By Bill Oakey – August 4, 2015
The reaction to Monday’s posting on this topic has been swift and fierce. The same reaction fell upon Marty Toohey after his blog posting in the American-Statesman. Austin has indeed hit a tipping point that in some respects mirrors the national divide over wealth inequality and wage stagnation. Your viewpoint on a variety of issues depends on where you sit along the economic divide. Politics also enters the picture. Nationally speaking, I have made my position clear. I am an official Elizabeth Warren Person In Waiting.
As for the uproar over the affordability and sustainability of Austin’s current boom, I would just suggest this question to ponder, What comes after a reckless boom without any foresight or careful planning? Here in Austin, we have seen that movie more than once before. The crash at the end of the 1980’s sent many out of town landlords, well, back out of town for a pretty good while. And a great many of us were not sorry to see them go.
This blog welcomes a wholesome discussion from all points of view. See the comments below. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and everyone else is entitled to agree or disagree. We should do so with passion, but in a polite and civil manner. In my view it is unduly harsh and insensitive to sacrifice a community of several hundred thousand people for the benefit of an encroaching wealthy class. To not expect the citizens who have invested decades of their lives in their community to fight for their homes and their neighborhoods is unrealistic, at the very least. Yes, gentrification can be a natural consequence of “free market forces” or “supply and demand.” But in a democracy, we govern ourselves. We get to decide how we want to interact with our elected officials. And what values we want our elected officials to incorporate into their policies.
We certainly need new housing, and of course we cannot call a halt to all growth. That has never been my argument. The challenge and the controversy involves how to incorporate new housing into the planning process. We need to find some way to allow existing neighborhoods to thrive and co-exist with new housing. The CodeNEXT rewrite of the land development code should complement rather than replace current neighborhood master plans. Developers are pushing hard to build housing with little or no zoning regulations. The wrong kind of planning can lead to gentrification rather than preservation of existing neighborhoods. Housing that is already affordable cannot be torn down and replaced in every corner of the City, if we want to be fair and reasonable to longtime residents. We have seen an abundance of discussion on how and where to build new housing, and even how best to make that new housing affordable. But there is no official policy or planning effort directed toward preserving the existing affordable housing that has not yet been scraped off the lots.
Austin has historically seen battle lines drawn between developers and real estate interests versus neighborhood and environmental interests. We call ourselves a “progressive city” that welcomes diversity and embraces social justice and equality. However, we are not immune to the immense power of money and influence that infects all levels of government. I was both saddened and appalled to learn recently about yet another City ordinance that passed two years ago and then fell into a black hole. In 2012 there was a public outcry after a balcony collapsed at a low-income apartment complex. Investigative reports from the Statesman revealed that Austin had one of the poorest sets of policies and enforcement to help this class of vulnerable residents. The landlords got away with shabby conditions and disrepair year after year. So, the City Council wrote a tougher ordinance and demanded action on enforcement from the City Manager. But guess what…Here we are two years later, and the new ordinance is not being enforced.
Another hot button issue is short-term rentals. Here again, peaceful neighborhoods with hard working residents ate being disrupted by rude, late-night partiers who could care less about anyone else around them. And the “entrepreneurs” who own the commercial short-term rental properties often get by without proper registration and with wildly excessive occupancy levels at their party-pads. We could just back off and say, “Let the free market rule.” But what kind of “freedom” would that leave for the neighborhood folks who are stuck with the noise and the parking issues. One part of this problem could be solved easily. The City should require that a valid license number be included in every website, blog, social media and print ad listing. But I can only imagine a bitter battle with the special interests over such a simple and logical suggestion.
I will end back where I started by mentioning that Austin is at a tipping point. We simply cannot afford to continue on a path that puts growth for the sake of growth ahead of common-sense planning. Choices will need to be made that will determine whether an “Austin for Everyone” means truly everyone, or just the outsiders without regard to what happens to current residents and their neighborhoods.
One final thought. Whether Austin can defy gravity and keep booming forever depends on its capacity to sustain the costs of the boom. This may sound like a wild idea, but we could…just maybe…consider adding up the total cost of all the plans that Austin, Travis County, CAMPO, Central Health and the other entities have already approved. Then, simply measure that total cost against the taxpayers’ likely ability to absorb it. There isn’t a private business or corporation of any size that would dare embark on an unbridled expansion without careful planning with cost projections and analysis. Cities, on the other hand, are more apt to march their citizens to the edge of a cliff. Before someone finally shouts, “Hey look, we might have a problem here!” Then after the crash, the leaders all sigh and say, “Gee, it’s not our fault. None of us ever saw it coming.”
The disconnect I see between your position and those of us who want more housing is that you think new housing is just for the benefit of newcomers. It’s not. Renters, who make up more than half of the cities population, are mostly in the same boat as new renters wanting to move here. Even homeowners often move due to changing life circumstances: changes in income, having kids or the kids move out, marriage and divorce, etc.
The only people who benefit from your approach are those long time residents who happen to stay in the same house for decades. They are a minority of the local population.
