Austin at Large: The Rules No Longer Apply
Create decent housing for all Austinites (1 million and counting). Is it really so hard?
You know what would be great? It would be great if everyone in Austin – all 1 million of us and counting – could afford and find decent housing near to all the places they need to be. Is that really such a f*cking impossible goal?
Y'all, I have been living in and writing about Austin for 33 years now. Am I shocked that we are literally the fastest-growing major city in America? No, I am not shocked. The metro area grew by 30% in the last decade. Home sales prices in the metro area jumped by 30% in the last year. The post-COVID rebound is sharp, folks, as everybody lets their pent-up demand for a piece of the Austin brand run wild. But it's not new at all.
This city's inability, for all the 33 years I have lived here, to get its sh*t in order and respond to that growth by all coming together to create decent housing for everyone, where they need it, has gone beyond a "weakness." It has become a crime, an inexcusable injustice. Because of course we can do it. Some of those pouring money into Central Texas are betting we can't, speculating on our ineptitude. But most of our newcomers really want us to succeed in ways that California, my home state, has failed as it realizes way too late the limits of its sustainability. We don't have that excuse. We're just screwing up.
Here, Let Me Go First
And I mean we all are screwing up and need to all admit it, forgive ourselves and each other, and go from there. I'll start with my own squad, the urbanists, who have always said we need housing for everyone. We've allowed this basic, primal question of justice and human rights to become an esoteric debate about "placemaking" and "compact and connected" and what the code should say. We thought – me too! – that having the right code would make all the difference.
By making this about code, we've excluded hundreds of thousands of people who deeply care about having a decent place to live where they need to. Instead, we've made it about the levers of regulation, and thus about the power to regulate the lives of others and the money to influence how that is done, and thus become another special interest group. And we haven't even made that work; attempts to organize an urbanist political movement have been fitful and weak, and attempts to organize a community movement have been next to nonexistent.
There are thankfully people now, who were not at this table before, who get that last part; they are also activists on a whole range of justice fronts. They cannot be faulted for thinking that saving the lives of people exposed to state violence and systemic oppression is a more urgent use of their time than building a community consensus that was supposedly achieved a decade ago (when Austin adopted its "comprehensive" plan) or longer. I can only wonder, though, if decent housing for everyone where they need it is the best way to save lives and communities in Austin, a root cause that, our haplessness aside, we know how to fix.
Break Glass in Emergency
Now, let's cross the street to talk to some NIMBYs. Folks, we know. Be ashamed, be not ashamed, I don't care, but stop pretending like we haven't heard you. People like you live everywhere, certainly everywhere that shares brand attributes with Austin. It's human nature; everybody will go NIMBY if they feel the need. I have.
What is a problem is the time we've wasted centering a few neurotic neighborhoods in every land use and mobility debate for decades. As we've done that, vast expanses of Central Texas have been built up and used up and are starting to be abandoned. Look at any commercial corridor in our first-ring suburban neighborhoods, from Ben White and far South Congress to the fringes of Wells Branch and Round Rock. Look how much space is wasted on concrete where nobody lives and few people work, on transit lines even! Look how much of it has lingered way past its design life. Yet we have no plan to turn those places into housing – not just a land use plan, but a strategy to rezone, acquire property, provide incentives, collaborate with communities, shape the future.
Instead, we've agonized over the tiny pieces of the city where a few high-energy neighbors enjoy routinely going to the mattresses. Fine. We can lock those down under glass, only to be broken in emergencies. In return, let's abandon aged, obsolete rhetoric about developers and outsiders and threats to our "character" and "values." Creating decent housing for everyone where it needs to be is a community value, and should be a measure of our character. We can do better than mindlessly eating up the prairie till we hit Waco.
Our leaders and experts – elected officials and government agencies, the financial institutions, the major employers, the big nonprofits and "eds and meds" economy drivers – can assist in this task, but we need to guide them out of elite Austin's fog of learned helplessness. It's become a truism that Austin is difficult to build and work in by design, and that it's probably for the best; it makes it easy for people to fail to rise to the actual challenge that lies before us. But nothing ever just happens. Austin's thorny, sweaty, sticky inability to get a grip, its valorization of making things difficult and falling short, its insistence that things are just not the same here as in normal boring cities – all this is a choice. And why is it a choice that we feel the need or right to make? What trauma have we suffered that explains our failure to see how to do the right thing? What is stopping us now? It's only going to get worse.