Can The New City Council Meet The Affordability Challenge?

By Bill Oakey – September 10, 2014

Every taxpayer in Austin must be wondering what is wrong with our current City Council. The new budget that they just adopted reflects a huge problem. In the face of ever growing public concerns about affordability, they thumbed their noses at us and raised taxes and fees anyway. What in the world were they thinking? Then I started thinking about it, and began pondering a very real possibility.

Can public officials develop a spending addiction just like an alcoholic, a problem gambler, or a drug addict? Apparently here in Austin, they can. The tremendous forces of inertia and momentum behind business as usual at City Hall are so strong that neuroscientists should consider studying them for inclusion in their scholarly journals.

I haven’t prepared a complete twelve step program for the current Council because I don’t think they can be helped. The worst offender is Mayor Lee Leffingwell. He stood before the Council and issued what sounded like a valiant appeal to lower the tax rate further in the budget discussions. This after he spent many months spearheading the Project Connect effort to bestow upon us the largest tax increase in modern Austin history.

What the New City Council Will Have to Do

1. We need an Affordability Strategic Plan

Austin has an electric generation plan, a drought management plan and any number of other plans to achieve various goals. I say it is past time that the City adopt a formal Affordability Strategic Plan. Unless they put a label on it and tackle it like the major public issue that we all know it is, then business as usual could easily creep back in and infect the new Council’s progress.

2. The Affordability Strategic Plan needs specific goals and objectives.

These should be laid out, published and adhered to. This process needs to be done in a formal way, complete with milestones and quantifiable measurements.

3. The Imagine Austin Plan needs to be reviewed and modified to take affordability into account.

The various “corridor plans” that have sprung forth under the auspices of Imagine Austin and CodeNEXT should be recognized for exactly what they are – Corridor Gentrification Plans. By definition, any plan that takes a neighborhood such as the East Riverside area or Airport Boulevard and purports to “improve” them in a manner that systematically displaces existing residents is not only a gentrification plan, but it is an obvious plan by design to make Austin less affordable. Consider another simple science analogy. If you toss a bunch of flammable chemicals together and light a match to them, you shouldn’t be surprised if you get an explosion. Not only do these new corridor plans cause gentrification and contribute to unaffordability, but the added insult is that we the taxpayers are expected to pay tens of millions of dollars in debt payments for infrastructure upgrades for each new “corridor.” And that’s over and above the cost of any rail systems.

4. Instead of creating new gentrification plans, develop strategies to improve neighborhoods while retaining existing residents.

Since we know that there is no shortage of new people coming to Austin to seek luxury housing in newly built high density “activity centers,” then facilitating more of those should not be our top priority. Instead, we need to pay homage to the existing residents who for many years have helped make Austin the desirable city that it is today. We need to work with other cities and various national organizations to seek out ways to make existing neighborhoods safer and more attractive for current residents. Note that I am not advocating that City leaders sit around and talk about this concept. I am actually suggesting that it become a written element of a comprehensive Affordability Strategic Plan.

The Airport Boulevard Master Plan, based on two consultant studies, has been delayed. As I understand it, the Burnet Road Gentrification, oops – “Corridor” – Plan has apparently been pushed ahead of it. The new City Council should take a good long look at the number of low to moderate income residents in the Airport Boulevard neighborhoods. These are people who would benefit tremendously from the convenience of the nearby hub of Austin Community College at Highland Mall. Instead of pushing these residents out and replacing them with electric powered bike riders from California, why not preserve their affordable housing and offer them a shot at participating in the “economic miracle” of Austin’s future.

There are many more ideas on how to improve affordability for the good people who already call Austin their home. It will be both challenging and exciting to try the new City Council on for size and see if they are adaptable to a post Business-As-Usual political era. To me, one of the fundamental changes that needs to be made is that Austin should define its mission.

We need to fall back on the community values that used to guide us before the special interests took complete control of all policy making. In the early 90’s, citizens like Brigid Shea, Bill Bunch and Mary Arnold did not stay up all night at the historic public hearing on the SOS ordinance to usher in a future tainted by unaffordability. Max Nofziger did not lay down his flowers and take his grassroots fervor to City Hall just to see it devolve into a factory for real estate speculators and bankers seeking to make Austin a single page in their ledger book.

There are few if any examples of a successful community the size of Austin that could prosper and thrive with only one class of people. We have it within our power to keep Austin a lively and sometimes funky community that represents the interests of a sustained diverse culture. The challenge for the new City Council will be to stand up to the special interests when they are meeting downtown, and then walk among us in their ten districts and make us be proud to have them as our leaders.

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