A Call to Action on Affordable Housing
The Rev. Joseph C. Parker, pastor of David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, said myriad impediments to the American dream were rapidly degrading it into a nightmare. He pointed to statements on banners lining the walls as evidence "54% of Austin renters pay too much for rent," from an Austin community survey, and "Austinites in minority neighborhoods were likely to pay higher rates for home loans," from the Austin Business Journal, were a couple of examples. Rising housing costs drive citizens away from the inner city, weakening families and communities, increasing traffic congestion and pollution, and preventing businesses from retaining employees. Yet compared to coverage of gas and health care costs, these ills seem strangely invisible, Parker said. He called for the creation of an "Austin dream team," a coordinated effort between entrepreneurs and outreach groups to solve Austin's growing housing problem.
Parker's ideas were made concrete by Michael Oden, associate professor at UT's Community & Regional Planning Program. "As we grew we created lots of high-wage jobs, but we also created lots of low-wage jobs," he said, noting that as median income grew in Austin's silicon heyday, median housing costs grew even faster. Since the bubble burst in 2000, rent costs have fallen, yet incomes fell faster (14% between 2000-2003), Oden said. "We don't feel any better. In fact, we feel a little worse." In 2003, about 53% of residents spent more than 30% of their income on rent; spending more than 30% on rent puts an individual in danger of financial insolvency, forcing him or her to squeeze other parts of their budget," Oden said. This squeeze leads to further gentrification of current low-income neighborhoods, further marginalizes former residents who have been pushed to Austin's outskirts, and elbows artists, musicians, and others of Austin's "creative class," out of once-affordable neighborhoods. He called for mixed-use "densification" of the central city as the solution to the financial squeeze problem. "The benefits of prudent additional investment in affordable housing will far outweigh the cost of status quo policies."
Diana McIver followed Oden, delving into the financial intricacies of affordable housing. A combination of the right loans, tax credits, and grants can create affordable housing opportunities, she said. For example, she said, under a 7% interest, 30-year loan, a landlord has to charge about $850 rent for a two-bedroom property in order to cover the costs. But through a combination of low-interest loans, tax credit programs for investors, and grants, the same landlord can afford to charge about half that amount.
Like many other speakers, McIver called for the business, arts, charitable, and religious communities to lend a hand in creating affordable housing in the city before it's too late. "It's not the buildings," she said. "The buildings are a conduit, a platform, a stage. It's about the people."