Tag Archives: Austin gentrification

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!

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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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Can The New City Council Meet The Affordability Challenge?

By Bill Oakey – September 10, 2014

Every taxpayer in Austin must be wondering what is wrong with our current City Council. The new budget that they just adopted reflects a huge problem. In the face of ever growing public concerns about affordability, they thumbed their noses at us and raised taxes and fees anyway. What in the world were they thinking? Then I started thinking about it, and began pondering a very real possibility.

Can public officials develop a spending addiction just like an alcoholic, a problem gambler, or a drug addict? Apparently here in Austin, they can. The tremendous forces of inertia and momentum behind business as usual at City Hall are so strong that neuroscientists should consider studying them for inclusion in their scholarly journals.

I haven’t prepared a complete twelve step program for the current Council because I don’t think they can be helped. The worst offender is Mayor Lee Leffingwell. He stood before the Council and issued what sounded like a valiant appeal to lower the tax rate further in the budget discussions. This after he spent many months spearheading the Project Connect effort to bestow upon us the largest tax increase in modern Austin history.

What the New City Council Will Have to Do

1. We need an Affordability Strategic Plan

Austin has an electric generation plan, a drought management plan and any number of other plans to achieve various goals. I say it is past time that the City adopt a formal Affordability Strategic Plan. Unless they put a label on it and tackle it like the major public issue that we all know it is, then business as usual could easily creep back in and infect the new Council’s progress.

2. The Affordability Strategic Plan needs specific goals and objectives.

These should be laid out, published and adhered to. This process needs to be done in a formal way, complete with milestones and quantifiable measurements.

3. The Imagine Austin Plan needs to be reviewed and modified to take affordability into account.

The various “corridor plans” that have sprung forth under the auspices of Imagine Austin and CodeNEXT should be recognized for exactly what they are – Corridor Gentrification Plans. By definition, any plan that takes a neighborhood such as the East Riverside area or Airport Boulevard and purports to “improve” them in a manner that systematically displaces existing residents is not only a gentrification plan, but it is an obvious plan by design to make Austin less affordable. Consider another simple science analogy. If you toss a bunch of flammable chemicals together and light a match to them, you shouldn’t be surprised if you get an explosion. Not only do these new corridor plans cause gentrification and contribute to unaffordability, but the added insult is that we the taxpayers are expected to pay tens of millions of dollars in debt payments for infrastructure upgrades for each new “corridor.” And that’s over and above the cost of any rail systems.

4. Instead of creating new gentrification plans, develop strategies to improve neighborhoods while retaining existing residents.

Since we know that there is no shortage of new people coming to Austin to seek luxury housing in newly built high density “activity centers,” then facilitating more of those should not be our top priority. Instead, we need to pay homage to the existing residents who for many years have helped make Austin the desirable city that it is today. We need to work with other cities and various national organizations to seek out ways to make existing neighborhoods safer and more attractive for current residents. Note that I am not advocating that City leaders sit around and talk about this concept. I am actually suggesting that it become a written element of a comprehensive Affordability Strategic Plan.

The Airport Boulevard Master Plan, based on two consultant studies, has been delayed. As I understand it, the Burnet Road Gentrification, oops – “Corridor” – Plan has apparently been pushed ahead of it. The new City Council should take a good long look at the number of low to moderate income residents in the Airport Boulevard neighborhoods. These are people who would benefit tremendously from the convenience of the nearby hub of Austin Community College at Highland Mall. Instead of pushing these residents out and replacing them with electric powered bike riders from California, why not preserve their affordable housing and offer them a shot at participating in the “economic miracle” of Austin’s future.

There are many more ideas on how to improve affordability for the good people who already call Austin their home. It will be both challenging and exciting to try the new City Council on for size and see if they are adaptable to a post Business-As-Usual political era. To me, one of the fundamental changes that needs to be made is that Austin should define its mission.

We need to fall back on the community values that used to guide us before the special interests took complete control of all policy making. In the early 90’s, citizens like Brigid Shea, Bill Bunch and Mary Arnold did not stay up all night at the historic public hearing on the SOS ordinance to usher in a future tainted by unaffordability. Max Nofziger did not lay down his flowers and take his grassroots fervor to City Hall just to see it devolve into a factory for real estate speculators and bankers seeking to make Austin a single page in their ledger book.

There are few if any examples of a successful community the size of Austin that could prosper and thrive with only one class of people. We have it within our power to keep Austin a lively and sometimes funky community that represents the interests of a sustained diverse culture. The challenge for the new City Council will be to stand up to the special interests when they are meeting downtown, and then walk among us in their ten districts and make us be proud to have them as our leaders.

What Is The Mission Of Austin, Texas – Or Do We Even Have One?

By Bill Oakey – July 6, 2014

If you don’t read another post on this blog, you should consider this one.

Does our city have a purpose, and if so, what is it?

We all have a critical stake in addressing that question.  Failure to do so adequately, and to base our future strategies around it, could doom our economy and the ability of existing residents to remain in the city that we love.  It’s that serious.

