Opinion: Time to Look in the Mirror on Housing
Builder David Whitworth asks, is protecting single family zoning a Republican or Democrat issue?
How did the familiar Austin Democratic talking point about protecting single family areas end up front and center at the Republican National Convention?
Mark and Patricia McCloskey aimed guns at BLM protesters in their yard and that got them a speaking spot at the RNC (welcome to 2020). They then gave the same "save our neighborhoods" speech worthy of card carrying Democrats on Austin City Council like Kathie Tovo (my representative), Leslie Pool, and Alison Alter. The McCloskeys oppose more affordable housing options in traditional single family zoned neighborhoods. It is unmistakably familiar.
Two political parties can oppose the same thing, but that isn't the case here. The previous Obama administration supported housing options not allowed in single family zoning areas. The "Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing" initiative included simple proposals like denser housing and multi-family, removing parking minimums, and more "by-right" permitting (administrative approvals not the 2am gladiator hearings path to approval). Trump proudly ended this Obama-era initiative saying he would protect the suburbs. If it sounds uglier and more dog-whistle-like coming from Trump than our council members, it is the same position. In defense of our council members, they do support subsidized housing, although it is not unlike the affordable housing Trump's family became wealthy leasing. Where to put this subsidized housing has always been pretty touchy.
Your home is your largest savings investment vehicle made possible by federally backed mortgages. In a system without pensions, people protect this investment against all threats real or perceived. But it is the process of change not the housing itself that is at the root of this discomfort. A fear that it won't turn out well. That someone might move in and ruin things with their trash can. I have been an infill builder in Austin since 2004. I have to tell you, neighbors who vehemently oppose new houses in the beginning very often like them upon completion. After 16 years, each project feels like the movie Groundhog Day in that regard to me: fight, build, peace.
Austinites pay to go on vacations to enjoy cities based on the housing we fight at home. The kind of denser row housing and tri-flats and city blocks of housing of Chicago and Paris that support neighborhood cafes and transit.
Everyone would be fine if we stopped crushing the generations behind us with inflated housing costs and lack of options in Austin. Houston is an excellent example with abundant new central housing options after reducing their minimum lot size 20 years ago. Home values did not plummet, but the new housing products are much more affordable than Austin.
Planning Commissioners Conor Kenny and Fayez Kazi are stepping down after years advocating for more affordable housing products in the failed Land Development Code rewrite. They will be starting a new firm that develops affordable housing using subsidies, grants, and density bonuses similar to Habitat for Humanity.
Kenny, Greg Casar's appointee, gave eloquent parting words at the Aug. 25 Planning Commission meeting. Kenny, who grew up in Austin on 37th Street in a house now worth $750k and surrounded by "CodeNext Wrecks Austin" signs, said, "If the kids who grew up in a neighborhood can't afford to live there, is that wrecking Austin any less than a lower-price fourplex on the street might? Are we preserving Austin for the buildings or for the people?"
The McCloskeys, Pool, Tovo, and Alter are clearly opposed to that four-plex that might serve as a relief valve in areas becoming strictly affluent. It is scary how people on vastly different ends of the political spectrum agree there isn't any room for returning children starting out in life, or older people being able to downsize, or workers in education, public safety, and the service industry being able to live close to work. It is almost as if everyone from the left to the right is comfortable saying "Go somewhere else."
David Whitworth is a small infill builder in Central Austin. He lives with his family in Hyde Park. The Chronicle welcomes submissions of opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Find guidelines and tips at austinchronicle.com/contact/opinion.