The Austin City Council voted last month to lower occupancy limits, the maximum number of unrelated people who can share a home, from six people to four people. The new four-person limit is temporary (two years) and will be applied only to newly permitted single-family and duplex properties in greater central Austin, which is roughly bounded by Highway 183, MoPac, and William Cannon (i.e. McMansion Overlay), while the city works on updating the land development code. The ordinance change was largely a response to central neighborhoods unhappy about the proliferation of stealth dorms, which refer to high-occupancy, single-family zoned properties designed for housing, presumably, more than four unrelated people.
Austin is struggling to come to grips with declining affordability as population growth, increasing wealth, and demand for central-city living put upward pressure on home prices. Austin’s priciest neighborhoods are centrally located, and still a bargain for people of means relocating from places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York–or from Dallas or Houston or other places in Texas, where the majority of transplants to Austin originate. Given no apparent signs of a slowdown yet, the proposed change in occupancy limits sparked a healthy debate about housing affordability–i.e. to what extent would lower occupancy limits aimed at stealth dorms result in the proverbial unintended consequences that could make Austin even less affordable, especially for students and low-income workers.
Council Member Bill Spelman lamented the lack of data that could be consulted on the relationship between occupancy limits and housing affordability during the public hearing. A few central neighborhoods in proximity to UT-Austin contributed inventories of perceived stealth dorms, but that work was limited to only a couple of zip codes, with no independent verification of accuracy. Moreover, no such work was done for other neighborhoods located within the McMansion Overlay that would be impacted by this change. Far be it from me to suggest that central neighborhoods ever drive citywide policy in Austin, Texas, but that was among the concerns from critics of the change. On the other hand, no serious person could drive around the most impacted neighborhoods, such as parts of Hyde Park and the North Loop area, and not recognize that some high-occupancy properties were creating problems that needed to be addressed.
The question, therefore, was how to do it–a targeted policy limited to central neighborhoods reporting the greatest impact, or something more far-reaching that, according to supporters of the change, would “protect” neighborhoods across Austin from ever having to deal with the problem of stealth dorms in the first place.
The Austin Board of REALTORS convened a small group of us to see what we could do in terms of bringing a more data-driven perspective to the debate. We got about four weeks to complete a “study” of the relationship between occupancy limits and housing affordability in Austin. Since four weeks is nowhere close to enough time to finish anything that could remotely qualify as a “study” of such a complex issue, we collected and analyzed whatever data we could before City Council was scheduled to vote on the new occupancy limits on March 20. We waited until Friday, March 14, for the last of the data to come in and then had approximately 72 hours to complete a report in time to be reviewed by City Council in preparation for the March 20 meeting. You can download a copy here:
The report fell short in several areas, for lack of sufficient time, no peer review, and no housing economist to guide the work, for that matter. But I hope the report can serve as a starting point for continuing the effort under CodeNEXT. And in the interest of teeing up that future work, here are a few points that we didn’t have time to fully articulate in the report. They all warrant much more public discussion than they received on March 20.
1. The stealth dorm apocalypse appears to be a ways off, even in the most severely impacted neighborhoods. We identified 1,796 possible single-family zoned high-occupancy properties with five or more unrelated occupants in Austin. These properties represent approximately 0.5% of all households in the city. The most severely impacted area is 78751 (Hyde Park/North Loop), where high-occupancy properties make up 1.6% of total housing units. In other words, a significant change, albeit on a temporary basis (for now), to Austin’s housing policy was just passed based largely on the stated preferences of a few central neighborhoods where high-occupancy properties make up less than one out of every fifty homes. One out of fifty. We’re not exactly entering Walking Dead territory here.
2. Many of the neighborhoods with the greatest number of high-occupancy properties don’t seem to be at the table for this conversation. We identified 100 or more possible single-family zoned high-occupancy properties in 78702, 78751, 78745, and 78723 (78748 is not far behind with 99, but outside the McMansion Overlay).
More time for a real study would have provided useful perspective on how high-occupancy properties are impacting communities in 78723, 78702, and 78745, where, presumably, UT students are not the primary drivers of demand for stealth dorms. At the very least, more time would have allowed for targeted outreach to invite new stakeholders to participate, now that we know where high-occupancy properties are most prevalent.
3. And what about those well-heeled UT students who can afford the reported $1,000 per bedroom rents charged in the stealth dorms taking over neighborhoods near campus? Well it turns out that, with the exception of 78705, very few stealth dorms are inhabited by UT students. According to student address records provided by UT for the study, nearly every high-occupancy property we identified in 78705 is occupied by UT students. In fact, our estimate in the report of 64 possible high-occupancy properties in 78705 appears to be low, after reviewing the student address file that arrived too late to make it into the report.
By contrast, only three high-occupancy properties in 78751 were found in the student addresses, which means that non-UT students occupy 98% of high-occupancy properties, or stealth dorms if you prefer, in the portions of Hyde Park, Northfield, and other neighborhoods in 78751. Further, no high-occupancy properties with five or more UT students living there could be found in the three other 100+ zip codes, 78702, 78745, and 78723.
Now, a major qualifier here is that approximately 50% of students don’t have a local address on file with UT, according to the data we received. In addition, future researchers should request student address records from St. Edward’s, Huston-Tillotson, and other colleges in Austin to complete this picture. However, our preliminary analysis indicates that, outside of 78705, the “stealth dorm issue” is more a question of housing availability for workers and other non-student residents than it is about student housing.
4. Finally, while the grandfathering clause was indeed a necessary provision–the new four-person limit will apply only to new construction–it does nothing to settle many unanswered questions that need to be addressed. We are no closer to understanding the root cause of why the market is responding with high-occupancy properties in the first place. Stealth dorm opponents argue that profit-driven developers are tearing down “affordable” homes that would otherwise be available to families with children. With most central neighborhoods now well north of $200 per sq ft and therefore well out of reach for most families, this argument seems a bit disingenuous when made by serious people. On the other side of the debate, the report doesn’t offer much ammunition for people advocating greater population density in the form of higher occupancy limits in central neighborhoods, either.
As the report indicates, all we can say with a reasonable degree of certainty is that high-occupancy properties appear to be more prevalent in lower-income areas of Austin experiencing rising average rental rates, and that relationship holds even when excluding neighborhoods with the greatest number of students.
And what of the new construction that will fall under the temporary, four-person limit during the next two years? In 2013, 2,573 new single-family homes and 101 new duplexes were permitted in Austin, according to data submitted to the Census Bureau. A large portion of those new housing units are likely to be in the McMansion Overlay and subject to the four-person occupancy limit–that’s more than 5,000 housing units that may not be available to students and low-income workers who need more than three roommates to afford rent, especially in central neighborhoods with convenient access to public transportation.
Seems like that would have generated more discussion, or at least six weeks for something more resembling a proper study, in a city that professes to be so concerned with declining affordability.