A Tale of Two Cities

Although Austin residents are traveling down many diverse paths, two of those paths have collided in the past and they threaten to do so again.  Only this time, the collision could result in a meltdown.  The reality show that we find ourselves in could be called “A Tale of Two Cities.” One of them finds people on fire with giddy anticipation for more of the success and financial gain that they enjoy.  These are the developers and big business folks who bounce out of bed every morning, eagerly awaiting the next downtown announcement about a big growth opportunity.

The others are the terribly worried homeowners who fear that they may not make it through another round of property tax appraisals.  Joining them are the renters, who can hardly believe their eyes when they open envelopes containing new leases that will increase anywhere from $100 to $400 or even $500 per month.  Arguments that these conditions reflect a simple matter of supply and demand ignore the relentless hyping of Austin, much of which is funded with taxpayer money.

The frightening housing scenarios are playing out all over town, in painful disharmony with the joyful mood of downtown tourists at the various festivals.  And the F1 visitors who indulge in $150 breakfasts and $300 massages at downtown hotels.  The job announcements from the high tech companies moving to Austin make good headlines, and they do represent positive economic gains for those who benefit from them.

But how do we position ourselves to keep the colliding paths from fracturing the whole balloon and causing it to burst?  Therein lies the toughest challenge that Austin has ever faced.  Any boom and bust cycle that we experienced in the past would pale in comparison to what could happen this time, unless we seek some workable solutions and persevere to follow through with them.

Does Austin Have A Realistic Vision, or Even a Mission?

Is Austin’s sole purpose to expand in a way that creates a large income gap?  If that is indeed our mission, where is it written down?   If we have a more compassionate mission, to balance the gains of the wealthy with everyone else, where are the concrete plans to forge a consensus that will ensure sustainability?  How do local leaders intend to protect the interests of seniors, low-income residents, and middle class people earning stagnant wages?  Empty words in the Imagine Austin plan simply won’t cut it.

The Big Question That Public Officials Have Never Asked

Would Amazon.com or Amy’s Ice Cream develop an expansion plan that fans out in all directions without regard to any limitations?  Would they draw up growth projections without considering the cost risks and the appropriate pace and timing?  Or would they just haul off and build like crazy and hope for the best?  You already know the answer.  So, why should planning the future of our city be any different?

Gentrification Needs to Be Addressed Head-On

1. Both government leadership and business leadership needs to decide what to do about the large population that faces affordability challenges.  Then they need to make a decision.  Are all of these people expendable?  Is it OK to just displace them?  I am not kidding when I suggest that Austin leaders really need to address that question.

2. What kind of community would we have if we allowed untold numbers of people to be priced out?  Who would replace them?  Is that model even feasible, considering the stagnation of wages for huge numbers of jobs?  Proceeding on a path that ignores these questions is risky in both humanitarian and economic terms.

3. Can we afford to send AISD on a perilous downhill slide of annual enrollment drops?  If families with children are priced out of dozens of neighborhoods, who’s going to bail out AISD?

How Can the City Expect a 33.6% Increase In Property Tax Revenues Over the Next Five Years?

Some of that would be absorbed by new residents, but we would have to pay the lion’s share of it.  And that’s only one chunk of the stampede of tax and utility increases coming down the pike.  Just looking at the numbers is pretty shocking.  Here is the chart from the City’s Five Year Financial Forecast.

A Healthy Dose of Prudent Planning, Better Transparency, And Listening to the People

1. Affordability is no longer just a catchphrase.  Leaders from the City, County, AISD, Capital Metro, ACC and Central Health should schedule some serious joint discussions and set an agenda to address the problems.  Ideas proposed on this blog and in numerous other resources should be prioritized and acted upon.

2. An honest attempt should be made to chart all of the ambitious, expensive plans that the City, the County, Project Connect and the other entities want to implement, and determine how many of them are financially feasible.  What sort of available household income would it take to pay for these plans?  This study should be combined with a cumulative analysis of the taxpayer impact of local budgets.  Expenses should be matched with the public’s ability to pay.  Diligent economic forecasting might buy the city the time it needs to determine a realistic approach to sustain these costs.

3. Austin should face up to the fact that it may be necessary to slow down some of the hype.  That would take a lot of political will, but doing so could help prevent a boom and bust.

4. Job training should become a major goal and should be approached on several different fronts, from cooperation between businesses and the schools, to corporate involvement, to government participation.

5. Transparency should become a touchstone for every local authority.  Citizens should be able to contact every individual board member of Capital Metro, Central Health, AISD and ACC.  The financial status of each of these entities, along with Austin and Travis County, should be posted online in reasonable detail, and should be updated quarterly.

6. The Austin City Council should adopt my 28-year-old proposal for reforming the meeting process to allow citizens to speak without having to wait six hours or longer.

7. Public engagement with City officials and the consultants who work on major plans and projects should be completely redefined.  We need a comprehensive policy that sets out formal procedures for public engagement.  See my proposal here.  Good models incorporating best practices exist online and should be cultivated.  Once a framework for meaningful public engagement has been implemented at the City level, it should be replicated for each of the other entities.

8. Our next mayor should hold occasional town hall meetings in each of the new districts.