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Austin City Council to vote on "stealth dorms"

The Austin City Council will discuss and vote on changes to the city's codes and will decide whether to lower the limit of how many unrelated people are allowed to live in houses that are classified as "single family houses."

The Austin City Council will discuss and vote on proposed changes to the city’s limits on how many unrelated individuals are legally allowed to live in a single family house at the city council meeting, scheduled for 4 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 13.

The council directed Austin City Manager Marc A. Ott to work on a code amendment that would reduce single family housing from six to four unrelated people.

If passed, the new rule could have a negative impact on students who currently live in single family houses with four or more roommates in what are considered “stealth dorms,” as is the case for many students who live in west and north campus.

Madeline Nash, a senior at the College of Natural Sciences at UT, for example, lives in a converted duplex in west campus with five other roommates.

“[If the ordinance passed], two of our roommates would have to move out and the rent of the remaining people would go up hundreds of dollars,” Nash said.

The issue of “stealth dorms” came to the forefront last summer, but the Northfield Neighborhood Association has been battling for years. The association argues that houses built for multi-family residence are knowingly labeled single family housing and cause issues such as noise disturbances, overflowing trash, parking problems and diminished home value.

The council is expected to vote on a resolution after the hearing and will also discuss whether the ordinance city-wide or restrict the occupancy limit to a few neighborhoods. The Codes and Ordinances Subcommittee and the Planning Commission recommended that the occupancy change in January 2014. They, however, did not include a grandfather clause and recommended that the new ordinance be applied city-wide rather than have neighborhoods opt-in for the change.

Occupancy Austin, a group opposed to the proposed ordinance, argue that limiting occupancy hurts affordability and worry about the lacking grandfather clause, which would apply the ordinance only to future occupancy. Other opponents also assert the ordinance is aimed at students; would exacerbate the already expensive housing market; and that an occupancy change would harm Austin citizens who choose to live with roommates. They maintain that the council should focus on code compliance rather than occupancy.

“We are having daily calls to city council offices to voice our concerns, and the current proposal before council does not have any grandfathering for existing homes,” Eric Goff of Occupancy Austin said. “Assuming the ordinance would pass as written, anyone living with five or more people in a single house would be violating city code. Hopefully city council won’t do that.”

Goff said that if the ordinance passes, the group hopes the new rules will be only apply to neighborhoods most affected by "stealth dorms."

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