Amendment may limit co-op, greek housing near campus

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From left to right, 21st Street Co-op residents Joshua Sabik, Stella Cannefax and Alex Conner prepare a fish for dinner in the co-op’s kitchen Thursday afternoon. Community kitchens and provided meals can make co-op living more affordable than other housing options.

Photo Credit: Marisa Vasquez | Daily Texan Staff

Co-operative and Greek housing has always been an alternative housing choice for college students and residents in Austin, but City Council is considering a new ordinance amendment that will make it difficult for these organizations to expand or build any future co-ops in areas close to UT.

The amendment, proposed by the Central Austin Neighborhood Planning Advisory Committee, an organization that represents seven neighborhood associations across Austin, arises from the concern that the presence of group housing like co-ops or Greek houses will bring down the value of single family homes. The council is currently set to vote on this ordinance on Aug. 16. Joshua Sabik, the chair of an ad hoc committee of cooperative residents against the ordinance, said their first goal was to postpone the voting date.

“Right now the city council meeting would be before the school year, so that would really discourage student participation in this process,” Sabik, a Texas State student, said.

Sabik said the group is also working to build grassroots support among students and the neighborhoods. Sabik said he has tried to reach out to some Greek organizations on the issue but has not heard back.

“We believe co-ops are a good thing on the whole, not just for the members, but for the city,” Sabik said. “We are working to educate our supporters on their ability to influence this policy.”

City of Austin senior planner Robert Heil said the ordinance amendment would make group housing conditional on properties that have a base zoning designation of MF-4, a multi-family district. This means owners would have to gain approval from the planning commission before building a co-operative or a Greek home on the property. If approved, this new rule will include the Hancock neighborhood, the Heritage Hills neighborhood and the Shoal Crest neighborhood. Heil said the ordinance would also affect an area in West Campus that is north of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, south of 34th Street and between North Lamar Boulevard and Leon Street.

Heil said requiring group housing to get a conditional use permit from the planning commission is not an easy or quick task.

“A conditional use permit is part of the zoning code,” Heil said. “Zoning changes, because of the notification requirements, are rarely done faster than three months, and if there is great public discussion then sometimes they can take longer.”

The planning commission can either deny or grant the request, with conditions attached. If the person or group of people owning the property are not happy with the ruling, they can appeal to the council, which will make the final decision.

But while Heil said the conditional permit typically takes three months to grant, Sabik said this is not always the case. He said in the late 90s, a group of people began to work to get a conditional permit to build the Sasona Co-operative in South Austin. Sabik said this permit took several years and thousands of dollars to get.

Because conditional use permits for group housing are not guaranteed, purchasing any property that has an MF-4 base zoning designation in the specified areas is a gamble. Alan Robinson, the general administrator of the College Houses organization, said this discourages building new co-ops. College Houses is an organization that manages some co-ops in West Campus.

“The ultimate effect, which may be unintended, is that it creates so much uncertainty that we won’t be able to close on a property,” Robinson said.

Sabik said cooperatives do more than offer more affordable housing close to campus.

“Co-ops also provide community, and that sort of community support is important for a healthy student,” Sabik said. “Having the support of a community tends to help people not only in their personal lives and their professional lives but also in their academic lives.”

Cooperatives are also good for economic development, Sabik said. He said some of the original funding and leadership for the grocery story Wheatsville Co-op came from cooperatives.

“One of the great things about co-ops is you have people from diverse backgrounds coming together to form a supportive community,” Sabik said. “It’s really like a family, a home away from home.”

Mike Hirsch, Hancock Neighborhood Association president and Hancock CANPAC representative, said group housing often decreases the property value of single family homes in neighborhoods.

“Non-owner occupied housing can lead to problems because the folks who rent those properties are not invested in the neighborhood, they are short-term residents oftentimes,” Hirsch said. “I know this is a concern for students, but I don’t think students understand. They’re only here for four or five years, but this is our home.”

Hirsch said he remembers times when large parties in his neighborhood have caused problems.

“I don’t want to have to clean up after vomiting students every weekend and pick up after broken glass,” Hirsch said. “I’ve been out there in the street, calling emergency services because there is a person in the street asleep with vomit all over themselves, and when the emergency services arrive, they can’t even wake the person from their sleep.”

But Robinson, the general administrator of the College Houses organization, said discounting students because they need temporary housing is not fair.

“If you look at the number of people, I would guess most of those neighborhoods are students,” Robinson said. “To try to marginalize students by saying they aren’t going to be there forever, well, you can’t say that. That’s where students live, they need to be represented.”

Hirsch said the issue of group housing near campus has been a priority and an issue for CANPAC for about five years. Hirsch did acknowledge that if the ordinance amendment passed, then purchasing a property with a conditional use permit for group housing would be an extreme gamble, but he does not think that would prevent any future cooperatives or Greek housing from being built.

“Neighborhoods change, we see neighborhoods transform and the people occupying the neighborhoods change as well,” Hirsch said. “So I don’t think this is necessarily closing the door to co-ops or fraternities or sororities. But it is going to involve more deliberate discussion.”