Small Lot Amnesty

I think we might want to consider voting on a resolution dealing with small lot amnesty and the changes that the city is proposing. The city council is discussing these changes at the Planning and Neighborhoods Subcommittee meeting on August 17th before it goes to the full city council. Neighborhood plans can opt into small lot amnesty now, which means that smaller lots can have a house built on them in those neighborhoods. Staff is proposing that if a house is ever built or fenced in on two or more of these small lots straddling the lots, then those lots would never again be allowed small lot amnesty. The multiple combined smaller lots could never again be used as small lots.

Is this something that FAN should weigh in on?

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At the very least, I think this is an opportunity for FAN to reach out to Neighborhood Planning Areas who opted-in to Small Lot Amnesty, so they understand that this infill tool could be taken away from them, after 15 years of being available.

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Do you know if there’s a list of the neighborhoods that have opted in anywhere?

Just now I found this:
…which I will be uploading in to the Drive for future reference.

City has a less user friendly chart on page 12 here:

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Good find, @tcb. @Pete_Gilcrease, I think FAN’s membership could certainly express a position on this issue, since small lot amnesty affects the abundance and diversity of housing supply, which is part of our vision. Hoping David Whitworth will join FAN and help us draft a resolution (though I suspect the two of you would be quite capable as well).

What about this resolution?

FAN Supports Small Lot Amnesty

Small lot amnesty is an infill tool that some neighborhoods opted into that allows homeowners to use their original lot sizes for their homes. Small lot amnesty allows for more diversity in our neighborhoods, helps address affordability, and provides more housing options by allowing some homes on smaller lots.

City of Austin staff now proposes that if a single owner ever built a home or fenced a property on multiple lots; that those multiple lots can never again exist independently with individual homes or be “disaggregated”. FAN does not support this change.

Imagine Austin calls for smaller lots in Austin and FAN believes that neighborhoods should be allowed to keep this important infill tool.

Didn’t small lot amnesty pass council in 2000 or something like that? One thing that bugs me is that it’s taken so long for staff to decide “that’s not what they meant”.

It looks like small lot amnesty is on the regular city council agenda for Aug 20th.

Conduct a public hearing and consider an ordinance amending City Code Title 25 to limit the redevelopment of existing small (substandard) lots that are developed as a single building site.

The understanding of many neighborhoods that adopted small lot amnesty was not to allow for for desegregation of what appeared to be a larger lot, but to allow for use of (usually unused) lots that were smaller than the legal lot size.

In 2006, PRDR actually wrote a rule about desegegrating lots, but it didn’t mentioned small lot amnesty so this “loophole” has existed. Staff hasn’t written any other clarification since this has not been attempted since then, and it was generally accepted that the earlier clarification sufficed. Why this is occurring now is that someone figured out that there are some lots that seem to be aggregated, but are not deeded that was, as is customary. Only small pockets of these types of lots exist in Austin, of which a large portion lie in the Northfield Neighborhood and some in Hyde Park. Northfield adopted the small lot amnesty, but Hyde Park did not for this reason.

If smaller lots are appropriate that is a separate discussion that can be had, but development should not be a result of this “end-around” that has resulted in a defacto smaller legal lot size for those neighborhoods that had their platting done in the early 1900s and where the deeding did not aggregate the previous platted lots.

Another result is the the small lot amnesty also awards an additional density entitlement of 0.65 FAR over the existing 0.4 FAR limit.

If the argument is affordability, the result is that a $250,000-$300,000 home is taken off the market and somewhere between $1M or $1.5 of home is the replacement (each of these row houses is selling for around $500K).

Most of the “original” owners are being duped by selling at the much lower prices and all the dollars are going into the developer’s pocket.

The developers can’t be blamed for this as their function is to maximize the return on investment for their owners.

However, we should be part of the “enabling” of this type of development.

Existing neighbors are also seeing higher valuations resulting in higher taxes and lowered affordability. This also affects renters as these taxes are passed on in higher rents.

