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The Alley Flat Initiative: What Fits in Your Backyard?

By Sarah Morgan Photos By Issue Apr / May 2010 Neighborhood East Side

Feel like living in Austin is eating up more and more of your paycheck each month? Well, you’re right, and the growing expense is due, in large part, to ever-increasing housing costs. The situation is even more dire for Austin’s lower-income populations. However, the Alley Flat Initiative has a plan—and it’s right in your backyard.

“We are basically addressing this affordable housing shortage by utilizing the existing fabric of the city,” explains Sarah Gamble, an architect and the coordinator of the Alley Flat Initiative (AFI). Inspired by a 2005 University of Texas Sustainable Design and Development Workshop that found an underutilized, and often deserted, network of alleys throughout the East Austin community, AFI set out to find a way to use these alleys and the attached oversized residential lots to build what they dubbed “Alley Flats—small, sustainable, and affordable structures built behind existing homes.

“Adding these units adds no additional burden to the existing structure, and you’re utilizing land that is already owned by someone,” says Gamble.

The Initiative is a partnership between the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation, the University of Texas Center for Sustainable Development, and the Austin Community Design and Development Center. Each organization plays a part in finding potential land for an alley flat, contracting
a pro-bono designer, and managing the construction of the unit as well as monitoring its success after completion.

The idea of building a garage apartment or additional rental unit on your property is certainly not a new one, but Gamble says many of these other structures are not representing a sustainable model supportive of the existing residents and their needs.

“There are a lot of examples of bad alley flats,” Gamble says. “They have promoted gentrification and in-filled neighborhoods…in terms of longevity, these things have really caused property taxes to rise and pushed out long-term residents.”

The first AFI structure was completed in 2008. The 700 square-foot flat features solar panels, a tankless hotwater heater, rainwater barrels, and an energy-efficient heating and cooling system, among other sustainable technologies. The flat was constructed on the same lot as an existing home, and the alley flat is now home to the original homeowner’s sister.

“So now this one piece of property can house the whole extended family. You’re distributing the land cost over two structures, which keeps the cost down,” Gamble explains.

The second alley flat, completed last year in East Austin, is another extended-family unit. It is completely wheelchair accessible and houses a long-time East Austin resident.

Affordable housing may not mean what you think it does, says Gamble. According to the U.S. government, to officially qualify as affordable, your total housing costs including rent and utilities should take up no more than 30 percent of your income. A 2008 comprehensive housing market study conducted by the City of Austin’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office found that Austin’s housing costs have risen 85 percent in the past decade. Looking at Austin residents earning less than $20,000 per year (approximately 44,700 renters), only 7,150 housing options were considered “affordable” for this population.

“We are short 37,600 units of affordable housing,” Gamble says. “One in six of those people are students. So that’s a pretty bold number.”

Along with a large number of students, that number includes seniors living on fixed incomes, retail, housekeeping, and grocery workers, and single parents, according to the study.

“I think with our current zoning and codes, there’s about 3,000 potential sites for alley flat units in our city with the current lot sizes,” says Gamble.

Ten additional alley flats are currently in the design process. AFI will begin construction on the first five this year.

“We’re trying to influence the comprehensive planning process that the city is working on, and trying to get more public dialogue about affordable housing to promote this as one of many options,” Gamble says.

3D Models and Renderings by Lydia Guarino and Brittany Cooper. Designed by UTSOA Studio Spring 2009. Second Street North facade photo by Jody Horton. Ribbon cutting photo by Barbara Wilson.


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