Our City’s comprehensive plan, Imagine Austin, envisions an Austin that is compact and connected. As one of the nation’s most sprawling cities, realizing that vision will require the use of many different tools. Austin wasn’t always so sprawling and by looking to our past there are ways we can bring more affordable housing options back to Austin’s core, accommodate families, and get cars off the highways. David Whitworth discusses one little known infill tool that is currently available called small lot amnesty, but which could soon become useless if a City staff recommendation is adopted by City Council. As this issue will be coming before the Planning and Neighborhoods Committee in the coming weeks, we think his article is worth a read.
What is small lot amnesty?
Small lot amnesty is an infill tool that can be adopted by neighborhood plans and allows homes to be built on lots that are smaller than Austin’s minimum lot size of 5,750sf.
What kinds of properties meet the requirements for small lot amnesty?
Small lot amnesty is narrowly defined and has strict requirements for eligibility. Eligible lots must have been legally platted to begin with. The significance of this requirement is that such lots would most likely have been part of a larger viable land plan that met Austin’s code when created.
Prior to 1946 Austin had smaller lots that were closer together and served by gridded networks of avenues and alleys (think Hyde Park, North Loop, Bouldin, and parts of East Austin). In 1931 Austin’s minimum lot size was 3,000sf and prior to 1931 there was no minimum lot size. In 1946, the City of Austin increased the minimum lot size to 5,750. At that time home construction was not yet complete in many of the originally planned areas platted with smaller lots. This increase in minimum lot size, the automobile, and cheap abundant land led to houses being built across two lots at a time—it made sense then, but today people own twice as much expensive central property with their home because of it.
Above is a comprehensive land plan with avenues and alleys that was legally platted and recorded in 1917. This is a time tested city layout. There is nothing “substandard” about this plan created by notable leaders in Austin (Ira H. Evans, Albert F. Martin & August J. Eilers). This neighborhood was never built to capacity because the homes were built after 1946 requiring two lots for each home site. Today the original lots are eligible for small lot amnesty.
What change to the small lot amnesty infill tool is being proposed?
City staff now proposes that if an owner ever built a home or fenced a property on multiple small lots within one of these land plans, that those multiple lots can never again be separated or “disaggregated”. This renders the small lot amnesty infill tool meaningless as an infill tool.
Why is this change a problem?
This proposed change attempts to make small lot amnesty apply more like another element within our code, the “substandard lot”. Substandard lot is really an exemption from the minimum lot size requirement rather than an infill tool. The key distinction is that substandard lots are not required to have been legally platted. Substandard lots may have been illegally subdivided by deeding away portions of the original legal lots. To meet the requirements for a substandard lot exemption, one must simply prove it existed in its current configuration before 1946. For example, if portions of surrounding lots were sold by deed prior to 1946 in order to create a new tract, and a home was built (proven by either old recorded deeds or even water meter bills), then it can be legally permitted for construction again today under “substandard lot” exemption. In the case of these properties that may have never been part of a comprehensive land plan, there may be good reason not to allow that parcel to be broken down into the smaller independent portions.
Above is a block originally platted with 60ft wide lots. Someone took two adjacent 60ft wide lots (originally adjoining at the dashed line) and created three 40ft wide lots simply by deeding away 20ft of each outer lot to create the 40ft lot in the center. As long as this happened before 1946, each one of these three 40ft wide and 5,000sf lots is recognized under substandard lot even though they don’t meet current width and size minimums. However, none of these three 40ft lots would be recognized under small lot amnesty as they were never legally platted.
Are we sure properties meeting small lot amnesty requirements are viable on their own?
Not only are we sure these lots are viable on their own. We know they can handle three times as much zoning capacity than currently allowed in Austin. They shouldn’t even be called “small”.
The image above on the left is the plat from the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago, an area similarly situated to the city’s downtown as the plat on the right in the North Loop neighborhood of Austin. Notice that they are identical with 25ft wide lots served by alleys. Chicago built on each individual lot and Austin didn’t. Today, we can build on these lots again in Austin using the small lot amnesty infill tool.
