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