruse various examples of Austin’s remarkable creative talent.

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Traffic in Northfield: The Top 10 Unhappy Places in the Neighborhood

By Sebastian Wren

I’ve been active in this neighborhood for nearly 20 years, and over the years I’ve listened to many people complain about the traffic in their part of the neighborhood.  Some are definitely worse than others, but clearly there are about 10 traffic situations in our neighborhood that are highly problematic.  In my experience, this is a fair count down of the top 10 biggest traffic problems in our neighborhood:

#10  The 56th Street / Duval Expressway

In the morning, you can hear them coming.  Starting at Koenig Lane and Avenue F, you can hear the engines winding up.  People have discovered that they can pull into our neighborhood at Avenue F, turn left on 56th Street, turn right on Duval, and go all the way down to 53rd Street without hitting a single stop sign.

There are a few people in sports cars and one guy on a motorcycle who are notorious.  They seem to love this wide-open stretch of road.  Hard acceleration, squealing tires — this is a stretch of road in need of a few obstacles.

#9  Commuters on Leralynn

Every morning and every evening, hundreds of cars cut through our neighborhood in the hopes of shaving a few seconds off of their commute.  Most of the time this isn’t that big a problem, but on Leralynn it is a problem — a very serious problem.

Leralynn is a short stretch of road from North Loop to 51st Street.  It is narrow, full of parked cars, pedestrians, and pets, and there isn’t a sidewalk to be found.  The people cutting through our neighborhood in a hurry to get to work or home are shockingly impatient and rude.  If you’re trying to pull out of your driveway, they’ll honk at you and keep going.  If you’re a pedestrian, they’ll run you down.  (I’m not kidding — two pedestrians have been hit on this street in the past year alone.)

This is a road in desperate need of a few speed humps.  Big ones.

#8  The Guadalupe Serpentine

If you are trying to cross Guadalupe at Nelray, you are probably going to experience a little anxiety.  The serpentine curves in Guadalupe just north of Nelray make it nearly impossible to see cars coming.  During rush hour, it is very uncomfortable.  If you are walking or riding a bicycle, or (heaven help you) pushing a baby stroller, you are probably cursing the traffic engineers who thought that it would be fun to design Guadalupe like a race track in Monaco.

Just a little further north on Guadalupe, there are speed humps and traffic islands that very effectively slow traffic down.  One of those traffic-calming measures should be installed just north of Nelray on Guadalupe.

#7  The Lack of Pedestrian Facilities near North Loop

From Epoch Coffee to Drink Well, it’s hard to be a pedestrian.  Our local businesses are very attractive, and lots of people want to go there.  But cars trolling around looking for a parking space can make it very hard to be a pedestrian.  There aren’t sidewalks on most of our streets, so pedestrians have to walk in the street.

When there are a lot of cars parked in the street, and there are a lot of cars driving around looking for a parking space, it can be pretty uncomfortable to be a pedestrian.  But one of our streets (Chesterfield) has one-side parking with a pedestrian pathway on the other side of the street (a simple stripe of paint – that’s all it takes).

It works very well. We need more streets to be one-side parking.

#6  Chesterfield at Nelray

Chesterfield is a great street.  Hundreds of people walk down it every day, and thanks to the one-side street parking, it’s fairly reasonable for pedestrians.  (Could be better, but really, it’s not bad.)

But the corner of Nelray and Chesterfield is insanely dangerous.  People seem to think that this intersection has a 4-way stop sign — it isn’t.  Some people run the stop sign.  Some people stop, and then go (assuming the cross traffic is going to stop for THEIR stop sign… that they don’t have…).

Life near this intersection is punctuated with squealing tires, honking horns, and the occasional fender-bender.  There is frequently broken glass and bits of broken plastic in the intersection, so people are clearly getting into crashes.

But complaints to the city have been shamefully fruitless.  The city traffic engineers insist that this is a perfectly safe corner.  They have studied it several times, and they always come to the conclusion that it is a good, safe intersection.


Yeah, right…

#5  The Crazy Intersection of 53rd Street, Bruning Avenue, Eilers, Clarkson, Middle Fiskville Road, and the Railroad Tracks

This is a bizarre intersection.  This isn’t an exaggeration — look at a map — there are 5 roads that come together right at the railroad tracks.  And by the way, Airport Boulevard is only about 30 feet from this intersection.  If you are on a bicycle or (heaven help you) trying to walk through this spaghetti bowl, you’re in for some confusion.  They’ve recently painted some zebra stripes to make it clearer where pedestrians are supposed to walk, but it really doesn’t help much.