Many would be much more open to the discussion of smaller lots and similar ideas if we were seeing the replacement developments in the $200-300K range.

I certainly see a place in our neighborhood for ideas such as rowhouses and urban apartments, but the neighborhood should have a chance to plan for their appropriate place in the neighborhood.

Post Script: There are some proponents in Northfield that are asking to revoke the small lot amnesty adoption due to the continued use of this “loophole.” Hyde Park neighbors are giving out a big “I told you so.”

Another fact is that higher density imposes additional burdens on the existing neighbors.
If appropriate measures are adopted to mitigate these burdens, accepting more density becomes easier.

In Hyde Park, where we don’t have small lot amnesty, we’re seeing the lots snatched up for 300k and then a giant million dollar house is built on the property. If we had small lot amnesty, it could instead be two 500k houses, which is still expensive, but is actually within reach of many families in Austin. I understand that small lot amnesty is being used as a loophole, but if it’s a loophole that helps with affordability, that’s a good thing.

As for the Hyde Park people saying “I told you so”, I’m sure it’s the typical HPNA types that think our neighborhood should only have large, very expensive homes for families. I know plenty of people in Hyde Park that admire North Loop for allowing a diverse mix of housing and providing options for people that aren’t wealthy.

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Here’s a perfect example of what’s happening in Hyde Park because we don’t have small lot amnesty. Lot purchased for $300k, giant house built on the lot and is now being sold for $949k

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Michae - Thanks for the history on small lot amnesty. This has definitely been my experience in Austin as well. Making defensive rules to prevent what you want from being built never seems to work, and just seems to prevent the things we do want.

This is frustrating because this is what gentrification looks like. 3 $700k homes are more affordable than one $1.5 million dollar phone even if it doesn’t feel that way to me. I’m sure a $1.5 million dollar home seems just as out of reach for someone who can afford $700k as a $700k home does to me.

You cannot buy a new free standing condo/townhome in East Riverside for less than $300k, so the idea of one being in much more desirable Hyde Park feels impossible. If you have 3 people with $700k to spend on a house and they are all able to buy a townhome in Hyde Park then there’s less pressure on prices East of IH-35. If you build a giant $1.5 million house all 3 of those people will have to go look elsewhere in town for a house with their $700k and they’ll be able to bid up the price to make sure they get it.

We all have to be in this together to try to get as much housing as possible to make Austin as affordable as possible for everyone.

Everyone, it looks like small lot amnesty will not be on the 8/17 planning and neighborhood agenda. I don’t know why it is on for 8/20 at full council. I will try and track this for the group and update here.

For now here is an in depth blog post I authored about small lot amnesty and my experience using the tool:

With all due respect Mike, your cost analysis leaves out the part that the existing homes that are now $300k plus, used to be $200k only a couple of years ago, and were well under $100k around the time the infill tool was even created. TCAD now has land values at multiples of the improvements values which signals a zoning imbalance in the first place. If we want to make this a cost argument, we have major problems to begin with and small lot amnesty is a solution. It is also extremely important to note that builders who choose not to use “small lot amnesty” simply replace the existing $300k homes with $800k homes.

You can keep using the word “loophole” but it really isn’t. Small lot amnesty is an infill tool for building homes on smaller lots. That’s what it is. Austin has abnormally large lot minimums to begin with.

Under small lot amnesty (which is absolutely not the same as “substandard lot” where the disaggregation rule was applied) you can bring new homes to market for more families at hundreds of thousands of dollars below the scrape and rebuild model which results in one for one replacement.

Anyway, the main point at the end of the day is that neighborhoods can simply opt out of small lot amnesty. That would be the appropriate way to move forward. Why kill one of our very few infill tools and do away with the ability to select the small lot option for neighborhoods that see the benefit? We know we have a housing problem and we know we don’t have enough tools in the code to account for that (hence CodeNext). I want to remind everyone that small lot amnesty simply brings more affordable single family homes to market. That’s the gist of it, these are still single family homes. My experience has been that small lot homes allow families to move back to the neighborhood. And pretty much the only difference is the impervious cover limit increases from 45% (not 40%) to 65% (the homes I built are only 52%). Seems like an increase of 7 percentage points in impervious cover is an appropriate trade off to mowing down virgin hill country in a much more wasteful manner in order to accommodate citizens.

