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Trendy micro apartments are coming to East Austin. Do renters want them?

A rendering of an East Austin apartment complex with an expected 2023 completion. (Mark Odom Studio)

As Austin's housing supply struggles to keep up with a surging population, developers are trying to reimagine smaller apartment units to house more people.

On Monday, Austin-based developer Watershed Development Group announced it broke ground on its Sixth and Chicon project, a six-story multifamily housing complex with “micro-dwellings.” With 60 units ranging in size from 252 to 465 square feet, it’s expected to be completed in summer 2023.

Alex Concepcion who runs an apartment locator known as Taco Street Locating in Austin, Houston and Dallas noted people coming to Austin haven’t exactly been seeking out units this size. To him, small units are in the 400-500 square foot range.

“I never have anyone who’s like ‘hey, I really want like a micro-thing. Actually the opposite,” Concepcion said. “I’m getting people who want more space. Whereas before, somebody might get a one-bedroom near downtown so they could commute to their office. Now, they’ll get a one-bedroom with a den or larger one-bedroom or even a two-bedroom where they can make a room and office.”

Concepcion said his clients are often from within Texas but he also sees many from out of state moving from California, New York and Chicago. He says those people are often his easiest clients.

“If someone’s telling me they’re coming from the Bay Area, they’re basically rent traumatized,” Concepcion said. “Because they pay like $3,000 for garbage, they’re working from home and they’re like ‘why am I paying all this money to live in a place that’s taxing the shit out of me?’”

The new building at 1812 East 6th Street will include “modern amenities'' like multiple co-working spaces, workout rooms, community kitchens and outdoor spaces like a rooftop patio. The site was once home to a barbershop called Dan’s Hair Styling, which is now on East Seventh Street.

“Our design team worked masterfully to understand and execute this project using some specialized ordinances and land development code provisions allowing for smaller units and much less parking than would normally be required anywhere else in Austin,” says Nathan Vargo, Watershed’s founder.

By having less space in each unit, micro-apartments can be more affordable. Pricing for each unit has not been released.

The apartments are marketed as ideal for “young professionals or the ‘digital-nomad,' or workers who travel and live in several cities and are able to work remotely,” a release for the development said.

A rendering of a unit at Sixth and Chicon (Mark Odom Studio)

A February study by an East Austin environmental justice group PODER looks at how demolitions are tied to gentrification and displacement in that area, noting shifting demographics are dictating the market for the type of housing available and that it’s becoming marketed to higher-income renters and homeowners.

Apartment rent in Austin, the study notes, has increased by 13.5% in the past year.

PODER also referenced census numbers in 78702, the ZIP code the micro-dwellings are being built in. From 2010 to 2019, both Latino and Black populations in the zip code dropped by 10.8% and 2.4%, respectively.

The group made multiple recommendations for changes to the demolition process to create more public input. One recommendation focused on new apartment complexes being built, calling for 30% of the housing to be affordable housing at 50% median family income.

“The city must implement changes for those remaining families that still have historical roots to East Austin,” the study’s authors write. “Otherwise, the city will continue to become an island of white upper- and middle-class individuals and low-income workers and people of color living in the perimeters and the surrounding metro area. The continued legacy of displacement and gentrification in East Austin must end.”


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