If we don’t build more housing and the price of housing goes up, it won’t keep rich people from moving here. Those rich people will outbid current poorer residents for the housing that exists, often forcing those residents to move into the suburbs or into another city entirely. That includes many of the musicians, artists, minorities, and young people that make up Austin’s unique culture.
AURA and other urbanists aim to build more housing to account for the unchangeable reality that Austin is an attractive destination and is growing and will continue to grow, whether we want it to or not. The choice is whether we preserve the city center in stone, creating a situation where only the rich can live there and the poor are driven to new growth in the suburbs. Or whether we allow for more dense housing to maintain economic (and cultural/racial) diversity in the city itself, create an environment that fosters alternatives to cars, and avoid even more suburban sprawl.
*Another AURA member here. 27 year old liberal activist who has lived in Austin since I was 8, went to UT, and has no connections to developers or real estate.
We certainly need new housing, and of course we cannot call a halt to all growth. That has never been my argument. The challenge and the controversy involves how to incorporate new housing into the planning process. We need to find some way to allow existing neighborhoods to thrive and co-exist with new housing. The CodeNEXT rewrite of the land development code should complement rather than replace current neighborhood master plans. Developers are pushing hard to build housing with little or no zoning regulations. The wrong kind of planning can lead to gentrification rather than preservation of existing neighborhoods. Housing that is already affordable cannot be torn down and replaced in evey corner of the City, if we want to be fair and reasonable to longtime residents.
Thanks for the response.
I think some consideration should be given to existing neighborhoods, but right now I think far too much is given. And far too many of the neighborhood activists have a knee jerk opposition to density and anything that isn’t single family housing, and almost always try to argue for less density, even on transit corridors (see the Burnet Road complex a few months back.)
What makes up the character of a neighborhood? My greatest concern is preserving Austin as a community, its people, rather than just its buildings. Making sure that the type of people who have historically lived can continue to afford to live here. With our growing population and high demand, land is much more expensive. Which leaves us with the choice of more density in central city neighborhoods, or those neighborhoods being accessible only to the wealthy. Most of those who claim to speak for neighborhoods (like the ANC) tend to define their neighborhoods by their low density, single family neighborhood feel, and make preserving that their highest priority. When people make that the linchpin in how they define their neighborhood, their position is irreconcilable with trying to keep Austin affordable. I think preserving the character of a neighborhood in terms of what type of people live there is more important.
We can’t “stop building” our way out of gentrification. Gentrification isn’t just caused by new buildings coming it, it can be caused by the price of homes rising so much that houses that used used to be bought by working and middle class folks become affordable only to the wealthy. In that sense, “gentrification” and “preserving existing neighborhoods” can be one and the same if how you define your neighborhood is by its low density.
I agree with you that we can’t and shouldn’t tear down all the old housing. Especially the older, denser multi-family housing. But when old low density housing is replaced with new high density housing, I think that is usually a win rather than a loss for affordability, especially in the long term once the new dense housing ages.
Where to put the new high density housing, and how dense those developments should be becomes very tricky questions. Last December, the Montopolis neighbors fought with tears before the old City Council not to allow a giant luxury complex that would surely gentrify their neighborhood. They pointed out that they had agrreed to the megaplexes along Riverside Drive, as long as Montopolis would be left alone. But at their last meeting in office, every council member except Laura Morrison voted to grant the developer’s wishes.
It remains to be seen whether a balance can be struck to keep the entire section of North Central Austin behind Highland Mall and around Airport Blvd. from turning into McMansions and ultra high-priced big box multiplexes. I will admit that some high density housing along commercial corridors makes sense. But keep in mind that we don’t have enough inner-city road capacity to handle an unlimited influx of massive numbers of people.
The notion of a New York, Boston or Portland-style mass transit system sounds good on the surface. But there are two huge problems. For one, it would probably cost $10 to $15 billion for a citywide system here. That is money that we simply don’t have. And even if we did, the roads would reach 100% gridlock many years before any such rail system could ever be completed.
My guess is that the developers are well aware of those facts. It is in their best interests to push their projects through as fast as possible. Then they can grab their profits and go on to the next hipster boom town before Austin gets completely choked with traffic and smothered in debt. Then, the people who tried to push for common sense policies and sustainable growth will be left with the huge mess created by the big money crowd who never had any concern with the well-being of Austin to begin with. We were just another page in their ledger books, viewed from their shiny towers in New York, Chicago, Dubai or wherever.
If more people moving into the city would stretch our road network, them moving outside the city and taking longer commutes would stretch it even worse. If they move closer in, it makes it more feasible not just to use a hypothetical train system, but to walk or bike, or use the bus system that already exists. Density allows those bus systems to operate more frequently and cost effectively. More people allows for more businesses to operate, meaning more businesses closer to where people live, making it possible to drive less.
You talk about the expense of a train system, but what about the expense of building more roads, and expanding roads (think what they are doing to Mopac and are talking about doing to I35) to deal with suburban sprawl?