Occupancy Limits

The four person occupancy limit will expire on March 31, 2016 without action from council. I think this issue really gets to the core of what FAN is all about and we ought to weigh in by drafting a resolution for our membership to vote on.

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I second that (if that’s a thing we do with FAN).

What would be the key points in the resolution, what we’re trying to achieve, and how it aligns with the FAN vision?

This issue aligns with most of the fan vision:

  1. Our neighborhoods should be inclusive and friendly, welcoming new residents
  2. Our neighborhoods should be complete communities, with families and people of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds
  3. A diverse array of housing options can help make our city affordable and contribute to the vitality of our neighborhoods
  4. Austin neighborhoods must evolve with the changing needs of the city. We support changes that will enhance affordability and inclusivity.

What do you see as the key points in the resolution that would tie back to the FAN vision points you enumerated?

I did a search of the City of Austin website and found this on a OVER‐OCCUPANCY WORKSHEET.

All recipients of new single‐family, duplex, and two‐family permits and certificates of occupancy will be informed of maximum occupancy limits for unrelated and related adults based on the date of permit application and number and size of bedrooms


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On a website called “Stop Stealth Dorms” they give a description of why a dwelling might have more than 4 unrelated tenants. It says “As a practical matter, when occupied by young adults, dorm duplexes and houses with more than 4 bedrooms become stealth dorms because the tenants double-up to share the expensive rents in the new structures.” So they don’t want poor young adults to have affordable housing?



@carlwebb That’s how I read it. Legacy residents feel that a majority of young adults are troublemakers, to hell with the rest, so they’re keen to just discriminate by class. If those darn kids aren’t breaking any laws, just declare something else they must do to be a crime. Sleeping, showering, those will do. The exception for allowing more individuals if they’re related smacks of more discrimination. It suggests that legacy residents want happy new families to move in and take the 'hood back to the good ole days. There are reasons why this hasn’t happened naturally, and why they can’t force it to happen. You build a good community by setting a good example and attracting good relationships. Not by outlawing any combination that doesn’t fit your ideal vision.


I’d like to propose the following resolution for occupancy limits:

Friends of Austin Neighborhoods is opposed to the current occupancy limit of four unrelated adults and believes that it should be allowed to expire on March 31st, 2016. Austin is becoming increasingly unaffordable for the middle class, and for many, the only way to afford living in Austin is to share the cost of rent. Now that Austin has become the most economically segregated city in the country, it is more important than ever that we allow more than four unrelated adults to live together. This will help our neighborhoods become complete communities, where families and people of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds can live together.

It’s short, so feel free to suggest anything that should be added.


I think it looks great.


In principle I’m in favor of increasing density in the urban core. However, increasing occupancy limits on single-family homes is the worst possible way to increase density. There are many other ways to more reasonably increase housing opportunities without encouraging the development of so-called Stealth Dorms.

As such, if there is a motion for a FAN resolution supporting raising occupancy limits, I’m opposed.

First point: Keep in mind that all existing properties were grandfathered with higher allowable occupancy. The lowered occupancy limit applies ONLY to new-construction (which is almost never “affordable” housing).

Second point: Developers of Stealth Dorms are attempting to circumvent building codes that PROTECT residents. In multi-family developments, there are requirements for emergency access, fire protection, etc. If you are in favor of stealth dorms, then you are opposed to reasonable health and safety measures for residents. I don’t think FAN should be known as the organization that wants to provide sub-standard housing for lower-income residents.

Third point: Reasonable people understand that there must be a trade-off – We clearly can’t have stealth dorms, but people have to live somewhere. So we need MORE property zoned for co-op living. There are many locations in Central Austin that could be zoned for group-home style living – we should be campaigning to identify more property that could be developed as multi-family properties. (Forcing developers to adhere to the building codes for multi-family development that exist FOR A REASON.)

Fourth point: This issue is remarkably divisive. No city-council candidate wants to fall on this sword. Chris Riley learned this the hard way – politically, this is a third-rail issue. Good candidates for city council will have a very hard time getting elected if they support raising occupancy limits.

So again, I’m opposed to raising occupancy limits, and I’m happy to meet with anybody and explain to them why FAN should be fighting to get MORE legitimate Co-ops and FEWER stealth dorms.

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I agree that the best way to add density is by allowing more multifamily and missing middle in our central neighborhoods; however, I believe reducing the occupancy limit to 4 unrelated individuals is a case of treating the symptom rather than the cause. People are desperate for housing in Central Austin. The whole market for the so called “stealth dorms” was caused by the central neighborhood’s refusal to allow any additional density.

Perhaps a better resolution would advocate for an either/or policy. Neighborhoods that allow more multifamily can have the 4 person occupancy limit, neighborhoods that don’t allow any additional density have to deal with the consequences. Is that something you could support?


