Austin at Large: Location, Location, Dislocation
Decent housing for all Austinites “where it’s needed.” Where might that be?
I, too, fled the state last week, but I'm back and COVID-free and ready to keep our convo moving about how to reach the Big Goal up above – decent housing, for all (equity lens!) 1 million Austinites and 1.1 million in our suburbs (and counting), "where it's needed." That last part is hard, isn't it?
It's tempting to say decent housing for all is needed everywhere but that is not quite so. We need it in lots of places, and a lot more of it than we have. Those are just facts, made harder to fudge by our insane growth rate. The assumptions of prior plans and policies and strategies and decisions, even ones from only a few years ago, have been lapped by real life.
But thinking and saying housing is needed everywhere has made a path to many decisions Austin, and Texas, and America have come to regret. It brought us truly mindless sprawl on random pastures throughout the hinterlands, which then forced cities and counties and states to build out roads and water systems and other expensive things that are hard to maintain.
That's a simple economic choice that proved to be short-sighted. The crises of gentrification and displacement are more complex, as are their mirror images, exclusion and NIMBY backlash. These have cultural and moral dimensions that we need to own up to. It's not really a coincidence that the key legal term in land use, over which our donnybrooks are fought, is "entitlement." We have spent a long time fighting for and against things emotionally, over what we think we should be entitled to, by right – to build what we want, or to keep others from building what we don't want – because the concept of home is not reducible to a pro forma or a code.
We can afford to dial those emotions down a bit. It is not a global moral failure to not want to live among more people than one does now, and it is not a defeat or sign of weakness to live outside Austin's overvalued Weird Zone because you want or need your life to include things other than making money to pay rent. Trying to force housing everywhere into tight places where it scares people is not a step toward sainthood. We have lots of other options.
Known Flaws In the System
The latest HousingWorks Austin overview of the affordable housing options in each Council district, always a valuable resource, would seem to argue against me here. Two-thirds of all affordable units in the city are in four of the 10 Council districts; nearly a quarter are in District 1, where I live. Districts 6 and 8, the most suburban districts, have less than 5% combined. Such inequities! Doesn't that mean we should build housing everywhere? Isn't HousingWorks' own statement of purpose, "all kinds of homes in all parts of town for all kinds of people," a more compelling one than "decent housing for all where it's needed," with the latter implying some sort of rationing, limiting of choice, telling folks to suck it up and move to the suburbs, where they need but don't want to live?
To be clear, I don't think there's that much daylight between me and my friends and colleagues at HousingWorks. But two things. One, trying to do everything for everyone everywhere – that is, not making real choices – is a known flaw in the Austin operating system. It's how we got a comprehensive plan that is really an unprioritized to-do list, and how our efforts to debug the 40-year-old Austin Land Development Code ended up with a product that's more complex and fragile than the original. We can only be so resentful of the Weird activists and angry property owners, and their allies on Council, who for now have put the whole thing on ice. We also need to think about this stuff differently, more judiciously but also more purposefully, more about what can happen and less about what we think should. Humility is good, and things can and do change.
In fact – and this is the second thing – we can change where housing is needed by committing to a vision of the city and region we want to live in and then building it out. We are doing that with Project Connect, or hope to. Should it realize the ambitions that many of us have vested in a modern transit system, it will open up a fourth dimension in Austin's housing landscape, a place where thousands of people will live where basically nobody is living now. Our deliberate effort to spend the money it takes to avert displacement along the lines is worthy and needed, but it shouldn't distort our view of the scale of what's happening here; we have a lot of room to grow, by redeveloping a lot of property that's being used poorly.
You know who else has figured this out? The suburbs! Quite a few communities around Austin have their act together on housing, planning, and placemaking, more than we often do here in the sophisticated city. They've seen their neighboring communities (including Austin!) make terrible choices and are determined not to repeat them. (Ask people in Georgetown or Taylor what they think of Round Rock and Hutto.)
Or they see their own missed opportunities and can mobilize to jump on them, as Cedar Park is doing now by redeveloping the core of Bell Boulevard, its old main street – and also U.S. 183 – which broke down so badly in the 1990s that people gladly embraced a tolled bypass, and then languished as the rest of town blew up. Now they're fixing it, with "placemaking" as a key goal. It will be a place where housing is needed. There are scores, maybe hundreds, of locations like it where places can be made, some that we've known about for years, some that we haven't even discovered yet. Let's find them.