This intersection needs so much – honestly, it just needs to be redesigned.  Bruning Avenue should be local-access only, and some of the other streets should be limited access.

#4  The Crazy 5-Way Intersection at 51st Street, Duval Avenue, and Bruning Avenue

When the North Loop Neighborhood Plan was adopted nearly 20 years ago, the neighborhood prioritized the closure of Bruning Avenue to through traffic.  The intersection at Duval, 51st, and Bruning is dumb and dangerous.  The city took a stab at making it safer by adding traffic lights, but it’s really not an improvement.  Rush hour traffic is crazy, and it is absolutely unsafe for pedestrians.

Closing Bruning Avenue is long, long overdue.  It does not make sense to have a diagonal street cutting across our grid-layout neighborhood.  Every intersection along Bruning is dangerous, and each end of Bruning is horrible.  Bruning should be turned into a pedestrian-friendly avenue with local-access only for cars.

#3  The Pedestrian Nightmare Along Airport Boulevard

Here is one of the funniest jokes in the neighborhood:  There are bus-stops on Airport Boulevard.  Get it?  It’s funny because people might die trying to catch the bus.  The East side of Airport Boulevard is vaguely tolerable, but the whole West side of that street is a nightmare.

The area around 53rd Street and the area around 51st Street are both just awful.  There are no pedestrian facilities around there.  No sidewalks.  No curbs.  There’s mud and potholes next to high-volume, high-speed traffic.  This is an area where a little concrete would not go to waste.

The city created a plan years ago to re-design and re-build Airport Boulevard.  This plan calls for pedestrian facilities and safety features.  And this plan is long over-due.  The city needs to take that plan off the shelf and start construction.  And the reconstruction of Airport Boulevard should extend across the railroad tracks at every street.

#2  51st Street — All of it

Guess what this is:


If you guessed, “A car that was going way too fast on 51st Street and ended up flying through the air and landing on the roof of a near-by house,” you are … um… completely correct.  How did you know?

Yes, that’s right, cars sometimes go so fast on 51st Street, they get air-born!  Between Duval and Guadalupe cars can race along at full speed.  They lose control often, smashing into people’s fences, knocking over rock walls, and yes, even landing on the roofs of houses.

Cars sometimes go so fast along this street that pedestrians trying to cross the street often have difficulty judging how much time they have to get across the street.  At Avenue F and 51st, visibility isn’t that great, and pedestrians often get honked at for “being in the way.”

A little traffic calming around those curves on 51st Street West of Avenue F would be extremely welcome.

#1  Avenue F

Without a doubt, the most unhappy place in the neighborhood is Avenue F.  High traffic volume, high traffic speed, high pedestrian volume, and poor facilities all come together on this one stretch of road.

I’ve seen buses going backwards down the street for blocks to make room for other buses coming the opposite direction.  I’ve seen cars hit buses.  I’ve seen cars hit cars.  I’ve seen dead pets laying in the gutter.  I’ve seen cars speeding down the street bottom out and nearly lose control because of a major dip in the road.

Avenue F is a mess.  If there is one problem that must be fixed in this neighborhood, it is this short stretch of road.  Traffic calming would be good.  Maybe a traffic circle at 54th street would help.  Anything that can be done to divert the high traffic volume from this street would be helpful.

Capital Metro considered removing the #7 bus route from this street, but that is a very upsetting idea.  The #7 bus is very handy, and most people do want to keep that bus in the heart of our neighborhood.  But Avenue F should be redesigned to make it a better bus route.  More sidewalks, maybe one-side street parking, and a few traffic-calming devices would make this a much better, safer street.


Greg Casar Answers Questions from the Northfield Neighborhood Association

Council Member Greg Casar has answered the set of questions asked of all candidates running for District 4.  At this point, the questions have been answered by Gonzalo Camacho (scroll down) and Greg Casar (below).  The questions have not yet been answered by Louis Herrin.
Here are the questions we asked along with Greg Casar’s complete and unedited responses:

NNA:  What would you do to improve the diversity of housing stock in Central Austin, creating more opportunities for affordable housing without sacrificing the quality of life for existing residents?

