You probably don’t spend much time in Austin’s alleys — those unpaved no-man’s-lands that bisect city blocks. You might store your garbage bins in the one behind your house. You might take an occasional shortcut through one. But if you’re a law-abiding citizen, you probably don’t see Austin’s alleys as full of opportunity.
But that’s exactly what the Alley Flat Initiative does; they view alleys as a solution to Austin's lack of affordable housing. When you think of affordable housing, you might envision overcrowded apartment complexes or new tract homes on the outskirts of town. Instead, the Alley Flat Initiative tucks small, single-family homes behind the existing main house on large lots in central East Austin. The second house, accessed via the alley, is highly sustainable and earmarked for residents who earn 80 percent or less of the median family income.
AFI solves three problems at once: It creates more single-family affordable housing in the middle of town, where residents have a quicker (and lower-emission) commute to work; it offers residents a green housing option, since each alley flat is environmentally sustainable; and it makes use of existing electric, water and sewer lines.
According to a report produced in 2008 - 09 by BBC Research & Consulting, Austin has an affordable housing shortage of close to 40,000 homes.
Project Coordinator Sarah Gamble puts it this way: “The Alley Flat Initiative is an amazing idea in the fact that it’s a bottom-up approach to addressing the affordable housing crisis in Austin.”
Responding to the crisis
Didn’t know affordable housing was a crisis? According to a report produced in 2008 - 09 by BBC Research & Consulting, Austin has an affordable housing shortage of close to 40,000 homes. In other words, there is a lack of places for retirees, single-parent families, artists, musicians and students to live.
No, these people can’t all be housed in alley flats, but 3,300 of them can. Under buildings codes existing as of 2008, that’s just how many alley flat units could be constructed in central Austin. Moreover, if you take away the need for an actual alley and presume the smaller house can be accessed by a driveway, that number inflates to 43,000.
Three organizations collaborate on the Alley Flat Initiative: The UT Center for Sustainable Development, represented by its co-director, professor Steven Moore; the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation (GNDC), an affordable housing provider in central East Austin; and the Austin Community Design and Development Center, which coordinates the design and construction of the flats.
Of course, the basic concept of alley flats is nothing new. Granny flats, cottage houses, garage apartments — they’re all what are called "secondary dwelling units," and they’ve been part of Austin’s affordable housing scene for years.
“We were doing ‘alley flats’ when it was just another way to get affordable housing into the central city,” says Mark Rogers, executive director of the GNDC.
What has changed is the degree of sustainability that the Initiative is able to bring to the flats. With highly insulated walls, efficient air conditioning and passive cross-ventilation, alley flats reduce electricity use, which also saves residents money.
Further, flats have what’s called a “purple pipe system,” which uses reclaimed water for tasks that don’t need treated water, such as flushing the toilet.
Planners hope to avoid sprawl and its attendant destruction of open space or farmland by maximizing on lots inside the city that are currently undeveloped or underdeveloped.
A critical mass of alley flats would do more than help individual residents live green and save money. Planners hope to avoid sprawl and its attendant destruction of open space or farmland by maximizing on lots inside the city that are currently undeveloped or underdeveloped.
Building more densely in the urban core also makes use of existing water, sewer and power lines, as well as roads and sidewalks. “It’s a kind of reinvestment in old neighborhoods, like Holly, that have been dis-invested over a long period of time,” Moore says.
The Alley Flat demonstration project
To make that critical mass happen, Moore and two UT colleagues have applied for a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. If they receive the funding this spring, the Initiative will line a single alley in central East Austin with flats.
The GNDC will work with property owners along the alley to explain the project, recruit interested participants and identify sources of funding. These may include federal affordable housing funds and home equity loans for property owners who want to participate. The flats will be owned by whomever owns the house in front, generally the resident or an affordable housing nonprofit like GNDC.
The AFI can then determine how sustainable the alley flats really are, by taking before-and-after measurements of water and energy use. The collaboration anticipates that the city — and its residents — will see considerable savings, which will make the case for more units citywide.
The initiative wants to make sure that after retrofitting the alleys to be more attractive and environmentally sustainable, the residents who are helping save resources aren’t rendered unable to pay their city and county taxes.
Of course, a side effect of any improvement to a neighborhood – even the alleys – is rising property values. The initiative wants to make sure that after retrofitting the alleys to be more attractive and environmentally sustainable, the residents who are helping save resources aren’t rendered unable to pay their city and county taxes.
Having an alley flat may offset rising property values for some homeowners. While the flats can house aging parents or jobless adult children — as long as they make 80 percent or less of the MFI — the houses can also be a source of income for the owner. “This type of development would be great for someone who owns their home, has a fixed income, and can get the rental income to help pay their taxes,” Gamble says.
A healthier economic ecosystem
Alley flats (and secondary units in general) promote a healthier economic ecosystem, Moore argues. While, in many cases, the main house will be owner-occupied, the backyard cottages will be inhabited by someone who needs inexpensive housing. This mix of income levels makes cities more vibrant, Moore says.
It also has economic and ecological benefits. Upscale neighborhoods, the type likely to employ housekeepers, landscapers and nannies, don’t have many places for those lower-paid workers to live. The service professionals must drive to work or take the bus, both of which are time consuming and contribute to pollution and congestion. If they were located throughout the city, alley flats would diversify the skills offered in each neighborhood and reduce commuting.
So far there are two completed, and occupied, alley flats. Close to a dozen others are in various stages of development, pending further funding. Rogers describes the project as “embryonic,” yet Moore is hopeful that if the single-alley development happens, the Alley Flat Initiative will reach beyond Austin.
“If, at the end of 15 years, we could have this alley demonstration project done and have data that would allow other cities to do something comparable, then we’ll have really accomplished something,” Moore says. “It would be wicked cool.”