Again, moving forward the appropriate place for this conversation to happen is at the neighborhood plan contact team level. Neighborhoods can opt out. This approach would be more democratic and transparent as notification would be sent to all neighbors, and the convening neighbors could discuss the merits and benefits of this infill tool before deciding.

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I think Mike is correct about the understanding of the Neighborhood Planning Teams with respect to small-lot amnesty. Certainly in the North Loop area, what was discussed was the amnesty of people who own substandard lots to the impervious cover and mass restrictions that are placed on regular lots. There are examples in our neighborhood of lovely, sustainable structures that were built on weirdly shaped, small lots, and we wanted to preserve that and promote more of it.

I can’t say that anybody understood that the small-lot amnesty would be applied to the original plats in our neighborhood, some of which are only 25 feet wide. Typically, after WWII, people in the North Loop area bought 2 or 3 plats for the purposes of building one single house. Most of the yards in that part of the neighborhood are 50 to 75 feet wide, and the reason for that is the current “yard” is actually made up of 2 to 3 original plats. When we were thinking of small-lot amnesty, I don’t think we were imagining returning to those original plats.

That said, however, I think it may not be a bad idea to return to those plats, and give them amnesty from impervious cover and mass restrictions:

  1. Smaller lots means lower prices – new-construction housing is never “affordable” in an absolute sense, but it is definitely “affordable” in a relative sense. Most of what you pay for when you buy a house in Austin is the dirt under the house. Less dirt means lower price.

  2. These new houses do not affect the tax rates for older houses. Tax rates are set based on a list of “comparable” properties. New construction houses in general do not affect Travis County’s valuation of my 70 year old house. And in fact, according to Travis County, my house is nearly worthless. Again, the dirt under my house is what I’m being taxed on, and the value of that dirt will climb even more rapidly if it is a more limited commodity.

  3. These new houses do not seem to be creating a burden to neighbors. We only have a few examples to guide us, but the houses that have been built so far do not seem to be adding extra stress to the near-by neighbors (in terms of trash, parking, etc.).

  4. Diversity of housing stock is always a good thing. It brings vitality, and breaks down social barriers. It makes a neighborhood more visually appealing, and it feels more inviting to a wider range of people.

I still believe in, and strongly support, small-lot amnesty for all the reasons that we have always supported it in our neighborhood. It is more environmentally friendly, it is more sustainable and “neighborly,” and it promotes a higher quality of life than the “suburban sprawl” model of development. I didn’t know that we had so many “small lots” in our neighborhood, but frankly, I’m delighted to find that we do.

My initial reaction to returning to original plats was one of concern, but now that I’ve had a chance to think about it, and now that we have examples to consider, I find myself returning to my original beliefs – this is a good thing, and we should promote it.

At the very least, I’m going to recommend that the City of Austin continue to allow neighborhoods to either “opt-in” or “opt-out” of SLA.


David and Sebastian both make great points here. It seems like this is one infill tool that should be particularly embraced by folks worried about the scalar cohesion (“character”) of neighborhoods, since it entices new construction more on scale with pre-1960s existing homes while simultaneously adding density needed to support more local neighborhood businesses.

I am confused why the City is pressing now to remove this tool. Who is sponsoring this? With the LDC rewrite in the works, I don’t understand the motivation of removing an infill option currently available to some neighborhoods.

Small lot amnesty is going to be coming up at the Oct 19th Planning and Neighborhoods Committee. Does anyone want to volunteer to present our vote in front of the committee? If anyone is interested in this issue, attending the meeting would probably help a lot.


It looks like small lot amnesty is coming up again at the Nov 16th Planning and Neighborhoods Committee.