Casar:  Abundant and diverse housing is critical for the quality of life for all our residents: new and existing. If we continue to promote sprawling development as we grow, we hurt our environment, we reduce the effectiveness of already struggling public transportation, and we promote higher rents and higher taxation for existing and new residents.

Through the comprehensive land development code rewrite– known as CodeNEXT– we can incorporate more opportunities for affordable and attainable housing types across Austin. In North Central Austin, we’ve often allowed for increased density and housing capacity, by allowing things like granny flats in neighborhood plans: it will be important for all the other parts of Austin to do their part as well.

I’m also supportive of mixed-income housing. The upcoming development at Koenig and Lamar is a good example of this: because nearby residents supported Vertical Mixed Use, we’ll all benefit from units at a range of prices for families of different sizes and incomes, along with new retail opportunities at the edge of the neighborhood.

NNA:  What is your view of the changing demographics of Central Austin?

Casar:  I think cities are at their best when they create environments where individuals and families of different backgrounds, incomes, ages live and prosper together. In Austin, we’re losing many of our working people– and working families in particular– from the urban core. We must take an “all of the above” approach to tackling this challenge.

Council Member Renteria and I authored, and the Council passed, the Fair Housing Initiative– an “all of the above” approach to better integrating our city. This initiative and others will subsidize more housing, disperse affordable housing, promote a variety of housing sizes and types, and more. But it will take years of effort to be successful. I’m absolutely committed to getting Austin off the list of Most Segregated Cities in America.

NNA:  What could be done to improve mobility in Austin?

Casar:  I believe the transportation bond on this November’s ballot is a step in the right direction. It will make critical investments in our sidewalk and bicycle infrastructure, and will get roads like Airport Blvd and Lamar Blvd into the 21st century.

Once our major corridors are re-engineered to maximize their efficiency, though, we’ll need to think beyond roadway capacity. We cannot expand roads in the central city (the cost would be astronomical, and this would be terrible for our neighborhoods), so we must look to mass transit to increase mobility. I am a supporter of getting more urban mass transit on the ground as soon as possible– including a potential rail line down Lamar and Guadalupe. I also believe that by adding more retail and office space along our corridors, we can reduce the distance you have to walk or drive to get to work or the store.

NNA:  What do you think are the 3 most important quality-of-life issues that need to be addressed?

Casar:  Apart from the issues of affordability and mobility described above, I regularly hear from constituents about the need for City Hall to support our kids and their educational opportunities, and the need to support our seniors. We’ve worked hard as a new City Council to provide wrap around services at our Title I schools, to bring green space to our urban parks deserts, and to provide legal assistance to parents with young children– especially those in disputes with their landlords that may result in evictions and family homelessness.

I’m encouraged by the possibilities the ACC Highland campus brings to our communities and for our youth. We also must address the struggles our seniors face in staying in their homes and neighborhoods. We’ve taken important steps raising the senior exemption, but we must also look at ways of providing options for our seniors other than paying an unsustainably high tax bill and moving out of the neighborhood. I believe in planning an all-ages friendly city.

NNA:  What are your top priorities for Austin’s budget?

Casar:  The large majority of Austin’s general fund budget is dedicated to public safety. That’s logical, because of the significant expenses of running the police, fire, and emergency services departments. I believe, also, that basic human services– such as homeless shelters and mental health services– also are critical expenditures for ensuring our public safety. We should invest in police stations and ambulances: and we also should invest in the social services and health services that can attack the roots of crime and the roots of health emergencies. This is both the right thing to do and the fiscally responsible thing to do.

I’m also committed to ensuring that the City of Austin is run effectively. When I found out that our DNA evidence lab was unacceptably years behind on processing sexual assault evidence, and that the lab was shutting down because of improper scientific practices, I’ve prioritized the swift and accurate pursuit of justice.

The other largest component of our budget is Austin Energy & Austin Water. I’ve prioritized lowering rates for everyday residents, and I’ve championed ending special, lowered rates for large corporations. I also believe we need to aggressively pursue more renewable energy sources, and retire our polluting coal plants as quickly as is responsible.

City Council Candidate Gonzalo Camacho Questions from NNA

Every election, the Northfield Neighborhood Association sends a short  list of questions to candidates running for District 4 and 9 and / or the Mayor.  These questions are germane to the interests of residents in the Northfield Neighborhood.