Actually the occupancy limit is the best way to treat the problem. It just depends on what the problem is.

Here is the problem – developers were building “houses” that were never designed for anything but group-home use. In other words, they would never, never, ever be used as a “house” for a “family.” The regulations for building a single-family home are much more relaxed than they are for building a multi-family home

So, builders found a loophole – a very profitable loophole – that allowed them to build sub-standard multi-family homes on single-family lots. All they had to do is CLAIM they were building Single-Family homes. But these structures will never be occupied by families – they are designed from the ground up to be rented by the room. These structures are not safe – none of the safety regulations that are MANDATORY in multi-family construction was required in these structures.

And of course, living near one of these stealth-dorm party-barns is not a lot of fun.

The end result was that the Stealth Dorms were forcing families out of the urban core. Inexpensive older homes were being bull-dozed to make room for much more expensive Stealth Dorms. (Those older homes, by the way, have more relaxed occupancy limit requirements. Up to 10 people can live in an older home if square footage allows.)

So this isn’t an “either-or” situation as you are proposing. We shouldn’t be choosing between bad, expensive, and unsafe development or good, safe, multi-family development. We should simply be promoting good, safe, multi-family development.

That could be apartments, co-ops, 4-plexes, boarding houses – that’s all good stuff. We need more of that. We should encourage our City leaders to figure out why more of that type of housing is not being built.

And I still maintain that 4 unrelated adults sharing a $1,200 older house are much, much better off than 6 unrelated adults sharing a $3,600 stealth dorm.

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The following is an article from the Atlantic about Austin’s occupancy limits related to “stealth dorms.” I think it makes a pretty clear case that this is a non-issue and the occupancy limit mainly has a negative impact. The occupancy on new homes was 6 and it was changed to 4. I don’t see the harm in bringing it back up to 6. It’s not making a change to 10 unrelated or anything.

It might be nice to have something in the resolution that says in areas that allow triplexes and 4-plexes on single family zoned lots those areas can keep the occupancy at 4, but other areas would need to go back to 6 unrelated. I think that would be a great compromise. However, smart city planning should be done at a city wide level and I’m never in favor of opting in or out of anything, but that’s what our current system might require for something like this to move towards fixing the real issue.

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This article doesn’t “make a case” for anything. It is a completely biased and non-objective screed, on par with a teenager’s blog post. This doesn’t even count as an “editorial.” It’s just juvenile.

“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.”

That is not unbiased journalism – that’s just some kid ranting about something she knows very little about. If that’s the best “case” for increased occupancy limits you can find, then that should tell you something about this issue – namely, you’re on the wrong side.

You want to see more co-op and group-home style housing in Austin? Good – so do I. Making the fight about Stealth Dorms on SF-3 lots is not how you are going to get there. That is how you are going to get more conservative city leaders who were elected overwhelmingly to put a stop to all density.

We need more land identified for small-scale multi-family development, and we need better building codes to encourage developers to build it. I’d love to see more co-operative style housing options, but right now we don’t have good building codes that promote that kind of development.

That’s what you should be campaigning for. We should be working together to figure out how to create a category of zoning that promotes reasonable co-op housing in appropriate locations.

As is typical, Sebastian makes a strong emotional case against returning the occupancy limit to where it was before but leaves two key points out which weaken his case:

  1. There are more than two choices for what happens to old ‘cheap’ houses currently being rented. His two, which are that it stays a cheap rental or that it is knocked down and a stealth dorm is built in its place (with his dubious math about how much rent per person is required) are indeed possibilities, of course, but there is a third option which is available in any occupancy limit scenario: the old cheap house being knocked down and replaced with a new (non-stealth-dorm, however you define that term) house. There is certainly no way to ensure that the old house stays where it is and rent stays cheap. There isn’t even any way to make it even slightly more likely that the old house’s rent stays cheap unless massive increases in supply are provided elsewhere in the CLOSE PROXIMITY (not in the mythical greenfield infill that Jeff Jack’s ilk propose). Which takes us to:

  2. the common reply to stealth dorms among those who know that it looks bad to simply oppose them without proposing something in their place: “true multifamily”. While Sebastian’s neighborhood is better than many, they have recently strongly opposed some multifamily projects of note and have proposed zero additional multifamily infill (see Jeff Jack comment above). If you insist that a property must be zoned multifamily for a “stealth dorm” use, then tell me which properties in your neighborhood your NA will support upzoning to MF to allow for this, and be aware that the sentiment of this group is that some of those properties should be ‘inside’ the neighborhood, not just taking credit for existing VMU zoning on the arterials.


