Austin at Large: And Our House Is Your House
What did you do today to provide decent housing where it's needed for everyone?
I'm going to pick up this week right where we left off last week: On housing, Austin and Central Texas are failing across the board. We gotta regroup.
We have a lot of burdens and obstacles to unpack and dismantle before we can meet our moral obligation to provide decent housing where it's needed for all of Austin. The last 15 years or so – that is, about 250,000 Austinites and nearly 1 million Central Texans ago – saw a political realignment in our communities that has fractured the technocratic consensus we'd arrived at to manage our growth. Some folks still aren't down with that, but what can you do? We're moving on now.
It's important to get going on this work so that it can shape next year's elections, not just for a new mayor and half of the City Council, but also in the suburban city halls and county courthouses, and for our post-redistricting members of the Legislature and Congress, and for our school boards. All those contests should at least partly be about how America's fastest growing metro area is going to avoid running into the limits of its sustainability and turning into California. And that conversation starts with housing.
No Growth? That's Not Cute
My call here, in case it's not clear, is for that conversation to start afresh and anew, just as we tried and are still trying to have new conversations about public safety, which would themselves be easier if we got our act together on housing. As has happened with police violence and climate action, and is happening right now in Texas over reproductive rights, the big shifts in what constitutes "centrist" opinion between older and newer Austinites need to be reflected in the commitments we make to provide each other with shelter. There are enough people in Austin who cannot live where they need to that it has become a problem for us all; insisting that people just shouldn't move here, or should move somewhere else, is not cute.
The May election – this year, less than five months ago, but it feels like longer – at which Austinites reinstated the city's ban on public camping, showed how exhausting our housing struggle is, from both directions. The city's spent $150 million or so on ending homelessness in the last two years, but outputs are not as good as outcomes, and the latter still seem meager. But we don't know! How much should it cost us? Maybe we should just agree to help the poor rather than fix them? At the same time, the Save Austin Now initiative that allowed folks to blow off steam about All The Homeless People, and flex their class and race muscles in ways that are also not cute, has changed very little on the ground, because there is nowhere else for people who have been camping to go.
Everyone's mad at everyone else because proceeding from our unsatisfactory status quo – doing more of what we're doing, with more money, whether that's building supportive housing units or sweeping unwanted encampments from public spaces – continues to feel unsatisfactory, just like widening I-35 to briefly and marginally improve travel times does. How do we rethink, reinvent, reimagine, reconnect, or whatever fun "re-" word you please, the way we provide homes for Austinites at every point of the housing continuum?
It's What Defines Our Brand
There are as many pragmatic ways of answering that question as there are people producing housing in Central Texas, but again, this is no longer a technocratic challenge but a political one. We actually have very good technocratic approaches, in both the public and private sectors, in Austin and in the outlying cities and counties, to meet the needs of those who can pay market rates and of those who can't. Our housing producers and real estate experts and community planners are smart. It's the lack of decent civic infrastructure – the tools for communities to decide on collective action and to wield power – that has led a lot of very good technocratic approaches to struggle and to fail.
That's why I keep talking about the need for a literal commitment, out of moral obligation, to provide decent housing where it's needed for every Central Texan. If we don't believe that this is something we need to do, rather than something that simply happens, we will never get on top of this. If we did believe it, then we could authentically agree that it's good for true stakeholders to play a part and share their wisdom in land-use discussions about the properties around them, while also agreeing that the need to produce housing takes precedence over NIMBY bullshit and is itself the most useful tool to address gentrification.
When I was a consultant and we'd talk to clients about their brands, we'd tell kinda shopworn stories about Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher and his commitment to running "the low-cost airline." Every Southwest brand quirk – the peanuts, the non-assigned seating, the use of exactly one model of aircraft – is an answer to the question, "How can we be the low-cost airline?" That's how I want Austin to think about housing – how does this decision, this investment, this regulatory approach, this political posture, this public outcry, provide decent housing where it's needed for every Central Texan? And if anybody's response is, "So what? That's not my problem," I want to know: Why not?