This year each of the candidates for District 4 has been given an opportunity to respond to questions for the current election.  Gonzalo Camacho is the first candidate to respond, but the other two candidates will likely send their responses soon.

NNA:  What would you do to improve the diversity of housing stock in Central Austin, creating more opportunities for affordable housing without sacrificing the quality of life for existing residents?

CAMACHO:  Perhaps the priority should be about preventing the increase of housing and living costs as well as gentrification instead of diversification of “housing stock.”

According to the City, District 4 has a median household income of about $39,200 which, for a full time job, is about $19/hour without benefits like health insurance and vacation. District 4 might be affordable since it has one of the lowest median family income but it is also prime for redevelopment and economic gentrification as we have seen in North Loop.

To maintain the cost of housing and living affordable we should pay close attention to property taxes and regulations that increase property taxes, fees and cost of doing business. Whether it is an increase in the city’s budget or a new bond, these impact the cost of living in Austin affecting housing affordability and to lower income families the most.

Affordability of housing is also related to the cost of transportation. Generally, for a median family income 25% of their income is for housing and 24% for transportation, both cost of housing and transportation go hand in hand.

In terms of transportation we need to encourage a diverse, efficient, safer, and multi modal transportation system including: walking, bicycling, peer-to-peer (Uber & Lyft), public transit, private cars, etc.

In terms of quality of life, although “quality of life” is subjective, it is critical to preserve and expand green spaces, linear parks, pocket parks, neighborhood parks, or even regional parks. There are many other aspects that are included in quality of life such as: health, safety, and family economics. I would like to add to quality of life having kinder and friendlier communities in District 4.

NNA:  What is your view of the changing demographics of Central Austin?

CAMACHO:  City government should prioritize the preservation of the quality of life of residents and economic vitality of families including local businesses. District 4 is unique in its demographics because it has a large Hispanic population and a diverse ethnic community. As an immigrant I love diversity of cultures and love to celebrate those differences. It is great to come from outside and be welcome into a neighborhood while being able to plan for future retirement or growing a family.

However, as a small business owner (traffic and transportation engineering) and home owner, the increase of property taxes is pricing me out from retiring in my North Loop house. In other words, costs of living in District 4 are increasing making it difficult for home owners to afford property taxes. I believe affordability is impacting many District 4 residents in particular: families, fixed income, retirees, and low income families.

NNA:  What could be done to improve mobility in Austin?

CAMACHO:  Transportation is a big expense for families, about 24% of the median income family is spent in transportation; therefore, transportation or mobility is critical to quality of life and affordability.

The City of Austin should revisit the fundamentals of transportation. Maintenance and operation of roadways efficiently and in a safe manner is a building block for a good transportation system. It includes maintenance and operation of: roadway pavement, traffic signals, sidewalks, ADA access, bicycle infrastructure, etc. These are the foundation for the future of transportation/mobility.

The City of Austin should be proactive about solving concerns such as hot spots (crash prone areas) and proving the basic infrastructure that all modes of transportation require for people to access the city in a safe, efficient and affordable manner.

Capital Metro should provide free transit service to Austin residents in particular to AISD students and retirees.

With the advent of technology and other innovative approaches to mobility, government agencies should to be open to having healthy conversations and partnerships with the private sector.

4.  What do you think are the 3 most important quality-of-life issues that need to be addressed?



  • Health & Safety – Are our neighborhoods safe in terms of health of people, healthy environment, and personal safety?
  • Cost of living – Are our neighborhoods allowing us to maintain a standard of living without having to compromise our standard of living and quality of life now and in the future?  Can we retire living in our current homes or will we be forced to sell our family homes for retirement?
  • Accessibility – Are our neighborhoods provided with the infrastructure and transportation system that allow us to access the area and region in a safe, efficient and affordable manner?
NNA: What are your top priorities for Austin’s budget?
CAMACHO:  The City’s budget must be ACCOUNTABLE, line item by line item. It has to have ESTABLISHED PRIORITIES that are quantifiable and measurable. The City’s budget must be EFFICIENT focused on preserving the quality of life of families and neighborhoods.

