This Thursday, the Austin City Council will be voting on lowering occupancy limits across the city from six unrelated individuals per house to four. If the measure succeeds, it should serve as a concise example of the basic confusion about economics, innumeracy, and hypocrisy about affordability that mark current Austin affordability debates.
Instead of the typical swamp of emotionally-laden anecdotes about the dangers of six- unrelated-people-house-sharing that seem to pervade both media coverage and discussion of this issue, let’s look at some data.
In 2000, there were 3,723 higher ed students in 78751 (the area seemingly most affected by ‘stealth dorms’). The total population in 2000 for 78751 was 14,005. So, the area was 27% students. In 2011, there were 4,760 higher ed students; the total population was 14,526. The area was 33% students. So, if you are a resident of 78751, of the sixteen people living closest to you one went from being a non-student to a college student. And by the way, four of the sixteen of them were already students. That is what is being described as ‘bleeding’ a neighborhood.
The entire zip of 78751 now has to ‘contend’ with a shift of 1,000 residents from non-students to higher ed students (labeled as ‘transients’ by some reduction proponents) over the last decade or so. How many are actually living in units that have more than four unrelated residents? Let’s say all of them, just for the sake of argument. And let’s assume that every single one is somewhat messier than the long-term renter they replaced. So, what does the lower occupancy limit do?
Expel 300 or so students from the zip code. That’s it.
That’s not going to change the fact that this zip is in demand because it’s next to/near the University and the core and we aren’t building enough supply. Those are the real drivers of any perceived problem, not to mention unsatisfactory code or noise enforcement.
The occupancy reduction is not going to change the reality that 78751 already had a substantial student population and will continue to do so because it is right next to a major, growing university. The proponents of this law admit that maybe there’s a few hundred homes exceeding the four person limit. Therefore, we are talking about a tiny change in the the student share post-reduction to what was already a modest change in neighborhood composition.
Obviously, the reduction will not solve student-related quality of life issues in 78751. What it will do is create a whole new category of quality of life enforcement problems for a code enforcement operation that has real issues to deal with and that are actually linked to the preservation of affordable housing. So, in order for a Hyde Park resident to make *really* sure that rowdy students’ girlfriend is not actually living there, we are going to be losing coverage of buildings with potential structural issues or staff time to actually move problem buildings into compliance. It’s not like this new enforcement burden is going to make the existing bureaucracy more productive at the tasks that actually matter. We are destroying public value because we can’t look at the facts and make reasonable, data-driven judgements.
One supposed impact from allowing more than four unrelated people to live together is that single-family houses are being destroyed either because long-term owners are fleeing or because they are being demolished to make way for other ‘larger’ single-family homes that can be rented out. In 2000, there were 1909 owner-occupied units in 78751. In 2011, there were 1,866. A loss of 43. That’s a 2% change. Again, it seems inaccurate to describe this as substantial or meaningful change in neighborhood character. More accurately, it seems that some in this zip code are stubbornly committed to remaining absolutely identical in resident composition and architecture even though the evolution of the region makes the zip a prime location for multi-family that accommodates, you know, students.
One more thing: supposedly 78751 is not hospitable to families anymore. It turns out that in 2000 there were 1478 kids in the zip. And in 2011, 1431. Again, given the broader demographic changes in Austin and society (the US went from being 26% kids to 24%), this basically means the neighborhoods in the zip have the same character.
These policies will cost a few hundred renters some more money. Alas, because of the narrow focus and relatively limited size of our affordable housing bond, it seems this policy change by itself will wipe out the gains for this year (and perhaps beyond) from that investment. It will not significantly change the fact that 78751 is going to be a quarter or so students regardless of the limits – there are going to be noisy students in Hyde Park. But it will most certainly risk undermining code enforcement’s focus on actual problem properties.
Most troubling to me is what this says about the state of policy and policy-making in Austin. The Planning Commission members that reviewed this policy implicitly acknowledged the utter lameness of it – as well as their collective inability to resist squeaky-wheelism – by placing a two-year sunset clause on their recommendation.
We have real (though not San Francisco-sized) affordability issues in Austin, but no ability to level with the electorate about the real solutions. We need to build supply where people want it and that means that the parcels near the core will need to accommodate further changes in the types of buildings and uses near them. Supporting those new types of buildings means we can’t focus our regional transit dollars disproportionately on facilitating commutes in from the suburbs and exurbs or on poorly-performing transit operations. This vote will reveal the coherence and seriousness of the City’s policymakers in tackling affordability.