The Human Face of Austin Affordability

By Bill Oakey – April 14, 2014

This all happened quite unexpectedly.  I stopped into a local restaurant for a nice hot breakfast and to kill some time before a meeting at City Hall.  It was Monday, so just to make some idle chat, I asked my server the simplest of questions, “How was your weekend?”

Her response told me something about Austin affordability that I must have known somewhere inside of me.  But in the next few moments it was all out in the open.  She will remain anonymous, but she is very real.  And of course, there are many others like her.

“I just finished my 13th straight day of working,” she commented.  “I have two jobs, and on each of those 13 days, I worked 10 hours.”  Needless to say, she did not have the kind of fun weekend that you might read about in the Chronicle.  I then asked her if she had gotten a chance to check out South By Southwest when it was in town.  That’s when I discovered that hers was a story that needed to be told.

Yes, she made it to a music event on the East Side, but somehow she injured her ankle and could not find any convenient transportation back to where she lived.  I had read about the multiple-hour waits for cab rides.  In this case, the only faster option was a pedicab.  For a cool $60.00 fare.

I decided to email her some additional questions.  She told me that she moved here from Toronto in 2012.  Here are some excerpts from her reply:

“Affordability is going to be an issue anywhere you live, but I think Austin is feeling some very strong growing pains. The sudden massive increase in demand for housing, combined with a seeming lack of oversight and rent control is one of the largest issues I’ve witnessed.  Everyone I know who lives in an apartment complex faces yearly rent increases. There seems to be no limit to how much landlords can raise the rent.  Most of my friends have had to move out due to such increases.”

“My other major issue is transportation: the recent changes made by Cap Metro have been very negative for me. I live near S. Congress and Ottorf, which has seen a decrease in service for the local route and increased service and pricing for the express route, as well as a detour in the route.  Basically, I’m forced to pay more money for decreased service on a route that takes me out of the way I used to take.  It’s a significant price increase, too.  A $30 monthly pass used to get me onto any bus.  That’s been increased to $33 but service has been deceased so much that I’m forced to pay $49.50 for the less convenient but necessary premium pass.”

“Other than during election time, I don’t really keep track of local politics.  Mostly because it’s kind of depressing.  It seems like Austin has been sold to developers to do what they want with it.  I fully support creating more housing.  There’s obviously a strong demand.  It’s just too bad that the only buildings going up are hotels and million dollar condos.  It’d be nice to see more housing go up that is meant for average Austinites.”

“A final thought on affordability – Austin is known for being an art hub.  It’s a place where artists can work as a bartender/server/barista and still focus on their art.  Instead of going to new York or L.A and struggling all the time to make ends meet.  Austin provides an environment that is encouraging and livable.  A rising cost of living will drive that community away from Austin, taking away a big part of the city’s character.”

If our local officials do not pay enough attention to what longtime residents have to say, perhaps they will take note of how our city looks to some of the newcomers.  There is a human face behind all those demographic facts and figures.  And she casts a long shadow over Austin’s uncertain economic future.

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