Affordability – Just do what’s right and do what works

Let’s do what’s right and what works
when it comes to affordable neighborhoods

Austin neighborhoods used to be affordable. We used to routinely put fairly dense, affordable forms of housing (mostly small and medium sized apartment buildings) into our neighborhoods, and for the most part, no one complained. And by the late 1980’s Austin was declared by HUD to be THE MOST AFFORDABLE CITY IN AMERICA.

Then in April of 1973 the Austin Neighborhoods Council (ANC) was created, whose primary mission was and is to keep apartments (and condominiums) OUT of our neighborhoods, with the predictable result that today, in terms of wealth and income segregation, we are THE MOST SEGREGATED CITY IN AMERICA. A 2009 survey of small and medium apartment buildings conducted by the city showed that by 2008 a full 79% of such buildings had been built before 1980. ANC’s efforts at restricting such housing had been largely successful.

So how did we fall so fast and so far as an affordable city, and what are we going to do about it?

The Imagine Austin comprehensive plan, adopted unanimously on June 14, 2012, says clearly and unapologetically that we are going to reject sprawl and get back to densifying our neighborhoods, making them once again affordable to the majority of our citizens.

But now, less than 5 years later, we have a mayor and some council members who are telling the community that they reject, and that we the citizens should reject, the idea of making our neighborhoods affordable again. And they are implying publicly that those of us who want affordable neighborhoods and refuse to join them in their abandonment of Imagine Austin’s affordable neighborhoods goals, are being obstructionists.

A consensus is quickly forming among those who have studied it that the long-awaited new development code is nothing more than a political escape hatch for a council that doesn’t want to face the affordability challenge. The code was supposed to be the primary instrument by which we would return to a policy of allowing and encouraging more density, and therefore more affordability, in the neighborhoods, but now the mayor and others are saying they never even asked the staff and consultants to implement that change – that the new code was never intended to be much more than a translation of the old code into new terminology.

And to add insult to injury, the council decided at some point to rezone the city in a way that would only accommodate ten years of growth instead of thirty; that’s all they figure they could do without alienating the ANC crowd. So what happens in 10 years? (or more accurately, about 7 years, since we will have to allow at least 3 years to rezone the city again – by comparison, the current rezoning process will have taken 6 years to accomplish). One thing we know for sure is that the current council will be term-limited, out of office, and will have pushed the problem of solving the affordability crisis on to a future council, who will face an even more daunting set of conditions on the affordability front. Not the least of those daunting conditions will be that all redevelopment that occurs the next 10 years will be at a density that is insufficient to meet the 30 year housing demand, and every redeveloped tract will be unavailable for the next 50+ years (in the real world, you don’t tear down 5 year old buildings).

We should all expect far more from ALL, not just a few, of our elected officials.

What gives them the right to ignore the 3-year public input process (and the thousands of citizens who participated in that process) that created Imagine Austin? What gives any of them the right to ignore a legally binding comprehensive plan that prioritizes affordability, social equity and reduction of sprawl, and replace that plan with their own preference for neighborhood unaffordability, economic discrimination and continued sprawl?

Those questions and others must be asked over the next few weeks and months, and clear and specific answers must be demanded, both by those council members who genuinely support affordability and inclusion in our neighborhoods and by the general public.

We must demand a 30 year rezoning, with enough capacity to accommodate 30 years of growth, and we must do so with a meaningful rebalancing of the types and price points of housing such that we can, in the words of Imagine Austin, “become a beacon of social equity” and simultaneously “create and maintain affordability throughout the city”. No other large American city has yet been brave enough to do what is necessary to achieve either objective. It’s time that Austin becomes the first to achieve both.

As I said in my July 2013 newsletter regarding Imagine Austin and the proposed new development code:

“Austin’s historic and distinctive character used to be that it was eclectic, diverse, affordable and well, you know, “Keep Austin __________” (you fill in the blank). The folks who keep advocating for the preservation of “neighborhood character” have actually accomplished the reverse – they have effectively forced us as a community to become less eclectic, less diverse, less affordable and yes, anything but weird. We have regulated ourselves into becoming, more and more, a city where only the well-to-do can afford to live. And by and large, the well-to-do are the antithesis of what Austin used to represent. Instead of preserving “neighborhood character”, we should be preserving Austin’s soul. With the revamping of the LDC, we have an opportunity to save our collective soul, if we’ll just decide to do so.”

Frank Harren
April 26, 2017

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