A proposed code amendment up for discussion at tonight’s meeting of the city’s Planning Commission could roll back Austin’s controversial reduction of citywide occupancy limits for new housing, popularly known as the “Stealth Dorm Ordinance.” Item 19 on the Tuesday, May 9 meeting’s agenda, initiated by Commissioner Maxwell and supported by Commissioner Anderson, would strike all text from Section 25-2-511 of Austin’s City Code related to the city’s current occupancy limits.
The occupancy limits approved by City Council in 2014 dropped the number of adults allowed to live together in a single-family home or duplex from six to four, as part of a campaign by homeowners near the University of Texas to prevent the construction of homes and duplexes with large numbers of bedrooms designed to be rented by students in their neighborhoods — so-called “stealth dorms,” which nearby residents found “messy, loud, and architecturally unpleasant.” (The terms of this controversy seem downright quaint these days, and the fact that City Council once treated this peevish micromanagement of the student population to please aggrieved neighborhood associations as a major priority might give you a clue on why we found ourselves in a full-blown housing crisis less than 10 years later.)
A severe problem has been developing in Central and North Central Austin neighborhoods related to housing called “dorm-style duplexes” or “stealth dorms.” The terms generally describe duplexes or houses rented to six or more unrelated people, usually students, who use them as dormitories or rooming houses. For the last eight years, college towns across the country have responded to the issue of stealth dorm duplexes in older neighborhoods by lowering occupancy limits of dorm-style duplexes. It’s time for Austin to do the same.
But the attempted removal of these occupancy limits isn’t just a sign of more housing-minded voices on the Planning Commission, but rather an acknowledgement that the new limits were essentially unenforceable. We’ve long heard rumors that the city’s legal department considered these new occupancy limits as a third rail that could potentially open the city to liability through the the Fair Housing Act, since any number of hypothetical living situations protected by fair housing law could technically violate the local occupancy rules. The code amendment proposed for this week’s meeting cites the 1991 memo issued by HUD general council Frank Keating indicating that an occupancy standard of two persons per bedroom in a residence is considered reasonable under the terms of the Fair Housing Act, which the city’s own limit could easily contradict if a home contains more than three bedrooms.
The amendment proposal also cites Section 404 of the International Property Maintenance Code, which the City of Austin generally follows as a model code for its residential and commercial building standards. The IPMC recommends occupancy limitations based on square footage, with each bedroom occupied by multiple people required to contain a minimum of 50 square feet of floor area per occupant. That’s likely the standard city code will follow instead if this amendment moves forward — and just as we were pleasantly surprised to see the minimum parking mandates in Austin’s city code essentially chucked in the trash by City Council without controversy last week, we’re hoping the Planning Commission can guide this similarly regressive and anti-housing policy out to the curb without delay. Stay tuned!