Tag Archives: Austin housing

Firestorm Erupts Over 100,000 Housing Unit Target Issue

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.”


How Do We Respond To The Developers’ 100,000 Unit Target?

By Bill Oakey – August 2, 2015

While relaxing in a chair a couple of evenings ago, I was hit with an emailed blog posting with the craziest juxtaposition of terms that I’ve seen in a long time:

The Premise: “Austin Rents Are Too High. That Is a Serious Affordability Problem.”

The Cause: “It Is a Simple Problem of Supply and Demand.”

The Solution: “Build 100,000 New Housing Units As Fast As Possible. That Will Magically Make Austin More Affordable.”

The blog posting in question was fired from a cannon on Friday by American-Statesman reporter Marty Toohey. The main theme of the blog is that the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA) has established a 100,000 target for the number of new housing units that will transform Austin into an affordable city.

At Long Last! Relief is Finally On the Way!

In the old days, the Alka-Seltzer pain reliever ads promised to bring us a lifetime of happiness. Their slogan was “Relief Is Just a Swallow Away.” The Statesman blog posting suggested that Mayor Steve Adler has already swallowed RECA’s affordability potion. But I have to wonder if he read all of the fine print in the warning messages that accompany their prescription.


The Number One Goal, In Fact the Only Goal, Is to Build “An Austin for Everyone”

Those of us who attended the Austin Monitor’s CodeNEXT panel discussion on July 27th, got a jaw-dropping introduction to the “come one, come all” approach to meeting the challenges of Austin’s growth. In the most unabashed manner imaginable, panelist Steve Yarak from a group called AURA repeatedly championed the mantra, “Let’s build an Austin for everyone.” His entire storyline from beginning to end was that every facet of Austin planning should focus on bringing as many people here as possible, as quickly as possible. To accomplish that one and only goal, we need to build, Build, BUILD – as many housing units as possible, with reduced regulations and as few zoning restrictions as possible. Build, build, build. Do it now. Do it fast. And don’t let anybody or anything stand in your way.

This unapologetic fervor on the panel was followed by sprinklings of applause, delivered in slices by pockets of followers who had swallowed the potion. Others in the audience who came out of curiosity or to learn how CodeNEXT might affect their neighborhoods, saved their applause for panel members Jim Duncan and Jeff Jack. Both of them have long histories in Austin and hard-earned reputations for balancing the exuberance of growth-at-any-price against neighborhood preservation and the interests of long-term residents.

More Growth at a Breakneck Pace Is the Solution to Affordability…Really?

Let’s put that proposition to a test with this list of questions:

1. Austin has grown tremendously since the 1970’s. Is the city more affordable now than it was in the 1990’s? the 1980’s? the 1970’s?

2. A major push to build more rental units was undertaken last year. Did the increased supply lead to lower rents? (Average rents actually increased 6.6% to $1,172 in the past year).

3. When new luxury housing units are built in older established neighborhoods, do those neighborhoods become more affordable as a result? Or do they become gentrified, with taxes rising so fast that older residents are forced to leave?

4. Transportation is the second leading component of affordability, behind housing. Is transportation more affordable in Austin as a result of rapid growth? Has growth led to improvements in traffic congestion?

5. The fastest growing cities in the country include Portland, Seattle, and several major cities in California. Are any of them more affordable now than they used to be?

Is There Some Way to Address the Challenges of Growth, While Admitting the Realities of Affordability?

Like any other problem in life, the first step toward solving it is to admit that there is a problem. Then that problem needs to be approached with openness, honesty, and a willingness to balance the needs and desires of everyone. Austin has been designated the most economically segregated city in America. It is clearly not affordable for several significant categories of people:

1. People who work for low wages, who need to be paid more for what they do, and who deserve better opportunities for better jobs.

2. Older people on fixed incomes, or who retired from jobs paying much less than today’s market salaries. These people make up a growing percentage of Austin’s population.

3. Long-term residents who struggle to make ends meet, as their neighborhoods become gentrified and they face high transportation costs if they move to the suburbs.

Here Is the Biggest Question That Many of Us Would Like to See Answered In a Positive Way…

Will our new mayor and our first 10-1 district City Council spend as much time and energy addressing the needs of long-term residents and existing neighborhoods as they do in answering to the whims and wishes of big business, the developers and the real estate industry? It takes six votes to pass an item on the City Council agenda. It also takes six votes to defeat one. Everyone has an opportunity to influence those votes and to take note of them after they have been cast.

We also know that five Council members – Greg Casar, Sheri Gallo, Delia Garza, Leslie Pool, and Don Zimmerman will be up for re-election next year.

If anything in this posting leaves you feeling a bit uneasy, don’t take any medication without reading the warning label. As an alternative, you might consider reaching for a drink, while listening to Eddie Noack’s 1959 song, “Relief Is Just a Swallow Away.” (Later recorded by George Jones).

Does The City Have The Backbone To Save North Central Austin?

