Northfield Leaders Help to Push Through Reduced Occupancy Limits

by Sebastian Wren

Thanks in very large part to efforts by members of the Northfield Neighborhood Association, the Austin City Council voted this week to reduce occupancy limits from 6 unrelated adults to 4 for all new-construction single-family residences. This means that, starting today if an investor wants to tear down a single-family home and build rental units with the sole intention of renting them out by the room, that developer should understand that he will only be able to rent out those units to 4 unrelated adults.

This is a very effective and reasonable approach to dealing with proliferating problem of short-term rentals and “stealth dorms.”  This encourages families to live in homes designated by land-use code as “Single-Family,” and helps to close a loophole that has long been exploited by investors and developers looking to make a substantial profit at the expense of the quality of life of near-by neighbors.

People who have been expressing opposition to this change in regulations claimed that this would limit the availability of affordable housing in central Austin, but that argument has been soundly debunked by statistics showing that the new-construction stealth dorms have actually been contributing to the loss of affordable housing, as the new stealth dorms are much more expensive than the older, smaller houses they have been replacing.

Others complained that this change in regulations was just an example of the “landed gentry” trying to kick college students out of the neighborhood, but nothing could be further from the truth.  Despite the colloquial name “stealth dorm,” most of the stealth dorms are not actually rented by college students.  Rather, the typical renter in a new-construction stealth dorm is a financially prosperous person — typically male, and in their late 20s — who enjoys a “party barn” or “frat-house” lifestyle.

College students have always lived in Northfield, and they will continue to be welcome here.  Even the UT college newspaper, The Daily Texan, acknowledged that a reduction in occupancy limits would not affect students at UT, and thus endorsed the City’s new regulations in an editorial.

The resolution passed this week, however, is time-limited to 2 years. Northfield neighbors will need to continue to work to ensure that the “single-family” designation for development in our land-use code continues to promote a high-quality of life for single families, and we will need to work with city council to change this reduction in occupancy limits from a 2-year moratorium to a permanent reduction.

For starters, we must work hard to make sure that the 11 City Council members (including the mayor) who are up for election this November commit to permanently reducing occupancy limits for single-family residences before they are elected.  Absolutely nobody should be elected in this city this November if they are unwilling to promise to preserve and protect the quality of life that families enjoy in Central Austin.

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