Long before there was a Highland ACC or even a Highland Mall


by Sebastian Wren

Just over 100 years ago, as we all know, most of the area around this part of town was nothing more than fields and orchards. What most people have probably forgotten (or never knew), is that much of the land north and east of our neighborhood — 350 acres – was once owned by the Regular Missionary Baptist Association, a Reconstruction-era African American organization which was first moderated by the famous Reverend Jacob Fontaine.

Years after the Civil War, there were many young black children who were living without parents or reliable care-givers, but there was no orphanage for African American children in Texas. The Regular Missionary Baptist Association dedicated themselves to addressing this problem by building an orphanage for black children in Texas on the edge of their farmland. This was far outside the Austin city limits, and there was a frontier attitude about construction and development at the time. The first building for the orphanage was a clapboard wooden structure built in 1906 next to the Tannehill Branch Creek, but it didn’t last very long — within a few years, it burned down (under “mysterious circumstances,” as buildings owned by African Americans were wont to do at the time).

In 1910, the Association decided to rebuild, but this time they commissioned well-respected architect John Andrewartha to replace the devastated wooden structure with a much larger and more substantial limestone building. In 1911, the St. John’s Industrial Institute and Home for Negro Orphans re-opened and began serving 300 to 500 children.

Old Orphanage where Highland Mall is Now

The creation of the orphanage was overseen by Dr. Lee Lewis Campbell (Campbell Elementary School on East MLK is named in his honor), featuring a 3-story limestone building (for the girls) and a smaller wooden structure (for the boys). Campbell also designed an educational system to take children who lived at the orphanage through high school. The St. John’s Orphanage quickly earned a reputation as one of the best educational institutions for African Americans in the South. Booker T. Washington described the orphanage as a paragon example of educational opportunities for the first generations of free African American children in the south.

The orphanage also became a very important social hub for African Americans across Texas. Every year, African Americans would make a pilgrimage to the St. John’s community for a social, religious, and educational conference. As many as 25,000 people would journey to the orphanage – traveling by any means available – to spend a few weeks encamped on the farmland around the orphanage.


Some of these pilgrims walked for miles and miles to attend the “encampment” every year. At its peak, the annual pilgrimage to the St. John’s orphanage more doubled the size of Austin (which was just over 20,000 at the time). The “encampments” were social events, but they were also educational opportunities. In addition to parades and contests, people also attended sermons on temperance and informal classes on farming, job-training, sanitation, and self-improvement.


While the orphanage was a successful social and educational center, it was also the focus of frequent, unwanted attention from southern racists. For example, in 1923, children from the orphanage were invited to sing a concert for congressmen at the Texas State Capitol, but the concert was interrupted when members of the Klu Klux Klan entered the Capitol in full ceremonial robes. They claimed they were interrupting the choir of children to make a “donation” to the orphanage, but their intention was clearly to intimidate the children and assert their dominance.

Despite challenges, the orphanage thrived throughout Dr. Campbell’s life, but after his death in 1927, the orphanage began to fall on hard times. With the Great Depression of the 1930s, funding was nearly impossible to acquire, services were cut, and the very building itself began to decay. It was finally, quietly abandoned in 1942. The once impressive limestone building languished vacant, abused by vandals, occupied occasionally by vagrants. Somehow a rumor circulated that the old building was haunted.

In 1951, the City of Austin annexed the farmland around the abandoned orphanage, but people continued to farm the land through most of the 1950s. In 1956, the land was sold to a developer for $600,000. The developer announced plans to build a subdivision of ranch-style houses, and two weeks after the sale of the land was finalized, the old orphanage burned to the ground. The circumstances of the fire were reported as “suspicious.” Again.

Some houses were built on the farmland to the west, but most of the developer’s plans for a subdivision of ranch-style houses apparently fell through. Much of the area around the former site of the orphanage remained untouched and undeveloped until 1969 when ground was broken for Highland Mall and several strip-center shopping districts around the mall.  By the time the mall opened in 1971, the remote farmland outside of Austin had been transformed into a sea of asphalt and concrete.


The creek that ran near the orphanage still runs — in a channel under the parking lot. When I-35 was constructed, the forgotten cemetery for the orphaned children of St. John’s was discovered on a hill. The small coffins were removed (rather unceremoniously by some accounts) to make room for the construction of a Denny’s next to the new highway.

Highland Mall thrived through the 1970s and 1980s as one of Austin’s premier shopping destinations, but fell into decline some 30 years later. By the dawn of the 21st Century, stores were closing, and the mall was dying. Austin Community College and Red Leaf Properties purchased the mall, and began working with neighbors and City leaders to redesign and repurpose the mall into a community college, offices, and a vibrant mixed-use community.

