Reform McMansion

Re: AURA Views on Subchapter F Carport Exemption

On Tuesday, the Planning Commission will consider changes to the carport exemption for McMansion.  We encourage the Planning Commission to not think small, and instead make serious reforms to the regulations.

Subchapter F, better known as the McMansion Ordinance, has placed limitations on the floor to area ratio (FAR) of new homes built in Austin. According to the McMansion Ordinance, the allowable FAR for a home is calculated using lengthy and complicated sets of exemptions.  While these FAR requirements were originally devised to regulate massing and scale, they have failed to result in meaningful design improvements, and in fact have substantially harmed design, aesthetics, and the development process.

Years after Subchapter F was enacted, the city found itself in litigation over the ordinance’s complicated “attic exemption” and had to issue memos clarifying the requirements.  A decade after being enacted, other exemptions continue to cause problems—specifically, the carport exemption and its confusing distinction between what constitutes a carport and what constitutes a garage.

AURA does not support perpetuating this confusion with layers of fixes to Subchapter F’s inherently flawed concept of space.  Rather than further complicate matters, AURA asks that the City scrap the whole concept we’ve tried for the last ten years without success, and do away with FAR restrictions entirely.

Having FAR limitations, in addition to building coverage, limited building height, large setbacks,excessive parking, and additional residential design requirements is unnecessarily duplicative.  Practically, only so much FAR is mathematically possible within the constraints of the McMansion tent, building height, and setback requirements. Therefore, Austin should simplify its land development code.

Austin has very burdensome zoning requirements for single-family lots. Austin zoning maps show huge swaths of yellow lots where only detached single family construction is allowed. A multitude of “yellow lot laws” serve to perpetuate the economic segregation of Austin. Given the large minimum lot size required in single-family zones, an increasing number of our citizens can’t afford to move into “yellow lot” areas—that is, the majority of the land in the city! Not only do we require large lots, we limit these large lots to very low density.  By limiting the amount of habitable space even further via FAR requirements we have effectively put a very high premium on housing and we are manufacturing scarcity.  AURA believes it is time to scrap this approach and embrace all types of housing attainable by all types of people in all areas of the city.  

Furthermore, as the carport exemption is centered on the issue of off-street parking and because FAR makes parking compete with habitable space, AURA also calls for the abolition of off-street parking minimums.  Removing off-street parking minimums does not prohibit the market from providing off-street parking where there is perceived demand.  But it will allow the market to stop eating away at housing space for people where the market may choose people over parking.  Homes with fewer parking spots can result in less impervious cover, healthier citizens, better affordability, and more feasible mass transit options.

We'd also like to show a couple of blog posts on an alternative to McMansion that is mostly illegal in the city—row houses. See Part One and Part Two.  Finally, last year, AURA also called for significant reform to Subchapter F, in light of the huge cost of compliance for the city.  With that said, we are also in favor of incremental reform, such as eliminating FAR.

There are other major problems with the McMansion Ordinance.  The ordinance is single-family home centric and does not accommodate duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, row homes, and other missing middle housing options.  The McMansion Ordinance will not apply correctly to a compact and connected development pattern moving forward.  The ordinance is ridiculously complicated for the city to manage at the staff review level as well as the code enforcement level.  It adds precious time to  the process, when we should be working to provide housing more quickly.   The ultimate result is a slower supply line for housing, and increased costs for the housing that does come to market.  With all this in mind, AURA calls for Austin to move away from a housing policy regulated via Subchapter F.

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