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Yes, You Can Build a Giant House on a Wee Plot—For Now

Small lots, big city

Ever wonder why builders are allowed to cram relatively large houses onto tiny lots? There is, actually, a reason—some would say a loophole—that makes it possible and completely legit.

In a recent Austin-American Statesman story, a developer explains how he has used the city's "small lot amnesty" policy tool to his advantage. Originally, the tool was intended to correct what was essentially redlining; in 1946, the changed its minimum lot size from 3,000 square feet to 5,750 as a way to keep minorities seeking to build or buy small, affordable homes out of certain neighborhoods.

To correct that injustice, the city later granted neighborhoods the option of allowing homes to be built or rebuilt on their small lots. The intent was to allow modest, affordable housing to remain in the neighborhood.

An unintended consequence of making the tool available to builders is that it permits greater density and impervious cover than is allowed on standard-sized single-family lots. Although increased density could lead to affordability, there's no requirement of builders that it does.

In addition, the sight of houses that are wildly out of proportion to the ones around them frequently evokes complaints and laments from Austin residents, especially those in the older neighborhoods that granted small lot amnesty with different intentions.

In 2007, the Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods city contact group advanced a proposal to close the loophole that allows small-lot builders to play by different rules. At a dramatic meeting dominated by the oratory of former Dallas Cowboy great Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson, who was born and raised in East Austin and adamantly opposed to any regulation of small lots, the City Council voted against the proposal.

Now, nine years after it rejected the idea, council is set to take up the issue again at the behest of city staffers who want to see what they regard as the exploitation of a city development tool brought to a halt.