Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
It depends on who you ask, and land-use zoning laws make strange bedfellows.
One day, people are living their best lives in Fort Worth. They’re building up equity, enjoying their homes and neighborhood, and waiting for Tony Romo to come back to take the ‘Boys to the top of the NFC East. But the next day, their whole world is upside down. All of a sudden, the character of the neighborhood starts to change. There’s no place to park. There’s garbage in the garbage cans. And a new voice fills the air, a fell whisper: “What are those?”
There is a darkness moving over Texas, a creeping dread passing over its most comfortable neighborhoods: the stealth dorm. This shadow represents a threat to the families that call college towns like Austin home. The stealth dorm—say it like this, stealth dorm—is a barrow of Millennials looking to save money by living together as roommates. The horror.
Last month, the Fort Worth City Council moved to protect the city against stealth dorms. The council passed a new ordinance defining a “single housekeeping unit” as a standard for occupancy. No more than five unrelated people may occupy a single-family home, no matter how large it is. “Defining a ‘single housekeeping unit’ is important because that’s a key zoning ordinance term that protects the heart of the community, its single-family neighborhoods,” offers an editorial in the Fort Worth Star Telegram.
Previously, the council had set an even lower cap for the residential areas around Texas Christian University, the largest college in Fort Worth with more than 10,000 enrolled students. That rule set the total number of non-family roommates that could live together in a single-family home at three. So renters (and rental-property owners) are now getting some benefit of the doubt, or at least, a more liberal limit than they were before.
It’s worth thinking through how stealth dorms—or as people everywhere else refer to them, “group houses”—allegedly shred the cultural fabric of a neighborhood.
“Austin neighborhoods are being devastated by stealth dorm-style duplexes and houses, and it’s time to stop!” reads StopStealthDorms.com, an advocacy site. “Join us in holding Austin’s public officials accountable and act now to protect Austin’s single-family neighborhoods.”
Stop Stealth Dorms was most active back in 2013, when Austin leaders first grappled with stealth dorms. The site spells out the threat faced by the city:
When lined up in rows of two, three, and even four in a row, these buildings become multifamily apartment projects.
[ . . . ]
Problems created by these stealth dorms include:
- Traffic volume and parking problems
- Unsafe walking and cycling conditions for neighborhood children
- Widespread noise disturbances
- Overflowing trash and poor sanitation conditions
- Over-burdened sewage systems
- Dangerous living conditions for residents
[ . . . ]
Taken all together, this phenomenon makes a mockery of the single-family zoning designation, and it will shrink Central Austin’s population of old people, young people, families, and older single adults.
That reads like a counterpoint to “Keep Austin Weird,” the city’s unofficial motto. Something like “Keep Austin Preserved in Amber for Incumbent Homeowners” or maybe “Keep Austin Town Not Gown.”
Nevertheless, the sentiment prevailed in February 2014, when the Austin City Council passed an ordinance that lowered the number of unrelated adults who could live together in a single-family structure from six to four. That’s a stricter limit than in Fort Worth, even though Austin (a lightly larger city) is home to the University of Texas at Austin (hook ‘em!) and its 50,000-plus student population, although it’s only a temporary, two-year fix.
Looking more closely at the phenomenon, stealth dorms haven’t changed Austin neighborhoods in appreciable ways. Brian Kelsey, who wrote a CivicAnalytics study on occupancy limits commissioned by the Austin Board of REALTORS, found that there were 1,796 properties that could qualify as stealth dorms (five or more unrelated occupants), which is just 0.5 percent of Austin households. It’s true that in some downtown neighborhoods where these properties are concentrated, these stealth dorms are not all that stealth. But changing citywide zoning rules in response to a few tenants or landlords is an overreaction.
And anyway, changing occupancy limits is unlikely to bring much satisfaction to people who are convinced that stealth dorms are a plague on the city. At Keep Austin Wonky, Julio Gonzalez Altamirano looked at changes over time in the student population in 78751, a ZIP code that is home to one of the best coffee shops in Austin and lots of pleasant bungalows that students rent.
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.
Reducing the limit from six to four simply expels some small number of future students from this ZIP code. Which wouldn’t resolve any of the practically ancient town–gown complaints in Austin. (“Some students hosted bands that would practice loudly in the house,” wrote one breathless Texas Tribune story on stealth dorms, as if no one had ever thought to throw a house-show party on Avenue G before 2013.)
“On the one hand, a temporary ban on constructing new single-family zoned high-occupancy properties is not likely to have a dramatic impact on housing supply in many centrally located neighborhoods,” Kelsey writes. “On the other hand, much more needs to be understood about why single-family zoned high-occupancy properties are more likely to be found in lower-income areas with increasing rents to avoid unintended consequences of reducing the limit from six to four unrelated people.”
For what it’s worth, both KUT and The Daily Texan published editorials in favor of the restrictions on stealth dorms. For the university publication to take up the side of single-family-home occupants against unrelated renters in particular is surprising, but hey, land-use zoning makes strange bedfellows. Here’s the Texan:
One crucial aspect of the plan is often overlooked by knee-jerk opponents: The amendment only applies to new construction. In other words, any structure that already exists and currently houses five or six students would be unaffected. Students who live in these houses would not be forced out, and their landlords could continue to lease the property to up to six unrelated adults for as long as the property exists in its current form. The true goal of the amendment isn’t to force students out of neighborhoods like Hyde Park or North Loop; it’s to preserve the single-family homes that have existed in these neighborhoods for decades, and prevent predatory developers—who often live out-of-state and lack any ties to Austin—from taking over.
So the University of Texas’ newspaper is arguing that housing restrictions that preserve the character of Austin neighborhoods are worth supporting despite the fact that they potentially work against the interests of the majority of university students, who are low-income renters.
Austin continues to struggle with the question. The council recently declined to limit guests for short-term rentals (such as Airbnb) to six people. Next year, leaders will decide whether to renew or discard the occupancy limits. But there is a way to stop dread stealth dorms without changing zoning rules: Build more affordable multi-family housing and apartment options for low-income renters. Refusing change is no way to Keep Austin Weird.