The Affordable Housing Issue That Nobody Wants To Talk About

By Bill Oakey – July 6, 2015

If you take a stroll around downtown Austin and find yourself within a few blocks of City Hall, the chances are pretty good that you will hear the chatter. If you don’t, just try putting your ear a little closer to the ground and you are bound to hear a certain phrase…

“Affordable Housing…”

As a sometimes City Hall insider, I’ve heard that phrase hundreds of times. But like any other popular buzzword, it has been abused and misused so often that its meaning and its value to the community have become very fuzzy. In fact, the fuzziness of affordable housing in the average person’s mind is surpassed only by the unfathomable convoluted mess of formal City policies on the subject. I will attempt to wade into that morass in a future posting. But first, let’s get one thing out in the open…

Almost All Official Discussions of Affordable Housing Center Around New Housing That Could Be…Might Be…Perhaps Even Ought to Be…Built In Austin Someday. Not Today, Probably Not Tomorrow Either. But Someday…

Walk into a meeting where people are talking about affordable housing, and you will hear about things like density bonuses to encourage developers to include affordable units in their new projects. You will hear about the need for more concessions for developers, more fee waivers from the City taxpayers, etc. Once in a while you will hear about expanding subsidized housing programs. And another popular phrase that keeps popping up this year is “missing middle” affordable housing. That refers to building duplexes and townhouses that should have a place somewhere in Austin, next to the McMansions and the Big-Box-Block-Long-$1,600-to-$1,800-For-One-Bedroom-Rent-With-No-Equity-Apartment-Community-Resort-Type-Buildings. (Sometimes more politely referred to as “walkable and bicycle-friendly, transit-oriented new urbanist activity centers).” Is it even remotely possible to build one of those things without it being so hideously ugly?

Getting Back to My Original Point – The Affordable Housing Issue That Nobody Wants to Talk About. Well, I Guess You Could Say That It Is the…Elephant In the Room!

elephant-in-the-room

Last week I asked a friend to take me on a drive through several neighborhoods in North Central Austin that…now, listen to this carefully…that ALREADY HAVE EXISTING AFFORDABLE HOUSING! There are, of course, pockets of housing like this in various neighborhoods all over town. Concentrate as hard as you can on a great big wish. Maybe if we all wish hard enough, somebody down at City Hall will pick up the vibrations. Let’s hope and let’s wish that there is a way for Austin to…

Preserve and Protect the Affordable Housing That We Already Have…Before Every Remaining Square Inch of It Is Scraped Away to Oblivion to Make Way for Gentrification!

Remember that I said that nobody really wants to talk about this. But all of you are hereby granted permission to not only whisper about it, but to stand on the rooftops and SHOUT ABOUT IT, until somebody downtown hears you. Now, this next comment means that I am really going way out on a limb. But why not take one final step and suggest that…

Austin Should Create a Formal “Existing Affordable Housing Preservation Plan.”

In order to do that, our local officials could look at other cities from San Francisco to the East Coast to find out how in the heck they have dealt with housing affordability and neighborhood preservation for the past 30 to 40 years. The pattern in Austin of chip-chipping away at every lot in every neighborhood, bit by bit, block by block, street by street until everything except luxury housing disappears is not the only pattern that exists in the United States.

As you gaze at the modest homes in the photos below, keep in mind that the dirt beneath them is most likely pushing up the tax appraisals to the point where some of them are no longer as “affordable” as they once were. But at least they are more affordable than what you will find in a fully scraped, gentrified neighborhood. For musical accompaniment, here is Gene McDaniels’ top 10 recording for Liberty Records in 1962, “Chip Chip.” 

A Photo Tour of North Central Austin’s Existing Affordable Housing

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5 thoughts on “The Affordable Housing Issue That Nobody Wants To Talk About

  1. Love Northaustin

    I live in a 2 bedroom bungalow in a patio home subdivision (the 80s pre-cursor to zero lot development). l walk to work and also live in walking distance of things like the Domain, Whole Food, the post office, my car mechanic,and even ANC campus. Oh, and my area of town is actually denser per square mile than downtwon.

    And yet, when I point out that the Austin’s policies of mono-culture building and gentrification are making Austin neighborhoods unaffordable for the average person, I get accused of being one of those neighborhood “NIMBYs” who doesn’t want a compact, connected, denser Austin.

    What’s even funnier, or sadder (take your pick) is the professional society for urban planners in America has a document about what good urban design should look like. Oddly, it discourages mono-culture building crazes and gentrification:

    https://www.planning.org/policy/guides/pdf/smartgrowth.pdf

    Thank you Bill, for exposing the “denser and more affordable: charade for what it really is.

    -Mary R.
    editor, Love North Austin
    wwww.lovenorthaustin.com

    Reply
  2. Clint Smith

    Thanks, Bill for nailing the real problem as id’d in the 2001 Austin Equity Commission study (and to Mary/R for illustrating current situations resulting in large part from failure of Will to act then): i.e., p.105 ‘Affordable Housing’, study led by fmr Secy of Labor Ray Marshall and presented at the 2001 Gray Panthers Forum, AFL/CIO, ‘Economic inequality’, cited need for Public Will to act!

    Reply

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