As we work with the city and ACC to imagine a new future for Airport Boulevard and Highland Mall, I hope we can also be respectful of the past. A creek that once flowed should flow again. Fields where children played should become park space again. While Austin needs more density and mixed-use development, I think we should also set aside a small parcel of land next to Tannehill Branch Creek for a public green space — I propose we call it Orphan Park.



A Little Piece of Neighborhood History Queitly Disappeared

by Sebastian Wren

I guess I’ve been a little out of touch lately.  I didn’t even notice that Home Lumber Co. on Burnet Road was going out of business.  Truth be told, I never actually bought anything there, but I did stop in from time to time to talk to Frank Bowmar, the owner.

Well, I say “talk.”  Really I just listened.  I love Austin history, and Frank had a lot to say on the subject.  So I loved to listen to him.  When he was very young, Frank’s father HomeLumber1moved their lumber yard “way out in the country.”  The way Frank told it, everybody said his father was crazy putting his lumber yard out in the sticks.  He would point at Koenig Lane and say, “That was just a dirt road.  There was no pavement out here.”

That was 1938, and indeed, there was little to nothing going on in Austin north of 45th Street.  North Loop was the city limit back then, and there were very few houses or businesses that far north.  In fact in this aerial photograph taken in the late 1930s, Koenig Lane didn’t even exist.  But that didn’t last long.  After the War, a building boom put houses and shopping centers all around Home Lumber Co.

One time I mentioned that my house was not far away, and was built in 1946.  Frank said that after the War, his father supplied the lumber for all of the houses in the area.  In an attempt to be complimentary, I said that my house was clearly built out of very good lumber to have lasted so long, and Frank scoffed and looked at me like I was an idiot.  “No, it wasn’t — You must not know what good lumber is.  We couldn’t get good lumber after the War.  We were throwing up houses with whatever junk we could get our hands on.  Some of these houses are made of part oak, part pine, and whatever else we could find.”

I guess Frank must have finally retired.  I drove by there today, and the lot has been cleared — they’ve torn everything down to make room for something new.  And I suppose it makes sense.  An old lumber-yard in the middle of town isn’t going to be viable these days.  Home Lumber can’t compete in a Home Depot world.  But I’m going to miss visiting the store and thinking about the view that Frank has had out his front window every day.

From his store-front window, he watched them pave the streets out there. He watched them build the Allendale Village shopping center across the street.  He and his family played a part in building all of the houses in Northfield and Brentwood and Crestview and Allendale and on and on and on.  There was something about Frank at the Home Lumber Co. that made me think of all that has changed in one man’s life-time.  That little time-capsule on Burnet Road is gone for ever now.  I know it had to happen sooner or later, but it still makes me a little sad.


Stealth Dorms, Occupancy Limits, and Diverse Housing

by Sebastian Wren

A recent story on the Texas Standard succinctly summarized the problem of so-called “Stealth Dorms” that have plagued Central Austin.  Essentially, as stated in this article, the”problem” of Stealth Dorms depends on your point-of-view.  To the young person who wants to live in a group-housing situation and possibly pay a little less for rent every month, Stealth Dorms are awesome.  To the person who lives near-by the Stealth Dorm and is suffering with the side-effects of poorly managed group-home living, Stealth Dorms are a disaster.  That’s what makes it so hard to solve this problem — you see, not everybody thinks that Stealth Dorms are a problem.  Some people like them.

Stealth Dorms Defined

Before talking about the problems and solutions, it’s important to define what we are talking about when we say, “Stealth Dorms.”  A Stealth Dorm is designed and built for group-housing, but they are built on Single-Family-Zoned lots.  The builders claim they are “Single Family Homes” so they can build under lighter (and cheaper) building-code regulations.  But that claim is quite simply a cynical lie.  Walking around a Stealth Dorm, it is very clear that no single-family will ever live there.  They are laid out in a way that only makes sense if a bunch of unrelated adults are all living under the same roof.

It’s important to note that not all rental houses are Stealth Dorms.  Sometimes 3 or 4 people will rent a house together, but that doesn’t automatically make that house a “Stealth Dorm.”  The house in that situation was built for family-style living.  A family may have once lived there, and a family may one day live there again.   Therefore it is not a Stealth Dorm.

