Affordable Neighborhoods – Be Careful of “Expert” Advice

Neighborhood Affordability? Simple, really. All we need to do is to look to common sense, doing what’s right and what has already worked – forget the “experts”, and forget trying to find the solution in other cities that are failing to solve the problem.

I recently attended two separate widely covered and well-attended meetings relating to CodeNEXT, affordability and economic segregation. These consisted of presentations and panel discussions from and among 8 so-called “experts”. In both meetings I heard about how Austin should be following the lead of places like Portland, Oregon and Denver, Colorado in order to solve our affordability crisis.

What the “experts” didn’t volunteer to their audiences, however, is what you can discover with a simple 1-minute Google search of those cities: Denver’s out-of-control prices, from 2010 to 2017, increased at a rate 20% faster than our own, and Portland’s home prices as of the end of 2015 were escalating at the highest rate in the country – 11.1% per year. Both cities now sport a median home price that is higher than Austin’s.

Why do “experts” keep suggesting that we replicate what has not worked?

It’s simple. We don’t have the political will to do the only thing that does work – what has already worked in the past right here in Austin – putting moderate density in our neighborhoods, mainly small and medium sized apartment buildings. That’s what we were doing in the 1960’s through the early 1980’s. And for the most part, no one complained. And by the late 1980’s Austin had become, according to HUD, one of the most affordable cities in America, and was making progess on the affordability front faster than any other city!

And then something changed. It wasn’t an external event. It wasn’t “the invasion of the Californians”. It wasn’t that Austin began growing faster – our growth rate has been remarkably consistent going all the way back to 1839. What changed was that an idea began to take hold in Austin – that we should “protect our neighborhoods” – protect them from multifamily (aka affordable) housing, with what should have been predictable results. A 2009 survey of small and medium apartment buildings conducted by the city of Austin showed that by 2008 a full 79% of such buildings had been built before 1980. The protectionists’ efforts in recent decades at restricting such housing in our neighborhoods had clearly been largely successful.

You see, common sense dictates that a city that insists its neighborhoods be dominated by unaffordable, single family detached housing, cannot at the same time insist on affordable neighborhoods. Such a position is irrational, even to a child. And yet we clung to the fantasy for decades, knowing somewhere deep down that it was in fact fantasy.

A few years ago, in a massive public engagement process that produced a new comprehensive plan, we finally acknowledged the fantasy and agreed we would once again allow and encourage density, and consequently affordability, in our neighborhoods:

“Economically mixed and diverse neighborhoods across all parts of the city have a range of affordable housing options.” (Imagine Austin vision, p. 84)

Now, almost 5 years after adoption of our new vision of density and affordability, some have reverted to fantasy. Others, including our mayor, have decided that, when faced with the decision between protectionism and affordability, we should favor protectionism. From his 2017 “State of the City” address:

“For starters, let’s agree we will not force density in the middle of neighborhoods. There’s no sense in shoving density where it would ruin the character of the city we’re trying to save in the first place . . . “

That is the wrong choice. It is wrong for affordable neighborhoods. It is the wrong thing to do in any American city, and it is certainly the wrong thing to do in Austin. It is a major reason we have become the most geographically segregated city in America in terms of wealth and income. We as a community, and we as individual neighborhoods, and as individual residents of those neighborhoods, did just fine back when we allowed moderate density in our neighborhoods, and we will be just fine in the future, if we’ll stop fighting and complaining about a more urban type of housing supply, go back and do what worked, do what’s right, do what allows all of us – not just the often blamed “creative class” – to share and enjoy Austin’s neighborhoods as we inevitably transform into a big city needing big city forms of housing.

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