The duplex seen above, located on Avenue C in the cherished Hyde Park neighborhood of Central Austin, is one of many older residences providing this district’s eclectic historical charm. Constructed in 1931 during the neighborhood’s largest period of growth, its exterior appearance reflects the modest, but stylish architecture of this area’s many bungalows originally built for working-class buyers — the only difference you’ll notice from the street is the two front doors.
Although it could use a new roof, you’d have a hard time convincing any resident of Hyde Park that the property lacks the intrinsic “neighborhood character” inspiring such fierce historic preservation efforts in this part of town. In fact, we think many people wish new development in their neighborhoods looked a bit more like this. There’s just one problem — this duplex is illegal to build almost everywhere in Austin.
Why? As you’ll discover with most questions about why Austin looks (and costs) the way it does, the answer is zoning. When developer John Carleston built the Avenue C duplex in the 1930s, the city’s current zoning regulations didn’t exist. The systems of land use in place at the time were far more concerned with keeping minorities out of white neighborhoods like Hyde Park rather than the more granular design restrictions like minimum lot sizes, setbacks, or residential compatibility we see in the code now — ironically, these features keep those same neighborhoods segregated today by preventing apartments and other more affordable housing types from being built.
The zoning of the Avenue C duplex is SF-3, the city’s most common residential land use category by a huge margin. The minimum lot size restrictions of SF-3 zoning require a property of at least 5,750 square feet to build a single-family home, with duplexes only allowed on SF-3 properties with a lot size of 7,000 square feet or more. But the Avenue C duplex sits on a 6,011-square-foot lot, smaller than the current limit by nearly 1,000 square feet — and you’ll notice things don’t look particularly crowded. Our duplex isn’t looming over the neighbors or choking Hyde Park with inhuman urban density. It’s just two homes, and it’s illegal to build them on a lot like this now.
Another example of a Hyde Park duplex that’s located on a lot smaller than 7,000 square feet, and thus now illegal to build almost everywhere in the city.
You’ll find many more examples of duplexes built on small lots prior to this stipulation of the code in the same neighborhood, now “grandfathered in” as subtle reminders that the way we’re currently forced to build homes in Austin doesn’t necessarily reflect the way people have lived here throughout history. If that bothers you, you might be interested to learn that despite the discouraging legal setbacks the city’s recently faced while trying to update its 1980s land development code, there’s technically nothing stopping us from changing the minimum lot size of SF-3 zoning to allow duplexes on properties smaller than 7,000 square feet. It’s not magically going to make housing affordable, and there are additional restrictions placed upon our city’s most exclusive neighborhoods to worry about — but it sounds like a good start!