by Sebastian Wren
The lots on the eastern side of our neighborhood were originally platted before the popularity of the automobile redefined suburban sprawl. This was the ‘20s and ‘30s, and back then, before the invention of the 2-car garage, home lots were very small — typically just 25 feet wide. At that time, people usually walked more than they drove, and pedestrian-friendly row-houses were much more common and popular.
However, in the ‘30s and ‘40s when people actually started buying and building on these lots in our neighborhood, land in our area was remarkably cheap, and the automobile was changing our lifestyle habits. One lot could be purchased for just a few hundred dollars, and so most people who were buying lots in our neighborhood would buy 2 or 3 contiguous lots, and they would build one house with a large yard across those lots.
However, legally, they were — and are still — individual lots 25-feet wide. Today, when people buy a house on the east side of our neighborhood, what they are actually buying is one house that sits on 2 or 3 lots. And legally, they could tear down the one existing house, and rebuild 2 or 3 houses on the original 25-foot lots.
Now granted, a 25-foot wide lot is very hard to build on with current building codes. For example, with 5-foot setback requirements on each side, the house can only be 15-feet wide. However, as the dirt under our houses becomes far more precious than the houses themselves, at least one builder is experimenting with this model of new-home construction. In recent years, David Whitworth has been buying some of these lots, removing the existing house (he prefers to relocate the old house rather than tear it down and toss it in a land-fill), and building 2 or 3 very narrow houses on the original platted lots.
Some of his motivation for this type of development is to recreate the pedestrian-friendly, tight-knit neighborhoods that were developed before the popularity of the automobile. In his opinion, it is a “greener” and more sustainable lifestyle. But Whitworth also believes that this is a more affordable model for families wanting new-construction homes in Central Austin.
These days, a typical new-construction house built on a 50-foot wide lot in our neighborhood can be sold for over $600,000. With a smaller lot, Whitworth is able to sell his houses for considerably less.
So how is this different from a “Stealth Dorm?” Until we convinced the city council to reduce occupancy limits to 4 unrelated adults on single-family lots, our neighborhood was inundated with scores of Stealth Dorms – housing designed from the ground up to be rental units for unrelated people. Some people have expressed concerned that Whitworth’s small houses have all the same problems as Stealth Dorms – many people living on a plot of land that formerly housed few people.
Certainly the problem with Stealth Dorms is that they invite very transient housing — bad neighbors who are not invested in the neighborhood. Stealth Dorms invite loud parties, rampant reckless driving, over-flowing trash cans, and other problems too numerous to list. But the worst part of Stealth Dorms is that they will never be occupied by families. Stealth Dorms are designed with a single purpose – they are built from the ground-up as multi-family rental properties with only the veneer of a single-family home. The design and lay-out of the Stealth Dorm structures are simply unsuitable for single-family use, so they will never be anything but Stealth Dorms.
That is very different from a house designed for family living that happens to be rented out to other people. A house that is designed and built for family dwelling may temporarily be rented to unrelated tenants, but it always has the potential to be a single-family home.
So far, most of Whitworth’s houses have been purchased by owner-occupants, but even if they were rented out temporarily, they seem to have few of the same problems that Stealth Dorms have. So far, these seem to be very family-oriented, and the people living there do not have the same undesirable tendencies as the people who are attracted to the Stealth Dorm lifestyle.
Of course Whitworth seems to be a man of great integrity who cares deeply about sustainable building and has deep roots in our neighborhood. His houses may be reasonable and well-designed, but what if other developers begin building less neighborhood-friendly homes like this?
That may be possible, but it seems unlikely. As long as the city council does not try to increase occupancy limits again, there is little incentive to build Stealth Dorms any more. New construction is trending toward single-family housing in the core of the neighborhood and multi-family housing on the transit corridors. And most builders seem to be disinclined to take a chance on building 15-foot-wide homes. For now at least, Whitworth seems to be the only developer interested in pursuing this model of development, and as long as it is Whitworth doing it, it is probably going to be good for our neighborhood.