Can The New City Council Define The Affordability End Game?

By Bill Oakey – September 19, 2014

Over the past several months I have had some fascinating conversations with a lot of smart and sophisticated people about Austin’s affordability problem. Everyone agrees that it is quite serious, and everyone agrees that solving it will not be an easy task. So, what are the steps that the new City Council would have to follow if they actually wanted to make real, quantifiable progress in solving the problem?

1. Define the Problem – That’s the first step in the scientific method. We need a detailed survey showing where the low income and moderate income Austinities live. We need charts that show details about income levels, types of jobs held by different demographic groups, etc. And we need to list the specific categories of affordability issues, such as taxes, debt, housing and rent costs, utility costs, transportation costs, building and construction costs, etc.

2. Planning, Planning, and More Planning – The only way out of any type of problem of this magnitude is to develop specific plans to target the problem. Austin is swimming in plans right now, and some of them contain numerous references to “affordability.” However, there are no real plans designed specifically to make Austin more affordable or to address the root causes of progressively worsening unaffordability.

3. Action Plans With Goals, Performance Measures, Milestones and Result Tracking – Plans by themselves only represent wishful thinking unless they are backed up by concrete actions that turn lip service into proven results. How many new low income housing projects did Austin lose each quarter throughout the year? How many did they gain? How much of a budget surplus did the City have at the end of each quarter? How much of that money was pledged to reduce taxes and fees or lower utility rates? Part of the objective here is to determine what questions to ask, and then what specific steps are needed to address each one. Those steps need to be incorporated into the action plans.

4. Combined Regional Financial Forecasts – The City, County, AISD, ACC, Central Health, Capital Metro and CAMPO need to meet regularly and discuss their future plans and how much those plans will cost. Every plan that every entity currently has in place needs to be scrutinized for feasibility. It is absurd for any organization to publish a plan with completely unattainable projections. The Capital Metropolitan Planning Organization’s 2040 Transportation Plan calls for $1.2 billion in spending every single year for 25 years in a row. Eighty per cent of the funding has to come from local funding sources. There is no way in hell that Austinites will be able to afford anything close to that amount. So, the people who publish these various plans need to sit in front of each other at a table in the same room. They need to look each other in the eyes and explain out loud how they expect to get the money to pay for each of their plans. If they determine that the costs are too high, they simply need to revise the plans. Period. And they can do that by setting priorities and making realistic assumptions. Everyone needs to be constantly reminded of the tagline for this blog – “Let’s Put the Public’s Ability to Pay Into Austin’s Planning Process.”

5. Address the Cost of Growth and the Gentrification Issues Head On – There is no question that the exaggerated hype over Austin and the extremely aggressive growth rate is unsustainable. The current path that we are on will lead to an unprecedented boom and bust scenario if our leaders do not take steps to prevent it. Sometimes it can be difficult to stand up to the special interests and say no. But it is absolutely essential to the City’s future for us to consider how much capacity we have in terms of roads, water, land, and other resources as we consider how much growth we can accommodate at what pace. No private business would ever take the risky “build first and ask questions later” approach that Austin has followed for many decades. Gentrification is another issue that can be measured and quantified. We need to look at the impact of the CodeNEXT plans on existing neighborhoods. One of the best ways to insure that neighborhood plans are protected is to expand the Land Development Code Advisory Group to include equal representation between neighborhood members and industry members. And we need to establish road impact fees to help make growth pay for itself. We cannot afford to continuously increase taxpayer and ratepayer expenditures for recruiting new businesses to Austin. That is a private industry responsibility.

The bottom line in planning for growth comes down to a very simple concept. Our growth rate and the cost of growth need to be set within the context of what is sustainable. Our current policies that allow for all growth in all places all the time at breakneck speed are not sustainable and cannot be allowed to continue.

The New City Council Will Have to Hit the Ground Running

The new City Council will need to be prepared for the one of the toughest challenges that the City has ever faced. There are no off the shelf remedies for an affordability problem on the scale of what we have in Austin. The issue will require lots of innovative thinking and bold strategies. If it turns out that no other city has ever even thought about developing a comprehensive Affordability Strategic Plan, then let us be the first. Every candidate needs to be thinking about it now. Because the hard work will begin the moment after the swearing-in ceremony is completed in early January.

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