The first point Mike makes here doesn’t seem relevant – there are a lot of things that COULD happen to a rental property, but the most likely thing that will happen is it will remain a rental property. Within the realm of rental properties, my point is simply that an older development is probably more affordable than a new development. I’m not sure what is “dubious” about that math – I think just making vague references to “dubious math” just sounds superior.

Second, as Mike has pointed out, the North Loop Planning Team was and is extremely progressive in identifying MANY properties as VMU, MF, and even TOD (which has not yet come to fruition, but we’re still working with the city to make that happen). We have been active leaders working with the city, ACC, and Read Leaf to convert Highland Mall into dense mixed use. We worked hundreds of hours to create a form-based code plan for Airport Boulevard. We fought hard to create the Triangle that we have today instead of the movie theater, Randal’s grocery store, and drive-through dining that was originally proposed. We promoted ADUs decades ago. We supported small-lot amnesty to allow for even more development.

In other words, in my neighborhood we don’t just talk about density – we have a long history of taking action to create more housing opportunities in our area, to support viable transportation options, and to create a vibrant and dynamic neighborhood.

We have NOT “recently strongly opposed some multifamily projects of note.” That’s completely untrue. And the idea that we have proposed “zero additional multifamily infill” is laughably false.

This isn’t the first time Mike has cast these vague aspersions against my neighborhood, but they’re completely unrelated to reality. If he is speaking on behalf of FAN, then I think the rest of us should be asking him to clearly support his vaguely slanderous remarks. If FAN is just a place where people log on to publicly attack whole neighborhoods, that’s going to be an organization that is really hard to support.

I really shouldn’t have to come on here and defend my neighborhood against broad and vague attacks from people who don’t exactly have a track record of success themselves.

Mike also seems to think that FAN should be engaged in some sort of horse-trading or bargaining, but there’s nothing to bargain with here. If the goal of FAN is to “threaten” neighborhoods with stealth dorms unless they get in line and start supporting urban infill, I think you’re misguided and naive. You are going to have a hard time finding City Council candidates who are eager to engage in extortion against their own constituents on your behalf.

But if that’s the FAN strategy to promote viable, sustainable urban infill, all I can say is, good luck.

Sebastian, we value your perspectives, your participation in this forum, and your neighborhood association’s participation in FAN.

We also value @mdahmus’s participation and his long-time advocacy for aspects of the FAN vision.

This forum is open to the public, and no particular opinion expressed in it necessarily represents FAN as an organization, much less the diverse views of its members.

Part of the reason for FAN’s existence is to respect a full diversity of views. People in Austin have often referred to “the neighborhood” as if it is some sort of anthropomorphic, monolithic entity. But a neighborhood is, in fact, a geographical area with a wide variety of people with a wide variety of views.

I hope we can adopt this spirit as we participate in this forum.


I will not respond with Sebastian’s aggressive tone and will instead address just the two points in my original post, succinctly.

  1. Rental houses (specifically in this case old houses rented for relatively affordable sums) are knocked down all the time in his neighborhood and in mine. If it becomes too difficult to rent a ‘stealth dorm’ [sic] that is built in its place, developer can choose to build a new house intended to be marketed to an owner-resident (for purchase). This happens all the time (is happening right now). Changing the occupancy limit in an attempt to preserve the existing stock of run-down rental housing is unlikely to have a large impact on the supply of run-down rental housing. It does take time for the developers to adjust to the new market, but adjust they inevitably do, and there is substantial demand for new housing in our area that makes it almost as profitable to knock down that old house and replace it with a new home intended for an owner-occupant as there is for the hypothetical stealth dorm [sic]. The only way Sebastian’s point would hold is if there was a lot of demand to rent stealth dorms but essentially no demand for new fancy houses, and that’s obviously not true.

  2. His neighborhood has in fact opposed the most recent multifamily project of note that required any negotiation that I can recall - the Howard Nursery project. After the organization narrowly voted against a compromise for pseudo-VMU, the developer built a standard MF project as was their right, and now on his neighborhood’s email list (or recently, I should say), people have been complaining about the project that resulted. In no instance can I recall any support for an actual expansion of MF zoning to the interior of the neighborhood (to be fair, nobody else does this either), so my point - that opposing occupancy limits by calling for “true multifamily” is disingenuous - is completely valid.

Have a nice day, y’all.

I think we can count on this forum being an equitable place for folks with different points of view to place their thoughts on the table. Other venues which I know only too well foster a culture that outlaws views of the minority or those the clique opposes.

It’s understandable to have passionate feelings about our viewpoints, especially if we’ve been frustrated in finding like minds. Best practice is to firmly stick to discussing points and facts, and avoid anything that looks like a personal attack. It’s actually a great mental exercise, because it will encourage breaking down those chunks of “common sense” which a point relies on, and turn them into more compelling language. This can even uncover flaws in reasoning which has impacted the success of the cause. :smile: