Co-op permit process may not be more difficult than anticipated

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Residents Alex Gray and Greg Greenwald play guitar while Donny Goff relaxes in the living room at Sasona Co-op Thursday afternoon. This property took five years to obtain a permit, illustrating how the proposed MF-4 ordinance amendment could hinder expansion or construction of housing cooperatives.

Photo Credit: Marisa Vasquez | Daily Texan Staff

While city officials claim a new policy requiring property owners to seek approval before constructing group housing buildings is a process that would only take a few months, history shows the approval process can actually take a few years and cost thousands of dollars.

On Aug. 16, City Council is set to vote on an ordinance amendment which would require developers of group housing on MF-4 zoned properties in the Hancock, Heritage Hills and Shoal Crest neighborhoods apply for a special permit before constructing new group housing. The ordinance also affects a part of West Campus. This would mean a property owner seeking to build a cooperative or a Greek house on MF-4 properties in this area would have to get approval from the city’s planning commission. Representatives of the College Houses Cooperatives and the Inter-Cooperative Council, organizations which represent co-ops in West Campus, are fighting the ordinance, saying it would discourage co-op expansion.

Cooperatives offer students cheaper living options and give residents a sense of community, Texas State University student Joshua Sabik said. Proponents of the ordinance have said group housing hurts the value of single-family homes in the area. Supporters have also said that the ordinance does not make it impossible to build cooperatives, and anyone seeking to do so would be able to apply for a conditional use permit from the city planning commission. Austin City Planner Robert Heil said this permit typically takes about three months to get.

However Daniel Miller, general manager of co-ops under NASCO Properties, an organization that acquires property for cooperative development, said this has historically not been the case. The Sasona Cooperative, a home in the Zilker Neighborhood, was established on an MF-3 zoned property in 2002. MF-3 zoned properties already require property owners to obtain a conditional use permit before building group housing. Miller said the process to get this permit took about five years, not three months.

“There is a written process to how this works, and that written process is manageable, but it is not easy,” Miller said. “There are parts that are not obvious when people talk about getting a permit.”

Miller was one of the original property owners who bought the property to build the Sasona Cooperative. He said he had no idea how long the process would take when he first applied.

“The way things are set up in Austin is it makes it easier to stop something from happening, but more difficult to allow something to happen.”

Miller said neighborhood residents were not opposed to the actual building of the cooperative, but they were more opposed to what could happen if the cooperative didn’t work out.

“What if the cooperative fails? And we’ve given this property permit, and so this property can now become a fraternity,” Miller said. He said the neighborhood residents were opposed to a Greek house.

He said if he had known how much work it was going to take to build the cooperative, he would not have built Sasona Cooperative on that property. He said he is concerned this ordinance amendment will discourage organizations from expanding or building new co-ops.

“The uncertainty is the real problem,” Miller said. “Because there is this subjective piece, there is no written set of reasons on why somebody could impose you getting this permit. They could oppose you getting this permit for any reason they want.”

The council will vote on the issue on Aug. 16. But representatives of the cooperative are planning to request a one-month delay on the vote, due to concerns that voting during the break between classes would discourage student participation.