The image above is of Chicago where homes are built on the original 25ft wide lots with zoning that allows three flats per lot. Austin, shown below, built to our traditional zoning that limits a single home to every two 25ft wide lots.
Chicago instantly has 6 times more housing potential on every block. What does this mean? This means that Chicago has a healthier tax base. Chicago has viable mass transit and vibrant corridors serving the greater numbers of neighborhood residents that can simply walk out to the neighborhood restaurant or store without driving. This also means a home in Chicago has 1/6 the land cost built into the home price. While such neighborhoods may be up to six times as dense, quality of life isn’t sacrificed on Chicago’s leafy tree lined streets with sidewalks.
Why did Chicago build to the original land plan while Austin doubled up the lots, forgot about the alleys, and sprawled? Chicago had a population of one million people by 1890, well before the predominance of the automobile. Being closer together with well-connected blocks was a necessity then and it continues to serve Chicago well today. Austin is set to surpass one million people in the next few years more than a century after Chicago. All of our growth happened after the widespread adoption of the automobile and we chose to spread out when land was cheap, traffic was light and distance was of no consequence. However, Austin is now experiencing the traffic associated with spreading out and the increased housing costs of limited housing supply in town.
What does small lot amnesty look like when applied here in Austin?
Today, small lot amnesty allows homes in Austin to once again be built pursuant to the original land plans. The picture below shows a recent project of mine. Where one home stood over three original lots, there are now three new homes. These were the most affordable new homes in MLS area 4 last year at more than $200k below the average new home sales price. These homes also sold below the average sales price of all homes combined, new and old, in MLS area 4. Under small lot amnesty, these homes must still adhere to the McMansion ordinance, building setbacks, and most SF-3 zoning criteria except for the smaller lot sizes and increased impervious cover limit.
While the improved home prices allow families back into the area, this approach also benefits the City budget. These lower priced homes combine to generate more tax revenue than the single expensive McMansion that would have been built here, and at no additional infrastructure cost (indeed, for less infrastructure costs - the same linear foot of road, water mains, sewer mains, electric lines supports three homes rather than one). Even the trash truck route doesn’t get any longer, and the police patrol area remains the same size.
Is there a better approach than staff’s proposed revision to the infill tool?
Small lot amnesty is one of the few infill tools currently available and it would be unfortunate to lose this option. The proposed revision to the small lot amnesty infill tool would remove opportunities in a city-wide blanket approach. Neighborhoods should be permitted to decide for themselves whether this is an option they would like to keep or not. Neighborhood Plan Contact Teams can already opt in or out of small lot amnesty.
By approaching this through a neighborhood plan revision, it would be more transparent requiring direct notification to neighbors and allowing for a conversation about the benefits at the neighborhood level. There are at least 435 property owners in North Loop alone that will be affected by this proposed change. Owners that may not even know they currently own two viable lots and are about to lose valuable entitlements, entitlements that could allow them to remain in place by moving onto one of their lots and selling the other to mitigate rapidly escalating property values and taxes. This proposed code change will significantly affect property owners’ entitlements and options with insufficient attention and notification. At a minimum, the City should inform owners of their current options and how the proposed changes might impact those options.
The Imagine Austin comprehensive plan actually calls for smaller lots in Austin in response to Austin's abnormally large minimum lot size. [Page 228, LUT A2] CodeNEXT may usher in new code that supports the compact and connected vision of the Imagine Austin comprehensive plan by supporting smaller lot sizes. However, we don’t have to wait for CodeNEXT to address those goals and we should refer to Imagine Austin as a guiding document as other issues arise. In this case, we can recognize the original plats of Austin and honor our City’s past and rich heritage. Austin was once, in fact, “compact and connected” and served by rail as shown by the red line marking the trolley route on the 1925 map below.
Today Austin has sprawled to be the same size of New York City (approximately 300sq miles) at a tenth the population. Is a policy that supports and promotes continued sprawl into the hill country really appropriate today? How we achieve the goals of Imagine Austin doesn’t have to be overly elaborate or complex - we can simply take a note from our own past.