The casual suburban view of Downtown Austin real estate is likely limited to the newsworthy towers – hotels, offices, condos. The tall glassy stuff that has been radically reordering our skyline with a seasonal regularity. But there’s far more to downtown than just towers.
78701 is arguably Austin’s only truly self-sustaining urban ZIP code, and has a rainbow of housing options to please a variety of tastes. Yes, there are shiny condo towers, but take a closer look, especially in the northwest quadrant of downtown (aka. Original Austin), and you’ll find a rich mix of mid-rises, duplexes, garage apartments, townhomes, victorian homes, a Governor’s Mansion, and more.
One conspicuous absence, however, is that increasingly popular urban diadem known as the micro-unit development. While derided by some as mere shoeboxes by the bigger-is-better crowd, microunits offer a minimalist alternative multi-room dwellings that need to be filled with stuff. And in cities where space – in all of its precious scarcity — goes for a premium, microunits — which are generally understood to come in at 500 square feet or less — are a powerful #tool in the #toolbox for affordability.
We can see evidence of success by looking at Seattle’s micro-housing boom already happening, as the Seattle times reported a year ago “780 micro-housing units were cleared for occupancy in Seattle, with another 1,598 units in the pipeline. No other American city comes close.”
Skeptics, however (and of course), abound in Austin. Concerns about a return to Industrial Revolution-era London slums, or some Agenda 21 conspiracy to gradually move Americans into Matrix-style pods, or a general freak-out over having to potentially share curbside parking with renters contributed to a strange de facto prohibition on micro-units in Austin.
That was until former Austin City Council Member (and downtown champion) Chris Riley fought tirelessly to enact an ordinance that in theory freed up microunit development. That struggle drew out for months and victory came only in the final hours of the city’s last at-large City Council meeting. Ironically, perhaps, is that affordability “win” came over the opposition of Downtown’s current representative on the dais, Kathie Tovo.
And yet, fifteen months after that triumph for housing diversity, Austin’s micro-unit housing stock has not seen the sizable investment we expected. With the possible exception of the [planned but not begun] “Spire” development on the east side at 5th & Waller, no market-rate “micro” development has turned dirt, either here in Downtown or in other parts of the city.
So, what gives? Where’s the market for micro-housing in Austin?
I put those very questions (albeit with more measured punctuation) to local real estate expert Charles Heimsath, the president of Capitol Market Research.
“It takes a long time to work any project through the city entitlement process,” he told me. “Assuming the land is already zoned properly, it can take up to a year to get your site development approved and a building permit in hand.” – Charles Heimsath
So, Austin’s notorious red tape strikes again.
But Heimsath did share some tantalizing, and unconfirmed, scuttlebutt.
“A number of people are in the planning process, some further along than others,” he said. “I think we’ll see microunits in Downtown and near Downtown areas in the reasonably foreseeable future.” -Charles Heimsath
Now, to be clear, Downtown does already have a micro-unit building of sorts. Capital Studios opened its doors in late 2014 on E. 11th Street. The parking-free affordable housing development features 135 efficiency apartments with rents partially subsidized through the nonprofit Foundation Communities. The aim is to provide an opportunity for more downtown workers to live closer to their jobs.
Beyond Capital Studios, there are several individual micro-units tucked away in Downtown buildings alongside units of a more macro nature. Yours truly is fortunate to call one of these rare jewels my home. Just west of the Capitol, my pad is, according to my very capable measuring, roughly between 425 and 450 square feet. Inside of it, I manage to comfortably fit myself, my ladyfriend, my cat, our furniture, clothes, books, records, plates, bowls, towels, toothbrushes, and all of the other standard implements of modern living. The set-up might sound crowded to some folks, but it’s just the right size for the three of us. It also does not hurt one single bit that we have gigantic windows that open up the space enough to lend the feeling that my bedroom extends out to W. 13th Street.
That last part is key to a successful microunit development. Large windows aren’t necessarily the answer, but innovative design is. The smaller the unit, the more efficient it has to be. Designers have answered this call in recent years with prototypes that feature an emphasis on modularity. Pull-out walls, transforming furniture, and ingeniously deployed storage compartments maximize the space and also lend a pretty rad sci-fi vibe.
Heimsath put it to me in nautical terms. “In boat design, there is no wasted space,” he said. “In a similar vein, there is no wasted space in a micro-unit. Everything in the unit has multiple functions.”
While the developers attempt to navigate the bureaucracy at City Hall to get their conventional (so to speak) microunit developments sailing, another, less orthodox bunch is going full steam ahead with completely different tack.
You probably remember Jeff Wilson from his days as Professor Dumpster, a dean at Huston-Tillotson by day and a resident of the ultra-microunit — a 33 square foot converted dumpster — by night. Wilson is now heading up KASITA, a wild new approach to micro-units, land use, and taking the pain out of moving. In so many words, Kasita units are portable pods (just like Agenda 21!!1) that plug into racks set up on available land ostensibly inside the urban core.
It might sound fantastical, but the project snagged an Innovation Award this past SXSW and KASITA’s website declares that Austinites will have a chance to live in one by the end of this year.
And if that first KASITA happens to have a 78701 address (as at least one of their renderings suggests), it will just be one more wild patch in the crazy quilt of Downtown Austin housing. Who knows, maybe we’ll see micro-units on the on the Ecology Action site.