An open letter to those advocating for “neighborhood preservation”

Austin is currently engaged in a hugely important internal debate. In the media that debate is often characterized as “neighborhood preservationists” vs “density advocates”. If forced to choose one of those two labels, it would be “density advocate”. I don’t believe these are the most appropriate labels for the factions, but that’s a discussion for another day.

This open letter asks a basic question of the opposing faction: what are you really fighting for?

The response is virtually always some version of “preservation of neighborhood character”. But what does that mean in real life to real people? (those who don’t care what it means to real people in the real world, and only want to talk about what it means to them in some academically focused fantasy world, don’t deserve to be involved in any serious policy debate about the future of Austin – I’ll address those folks in a future article; for now, I’d like to address those people who are serious minded residents who understand that we have to live in the real world, with all of its challenges, constraints and hard choices).

As I began arguing more than four years ago, “preservation of neighborhood character”, for virtually everyone who uses that phrase, means preserving the single-family character of a given neighborhood, particularly in the established neighborhoods of central Austin. My 2013 article on the subject is found here. (See page 5 – “Affordability in Austin”)

If accurate, that begs the question: what are the real world results of keeping our central Austin single-family neighborhoods predominantly single-family? After all, that’s what the mayor’s “Austin bargain” advocates for, and that’s what the new proposed development code, so far, is designed to accomplish. So “real world results” of that policy would seem to be the highest priority question we should be asking ourselves and should be asking one another. Unfortunately, that’s the question that some parts of the community want to avoid dealing with at all costs.

Why? Because the answer to the question makes them very, very uncomfortable. And well it should. Because the answer is the following: (1) very expensive homes and therefore very expensive neighborhoods; (2) very high, and continually rising, property taxes; (3) continued high levels of income and wealth segregation, and the associated levels of racial discrimination that result from such segregation; and (4) the continued deterioration of fairness and inclusion in a city that used to pride itself on being fair and inclusive.

It’s time to deal with the question. It’s time to deal with the real world consequences of our actions.

Frank Harren

June 2017



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