What began as a conversation about the brutalities of gentrification in urban neighborhoods may result in a new type of housing in Austin, Texas. About four years ago, Steven A. Moore, Ph.D., an architecture professor at The University of Texas at Austin, and sustainable development research fellow Sergio Palleroni joined with Dr. Mark Rogers, head of the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corp., to rethink the ubiquitous scorched-earth approach to neighborhood redevelopment. “We realized the forces of gentrification were moving too fast and people's houses were being unnecessarily demolished,” Moore explains.

Moore and Palleroni, together with students from UT's Center for Sustainable Development, generated a more sensitive, sustainable plan. Their research revealed that more than 40,000 in-town houses (about 70 percent of them owned by the same family for generations) sit on lots of 5,750 square feet or more. And many of those lots access Austin's extensive alley network. A simple proposal for building accessory dwelling units on those lots is now a whirlwind of affordable development known as The Alley Flat Initiative.

A successful change in zoning regulations—and 18 student designs for houses of 800 square feet or less—launched the initiative. A new organization called Austin Community Design & Development Center promotes the concept, identifies qualified homeowners, and helps generate funding. “For the first alley flat, we raised a lot of funds, because we wanted it to have every green bell and whistle,” says co-founder and UT doctoral candidate Barbara Wilson. The prototype was completed in June 2008; a second unit is now under construction.

The Alley Flat Initiative is gathering momentum. An interdisciplinary group of architecture, public policy, engineering, and graduate business students is putting together a homeowner how-to handbook on financing an alley flat and getting it built. “It's not just about building one little house at a time,” Moore says. “It's a new approach to housing.”