With a true Stealth Dorm, everybody knows that a family will never live there, and that for the next 50 years, that property will be a de facto “multi-family” rental property.  Moreover, it will probably be a rental property in decline.  The Stealth Dorms built in our neighborhood 10 years ago are now falling into disrepair and neglect.  When they were new, they were actually pretty expensive rental properties, but now some of them are in sad shape, and they’re renting for less and less.

The Stealth Dorm Conundrum

And here-in lies the conflict with Stealth Dorms.  Some of the older ones are now a viable, “affordable” option for people who who want to live in a Central-Austin neighborhood, but who can’t keep up with sky-rocketing rental prices.  Typically Stealth Dorms are very poorly built and scarcely maintained, so within a few years, they start to fall apart.  From Day 1, Stealth Dorms tend to attract people who make noise at odd hours.  They create trash, parking, and even sewage problems for near-by neighbors.  And over time, they fall into disrepair and become a bit of an eye-sore.

But for the person on a limited income who really wants to live in Central Austin, that “eye-sore” is their “affordable housing.”  While most rental prices in Austin are climbing, Stealth-Dorm rental prices are actually falling.  In one Stealth Dorm near the railroad tracks, prices per room have reportedly dropped from $600 ten years ago to $450 today.

The Stealth Dorm Solution

In 2014, the City Council imposed a temporary reduction in the number of unrelated adults who may live together on a Single-Family property.  Prior to that reduction, up to 6 unrelated adults could reside together on a Single-Family-Zoned lot, but the City Council temporarily lowered that number to 4.  That reduction in Occupancy Limits, however, is only temporary (and it is about to expire), and that reduction in Occupancy Limits only applies to new-construction — older Stealth Dorms are exempt from this reduction in Occupancy Limits.

The reduction in Occupancy Limits was extremely effective.  New construction of houses is currently on the rise in the Northfield Neighborhood, but not one of the new houses built in the past 2 years has been a “Stealth Dorm.”  Prior to the reduction in Occupancy Limits, the best way for a developer to maximize profit was to build a Stealth Dorm.  Now, they are building true Single-Family homes on Single-Family-Zoned lots.

The reduction in Occupancy Limits was absolutely necessary, and we must not allow the temporary reduction to expire.  Both City Council representatives for our neighborhood (Kathie Tovo and Greg Casar) are on record saying they support the reduced Occupancy Limits, and that they will do all they can to preserve the character of neighborhoods like Northfield.  At every opportunity, we need to remind all of our city leaders that the Occupancy Limits should not be raised on their watch.

However, the reduction in Occupancy Limits is only the first step.  The supporters of Stealth Dorms do make a valid point — Group-Home-style living arrangements are typically a more affordable housing option for people with limited incomes. Stealth Dorms in Northfield alone provide housing for approximately 300 people.  The people who live in our Stealth Dorms are typically young adults who are just finishing college or just getting started in their careers, and can’t afford to rent a $1000+ per month apartment in Central Austin.  Group-Home-style living arrangements are acceptable and even desirable for some people, and that housing option shouldn’t be outlawed completely.

There is a real need for Group-Home-style housing in Central Austin.  Co-ops and Boarding Houses should be allowed and encouraged in our neighborhood in certain areas. But developers should be forced to follow the regulations for Group-Home-style construction.  Those regulations exist for very good reasons, and cynical, greedy developers should not be allowed to circumvent those regulations by claiming they are building single-family homes when they obviously are not.  Those building regulations cover things like fire-safety, sewage and garbage management, parking and emergency vehicle access.  Those are important things that developers of Group-Home-style housing should be required to include in their plans for construction and maintenance.

We should also be working with City leaders to identify more land in Central Austin that could be developed under Co-Op or Boarding House regulations.  There are definitely places in Northfield where it would be appropriate to have a well-run Co-Op, and we should work proactively to encourage development of that housing to promote affordability and diversity of housing stock.

As we work on “Code NEXT,” and as we encourage our City Leaders to maintain the current occupancy limits for Single-Family-zoned homes, let us also acknowledge that Boarding-House and Co-Op style housing is desirable for some, and appropriate areas of our neighborhood should be designated for future development of that kind of more-affordable housing.


Supporters of the Northfield Neighborhood Association

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