Point Austin: Prisoners of Success
The ever-elusive Austin determination to “manage growth”
In the spirit of Mayor Steve Adler's "Austin Everybody Chill Out Day," I'm going to set aside CodeNEXT for the moment, and just continue to watch my Twitter feed fill up with obsessive land-use contretemps. I know, Chill Out was Tuesday, but it's 4/20 today (Thursday), so it only seems right to try to stay mellow at least for the rest of the week.
In the meantime, I've been pondering a colloquy in last week's City Council meeting, among the dais and City Demographer Ryan Robinson, over the implications of the Strategic Housing Plan (which had just been demoted to a "Blueprint"). Robinson had been invited to explicate his memo to city management a few days earlier, in which he applauded the work underlying the SHP (or "SHB") but suggested it greatly overestimated the ability of the city to affect the local real estate market sufficiently to have a mitigating effect on prices (see "Public Notice: More and Cheaper Housing," April 14). "The vibrant housing market that exists within Austin operates at the metropolitan level and not at the municipal level," Robinson wrote, continuing, "The City of Austin's piece of the regional housing market will continue to diminish over time, following a trajectory much like that of the City's share of total regional population."
In brief, Robinson reiterated the plan's projected 34% regional growth (over 10 years), as compared to the in-city projection of 20% – and suggested that the latter number meant that the need for additional new housing units would be much lower than the 135,000 promoted in the plan – closer, in fact, to 80,000. The plan explicitly uses the higher number as a goal, and plenty of observers (some on Council) have suggested that it should be even higher, to be sufficient to exert a downward pressure on prices.
Robinson described that goal as potentially "fighting windmills" or even "Pollyannaish" – mostly, he said, because he believes the city simply doesn't have sufficient tools to influence the regional housing market. A major reason the Austin population is growing more slowly than the suburbs is the relative cost of housing – and to reverse that trend, Robinson wrote, would require "a level of population growth that would be demographically improbable to achieve."
What Goes Up, Stays Up
Robinson deferred somewhat to the housing experts in the room, but noted that the housing market tends to seek equilibrium – that is, if there are enough units available to lower occupancy and thus prices, private developers "throw the brakes on big time." He also expressed concern about too-rapid redevelopment of existing affordable housing stock, while noting that much of it persists from the Eighties recession – a fact that simultaneously reinforced and undermined his argument about oversupply: To bring back affordability, all Austin needs is another recession ....
That led to the conundrum that faces every attempt to soften urban housing prices (elsewhere as in Austin). "I want to see this city be the extremely successful place that we are," Robinson said. "But our housing is expensive because we are successful." He went on to say that no other city appears to have solved the problem, either. "Show me a vibrant city with a vibrant, healthy economy that doesn't have really expensive housing," he challenged Council. "I haven't seen that American city."
Getting From Here to There
At that point, the discussion became a bit circular. Mayor Adler responded that he didn't want to "admit defeat to gentrification," and challenged his colleagues: "If we're the first ones to do it, then let us be the first ones to do it," and to use every tool available to "preserve this community." District 2 Council Member Delia Garza compared the housing goal to that of "Vision Zero" – to reduce traffic fatalities to zero – perhaps unachievable, but the necessary aspiration.
In effect, they were arguing that if the city could achieve its housing goals, it would indirectly alter the regional population balance in a way that Robinson describes as "demographically improbable." Fewer Austinites would flee to the suburbs (or newcomers settle there) because they would be able to afford to live within, rather than without, the city.
And if not Plan A, then perhaps Plan B. Robinson noted that New York City's housing market is also intractable, but it possesses a great leveler that has thus far been beyond Austin's political reach. "New York City has got incredible levels of income differential, but it works," he said. "And it works because you can get on transit and it's the great leveling agent. ... I think we can mitigate this notion of housing differential across metropolitan space, but the only thing that really works, is the ability to get that mobility as part of it."
Austin has been kicking the mass transit can down the road literally for decades, and the notion that our body politic can muster sufficient regional political capital (and literal capital) to seriously address "metropolitan space" is a fond idea, indeed. Instead, we'd apparently rather spend years stuck in and arguing about traffic, remaining barely mobile and increasingly unequal prisoners of our own success.