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.”