By Bill Oakey – October 30, 2014

I have often wondered aloud in these blog postings about Austin’s purpose or mission as a city. To many observers it would seem that Austin is in the real estate business. Certainly we can state that they (our City leaders) are in the economic development business. Either way, current residents can discern a built in contradiction with either of those two purposes.

Austin did not become unaffordable on its own. There was a lot more at play than simple “market forces.” Cities have lots of administrative tools to guide their growth. For decades City Council candidates have sought the backing of neighborhood and environmental groups, promising to protect “all that is unique about Austin” and “Austin’s great quality of life.” But what does all of that really mean? It can be interpreted very narrowly to mean that we don’t want Barton Springs to become so polluted that it is no longer safe to swim there. And it also means that we like our open spaces and do not want every inch of Auditorium Shores to become commercialized. And of course, there are issues of clean energy, climate protection and other progressive ideals.

But in this year of 2014, another giant issue has arisen that was never a part of the classic “progressive agenda.” Of course I am talking about affordability. Since many have accepted the reality that this year has become a tipping point in that area, politicians will no longer be able to sit back and be comfortable by just parroting the old line progressive themes.

In some sense, affordability falls within the realm of social justice. People should be able to buy a home in Austin and contribute to the tax base over 20 to 30 years and be able to keep their homes in retirement. As I mentioned in a recent blog posting, I have a favorite analogy for that. Imagine that your boss at your company calls you into his office and tells you that your job and your division will be phased out within six months. Your sole responsibility during that time will be to train your replacements. Whatever happens to you after the transition is nowhere on the boss’s radar. That’s the farthest thing from his mind.

Well, in today’s Austin you can simply substitute “house” for “job,” “neighborhood” for “division” and “city” for “company.” While you are sitting in your chair reading this, thousands of Austinites are staring at a looming timeline of the number of months that they can afford to pay taxes and stay in their homes. This fact was observed very clearly and very painfully by many Council candidates as they knocked on doors along the campaign trail. It was not at all uncommon for a campaign worker to come across residents who expressed their concerns through visible tears.

In the starkest and coldest terms, these people are simply biding their time to make room for their replacements. It’s as though the giant seed pods envisioned by science fiction writer, Jack Finney, have been planted in the bushes next to bedroom windows all over town. The movie of that story was called “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” The real-life Austin version could be modified slightly to become “Invasion of the Property Snatchers.” Imagine if you and your wife were the last ones left in your neighborhood not to be taken over by a McMansion or a luxury apartment building. Both of you will survive as long as you don’t fall asleep. But whatever you do, don’t get separated. Or else you might come back and hear some uncomfortable words from your spouse. Something like, “Oh, honey, we were so wrong before! It’s nice to give up our home. Come on and let me take you to the others. We need to be like them!” Then as the approaching mob gets closer and the footsteps reverberate like thunder, you will know they are coming after you. “He’s over here!” your wife will scream. “Come and get him. He’s over here!”

Now, About That Idea Of Trying To Save North Central Austin

North Central Austin contains many scattered neighborhoods where the older homes still stand and the residents have lived there for a considerable number of years. To see some really good examples, take a leisurely drive through the streets behind Highland Mall in the Airport Boulevard area. Many of these comparatively affordable neighborhoods lie within City Council Districts 4 and 7.

As you may very well know, the City is in the process of developing plans to “improve” those neighborhoods. In today’s planning vernacular, we are talking about “Corridor Plans.” Every major thoroughfare is on a waiting list to become a “corridor” with a “master plan.” We saw that process unfold with East Riverside. It was designated as an early cornerstone in 2010 for the proposed urban rail line. I can still close my eyes and see the faces of the displaced residents pictured in an American-Statesman article on the transformation of East Riverside from late last year. Using East Riverside as an example, it’s easy to see that these “corridor plans” are actually “gentrification plans.”

It has already been several years and two consultant reports since plans for an Airport Boulevard Corridor Plan were first launched. The vision at the time was to anchor Highland Mall with a major ACC campus rebuilding effort. Then, poof, the entire corridor would blossom into big box luxury apartment “communities.” But there was just one little problem. Certain links in the chain have failed to mesh in the right way for that plan to materialize on its own. The word that I have heard from developers is that the Burnet Road corridor has been bumped up ahead of Airport Boulevard. We know we are about to lose the Omlettry Restaurant. It’s just a matter of time before the quaint little bakeries and pet supply stores along Burnet will be scheduled for the bulldozers. And the price of new housing and property taxes for existing residents will take off like a rocket.

With a new grass roots City Council set to take office in early January, it will be time for the folks in North Central Austin to stand up and be counted. What kind of improvements would they themselves like to see in their neighborhoods? Are their ideas the same as those devised by the expensive national consultants? If not, then the new City Council will have an early opportunity to recalibrate the purpose and the mission for Austin. What are our values? Do we just exist as a ripe fertile hunting ground for local and out of state developers? Or will the people who already live here be granted the chance to directly shape their own futures?

All of us will need to stay vigilant and wide awake, at least long enough to find out if some our neighborhoods can still be saved.