Over-occupancy, Ag Shacks/Stealth Dorms and Changes to Zoning
The Status of "Single-family" Housing in College Station
- Only 37% of single-family residences (detached houses) are owner-occupied.
- Of the 63% that are rentals, 70% are owned by entities outside College Station.
(Click to see a slide presentation of rental ownership in much greater detail.)
- Built-to-rent "Ag Shacks"/ "stealth dorms," almost always with five or more bedrooms and baths, are
replacing traditional single-family homes in, primarily, neighborhoods near Texas A&M. These structures
have floorplans that make them unsuitable for any other use except rentals, primarily by students.
- According to City statistics, 341 of these structures (Defined as having five or more bedrooms and
adjoining bathrooms.) have been built since 2016.
- In recent years, the City has permitted structures with eight and even 11 bedrooms/baths that are, in
practice, occupied by unrelated individuals in violation of occupancy laws.
The Four Unrelated Rule
Decades ago, an ordinance was passed that limited single-family home occupancy to four unrelated individuals. This ordinance was recently updated to better define the term "unrelated" to aid in enforcement. Without going into detail here are a few examples that illustrate what is legal:
- A family, with all individuals related (by blood, marriage, adoption, etc.) of any size.
- Two siblings, plus up to three unrelated individuals (total of five).
- Four couples (total of eight.)
What is NOT legal:
- Five or more unrelated individuals or groups of related individuals.
Enforcement of the four-unrelated rule has been spotty, at best. The result is that more than four-unrelated is more the norm than the exception in all types of single-family rental housing in College Station. Some points made at the City Council meeting of October 13, 2022 regarding some serious enforcement difficulties:
- It takes an average of 26 days of effort for Code Enforcement staff to investigate and bring a case to the
point of a summons to a violator.
- Due process must then be followed, as these are criminal misdemeanor charges, which takes considerably
more time, such as allowing 30 days for the violator to respond to the summons. In other words, it can
easily take a full semester for a violation to result in a paid fine.
- Fines are limited by State law to $25 - $500. The standard fine in College Station was $371, hardly a
deterrent for a property taking in thousands of dollars per month in rent.
- A violation covers only one day. A new case must be developed and filed for each additional day.
- Fines can be increased, but only if it can be proven that the violator knowingly violated the law.
Developers and investors figured out about 20 years ago that a lot of money can be made with over-occupancy and that enforcement was difficult. They then began building what are commonly known as "Ag Shacks" (The name of one of the early companies that promoted these structures.) or "stealth dorms." These structures replace traditional homes and are not suited for any other purpose than rental, unlike traditional homes that can be rented, but can usually revert to owner-occupancy at relatively little cost. They permanently alter the character of a neighborhood and there was no set of criteria the City could use to stop their construction.
"Shared Housing" is a type of structure which was recently adopted by the City. When a building permit is applied for, City Staff compares the components to a checklist. If the plan checks more than 2 items it is sent for review to see if it should be classified as single-family or Shared Housing. Below is an abbreviated checklist:
- Contains more than 4 bedrooms or other rooms that can be used for sleeping purposes.
- Has a similar number of bedrooms and bathrooms.
- Contains a high quantity of bathrooms (over four) that can be accessed only through other rooms.
- Is in excess of one story for the purposes of meeting impervious cover requirements.
- Does not include a garage or, if so, the garage can be converted to living space.
- Has a parking area that will allow parking of more than four vehicles.
"Middle Housing" is a new zoning classification. This classification was created to:
- Accommodate an ever-growing student population.
- Acknowledge the reality of what was already happening in some neighborhoods.
- Provide protection to other neighborhoods from incompatible housing types (Ag Shacks, etc.).
Ag Shacks and the like will ONLY be allowed in Middle Housing zones. In other words, it should effectively prevent the tear-down of existing single family homes and replacement with built-to-rent structures.
Where will Middle Housing zones be?
The location of Middle Housing zones will be the next battle for neighborhoods. The City will likely adopt this zoning for areas that are almost entirely rental properties and/or Ag Shacks already. Areas such as behind the corner of Bush and Wellborn, Northgate, and the corners of Texas and University are likely candidates. There will be the typical public comment period before any changes are actually made.
Things Middle Housing will not do:
- Eliminate existing Ag Shacks. (At least unlikely due to grandfathering.)
- Prevent owner-occupied, single-family homes from being rented, unless prevented by neighborhood
HOAs and/or deed restrictions.
- Change the enforcement, or lack thereof, of the four-unrelated rule.
- Punish Ag Shack developers/owners who built them to intentionally violate the four-unrelated rule.
The combination of Shared Housing and Middle Housing is not a cure-all for College Station's rental housing issues. However, it should help preserve the character of some of our older neighborhoods, particularly those without HOAs, and be much easier to enforce than existing occupancy rules. It is quite possible that by preventing the chance of an Ag Shack popping up next door, our older neighborhoods will become more attractive to families seeking affordable homes and result in the revitalization of these areas.