By Bill Oakey – June 2, 2015
Many of us probably think we know something about Austin affordability. Just today I was reminded that “affordability” means different things to different organized civic groups. But let me tell you how I came to see it in way that has never quite hit me before. Never like this.
Please read the quotes below. Then, rub your eyes and see if they read the same way a second time. If this is going on all over Austin, then we have a bigger problem than many of us realized. It simply can’t be allowed to continue.
From the Austin Chronicle, May 29, 2015, Feedback, Page 8
On Wheatsville’s Wages
“I was hired as a deli clerk at Wheatsville in 1995 at the rate of $9.00 an hour. It’s sad that in 20 years that rate has not changed. The fact that the GM will not reveal his salary is ludicrous and very telling.” – Justin A.
“When I started working at Wheatsville in 2007, I started out at $8.50 and not $8.00 because I had a little experience. So Wheatsville stepped down from their starting pay in 1995, wow. Even with a promotion to a higher-paying position, I’m still not making much more than the new employees. The ‘I can’t afford to shop where I work thing is real.'” – Captain Happy
These comments are feedback to the Chronicle’s story, Is Something Rotten at Wheatsville Co-op? Well, here’s my little story. I wandered in there sometime around 1979. i picked up a can of peaches. The price was so exorbitantly high that I asked a salesperson if it could be a mistake. “Are you a Wheatsville member?’ he asked. When I told him no, he replied that the price for that can of fruit would be even higher for non-members. That is the beginning, the middle, and the end of my story about Wheatsville. I never stepped inside the place again.
Just recently, a professional hair stylist that I really liked asked if I would mind “modeling” for her at a hair salon just north of U.T. The manager asked if she could bring in a regular customer and cut his hair as a means of trying out for a job opening there. I had learned from this stylist about the cosmetology license that is required and the cost to renew it each year. Her appointment and the modeling thing never panned out, but the stylist did tell me one interesting thing. If she had been offered that job, it would have paid only minimum wage.
Somebody is making a whole hell of a lot of money in Austin, Texas. And off the people in Austin. But if those masses of little people ever get riled up enough to join forces and speak out with a united voice, something extraordinary might happen. Maybe a bunch of them did speak out when they went to the polls last November in the City Council election.
The news stories just keep coming – about unprecedented rent increases that don’t match up well with salaries and wages. Tax appraisals that jolt homeowners out of their socks, for the second or third year in a row. And on and on. So, here’s some food for thought. Consider two key phrases that you have heard recently at City Hall and that will surely come up again. “Tipping Point” and “Unmet Needs.” Lack of affordability has placed our City at the tipping point. That means that the people in power need to stop talking about it take some action.
The Regional Affordability Committee has agreed to do that by incorporating principles and concrete proposals into a strategic plan, and then working to get that plan implemented. I will be feeding proposals into their plan, as will several other experienced affordability advocates. But the wage side of affordability is something that must be dealt with to a large extent in the business community. People can only be pushed and squeezed for so long. Then something’s got to give. I leave it to folks with expertise in that realm to take on that problem aggressively.
Finally – that other phrase, “Unmet Needs.” The City staff who work up the annual budget never get as much funding as they would like. There is always a laundry list of items that come up short. Those are routinely labeled “unmet needs.” In other words, if taxes could be raised each year to the legal maximum, the City staff would be able to minimize their list of unmet needs. But the list is endless. It’s kind of like taking one step towards the door, then taking an infinite number of additional steps, with each one of those being only half the final distance to the door.
But guess what – in this era of the tipping point and post-tipping point, the City Council and the other taxing entities are about to discover a whole new type of unmet needs. And they’ll be hearing about it from all corners of Austin. Each one of us have our own budgets that keep getting smaller and smaller, just like all those halfway steps to the door.
We just need to raise our voices.