Point Austin: What History Teaches

There are different ways of counting social costs

Point Austin
What's the value of a human life?

It depends on who's doing the counting. The U.S. government has deemed the life of a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan to be worth roughly $30 million a year, the cost of keeping him or her there beyond eight years and all the bounds of reason. Simultaneously, Congress is straining mightily to provide the wherewithal to reform health care, thereby demonstrating how much it values the lives of the officially estimated 20,000 or more Americans who die each year for lack of health insurance. The accountants say reform will actually save money over the long term, and the politicians are more precisely balking over the notion that health care – like supermax prisons and war-making – is a fundamental expectation of government. Better we all pass away silently rather than raise the stakes of community standards.

Another federal estimate of the value of human life was provided last week in Austin, when the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed fines totaling $159,600 in the June 10 deaths of three construction workers due to the negligence of their employers. At $54,000 a man – certainly quite a bit more than Raudel Ramirez Camacho, Wilson Joel Irias Cerritos, or Jesus Angel Lopez Perez ever earned annually in the course of their brief lives – it might make a fleeting impression on the four contractors involved in the 21 Rio high-rise construction project. Split four ways, it's less of a bite, although the workers' direct employer, Capo­era Con­struc­tion, appears to have left town without a forwarding address. The other three are entering into negotiations with OSHA, so who knows whether their proportionate fines ($123,200) will ever come due.

Perhaps the civil lawsuit filed by the families of the three men will better focus the attention of the companies on the safety of their employees.

The Rich Get Richer

There are other ways to calculate the worth of a life. In a revealing coincidence, the day following a memorial for the three workers (see "The View From 21 Rio"), City Council approved roughly $380,000 in tax breaks for two dozen West Austin homes, under the terms of the "historic zoning" ordinance. Because of notable architectural features and once locally prominent occupants, the current owners are being given sizable annual abatements, from approximately $8,000 to $44,000, for homes appraised from $670,000 to $3.5 million. Because of various caps, the precise numbers are uncertain, but those are annual deductions from the owners' property tax bills, in return for maintaining the basic structural character of the houses – on the theory, I guess, that the rest of us can drive by those houses, wax nostalgic about the Austin that once was, and feel a brief, delusional pride of ownership.

Reading through the zoning cases, one could indeed learn quite a bit of local history. Some of the houses are architecturally significant, others unremarkable. Among the notable occupants were saddlemakers, store owners (e.g., the Scarbroughs), judges, professors, journalists (even hacks like me can be historic), and at least one convicted murderer – John Brady, a former judge who pleaded alcoholism from Prohibition hooch after killing his mistress; he served two years, then lived out his life at 1601 Pearl. Singer/songwriter Carole King briefly rented the same house from a subsequent owner, so the Brady House, has undeniably been visited by "history."

Is it tax-abatable history? I find it hard to dispute the conclusion of local political consultant Alfred Stanley, who told the States­man's Sarah Coppola, "We're elevating the upper middle class of three generations ago to cult status." Moreover, it's the current owners (and their successors) cashing in on all that "history" – for having lived in historic houses, are they now also officially historic?

Thursday's zoning vote did raise some council eyebrows, because there were so many historic houses in this one year-end swoop. Overall since 1972, reported Coppola, more than 500 houses have already been granted similar landmark status, at an impressive cost of roughly $4 million annually to the rest of us. (That includes city, county, school, and community college taxes; there are caps limiting some of that, and the city's historic zoning officer, Steve Sadowsky, believes that the Statesman estimate is "a little high.")

I don't mind at all springing for a plaque or two to honor local luminaries, but I have to presume that these homeowners bought their fancy houses in their exclusive neighborhoods with the expectation that they would be paying property taxes on the assessed value, like everybody else. Turns out that, unlike death, taxes are no longer certain on the West side; you can be rewarded for your previous good fortune by going down to City Hall and requesting more of the same.

In Memoriam

With every abatement like these, city services from public safety to street maintenance take a hit, as do the county and the community college. But the biggest losers by percentage are the public schools, under state law mostly dependent on property taxes. If we're going to ask schoolchildren to subsidize wealthy homeowners, we ought at least to do it right. Let's match one of our underfunded schools to each historic home and have an annual Tax Abatement Day in the auditorium, when the kids can hand over one of those oversized checks to the designated homeowner. That way, the students can learn firsthand what history teaches – that some of us matter more than others, and the notorious "redistribution of wealth" is a welfare system that works mostly from bottom to top.

One other thing. When it's not awarding historical zoning status to wealthy landowners, perhaps City Council can take a moment to consider the historical contribution to Austin of Raudel Ramirez Camacho, Wilson Joel Irias Cerritos, and Jesus Angel Lopez Perez. They weren't here very long, and it's unlikely their homes would meet the stringent standards of the Historic Land­mark Commission.

But these three men undeniably gave their lives to Austin's architectural history and to the apartment tower now claiming to be "the envy of every luxury residence" in Central Austin. Perhaps a small historical marker in their memory on Rio Grande Street, where they fell to their deaths, wouldn't be too much to ask. It would comfort their bereaved families just a bit, and it might serve to remind a few other Austinites of the notable lives so often ignored by official historians. The residents at 21 Rio, and the rest of us, should occasionally bring to mind the actual human cost of building a city.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Occupational Safety and Health Administration, historic zoning, 21 Rio, Steve Sadowsky, Historical Landmark Commission

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