The Organization for Central East Austin Neighborhoods (OCEAN) wants to drop the McMansion ordinance's guaranteed minimum home size of 2,300 sq. ft. for Central East Austin lots:
Over the years, Rudolph Williams has watched house sizes grow in Central East Austin. More and more, two- and three-story houses are replacing the one-story, 1,500-square-foot houses typical of the area.
Although the city clamped down on home sizes in proportion to lot sizes last year, he has been working to tighten the rules even more for the smaller lots in his area — those less than 5,750 square feet — as a way to protect the area's character, culture, diversity and history.
. . .
Currently, the rules say that on lots of all sizes, a property owner can build a residential structure that is 2,300 square feet or has a floor area that is 40 percent of the area of the lot, whichever is greater.
The neighborhoods organization wants to remove the 2,300 square feet allowance for lots less than 5,750 square feet. So on a lot that's 5,000 square feet, the biggest house could be 2,000 square feet.
The article implies that OCEAN's main concern is gentrification:
Limiting the size of houses on smaller lots would help reduce tear-downs of rental units, the primary affordable housing option for low-income people in Central East Austin neighborhoods, and force developers to build smaller, Williams said.
However, the change wouldn't be effective alone, Williams said. It must come with other protections from local government and school authorities, such as tax relief for renters and increased homestead protection for poor homeowners, he said.
"We're at a tipping point right now. Can we create a neighborhood where rich and poor can live together?" Williams asked. "Or will this be another gentrification story? Another Clarksville?"
Gentrification is a complex issue. I don't want to tackle it here. But if you think you need to adopt anti-gentrification measures, I question whether you should start by stripping equity from the small lot owners.
Given the prices in Central East Austin, the loss of 300 buildable square feet would probably be worth $10,000-$20,000 to the small-lot owners (lots with around 5,000 sq. ft.). Eliminating the McMansion minimum would hurt them and no one else. It would not penalize the owners of lots that have already been redeveloped -- i.e., the yuppies living in spanking new $300,000 homes.
I haven't been to a single OCEAN neighborhood association meeting. Perhaps the people who would be adversely affected by this uniformly support it (in the hope of lower taxes, for example). But I'm always skeptical of plans that would put all of the burden on a small minority, particularly a minority that had the least to begin with. Neighborhood groups aren't as homogeneous as they sometimes claim to be. The City Council should do its due diligence this time: Before ordering small-lot owners to fight gentrification on behalf of everyone else, it should make sure they are volunteers rather than conscripts.
Note: I inadvertently published an earlier, very rough draft below the fold. (There wasn't supposed to be a "fold.") Sorry for the gibberish.