Inequity by design: What do we mean when we say “we need more housing”?

Morgan Witt Uncategorized

“Austin has recognized the fact that the building of a modern, efficient city is more than a mere accident and that the best advantages are available only when a good city plan has been adopted, and a program provided which will suggest certain re-adjustments and the co-ordination of the future improvements.” (A City Plan for Austin, Texas, 1928, pg. 6)

As kids, we’re presented with a common narrative: the middle class American dream. Go to school, graduate from college, get a good job, settle down and buy a house. Simply put, if you work hard, you can lead a comfortable life. But does that narrative hold true anymore?

In 1985 my parents got lucky. The US was in a housing slump, homes were affordable. Austin’s new land use code (we’ll revisit later) was only implemented the year prior. A nurse and an IBM support tech, they achieved the middle class American dream and bought a house in NW Austin for $99k. Just like my parents, I grew up hoping one day I too would have a house of my own. 

Fast forward 35-ish years: I went on to earn three degrees and made a successful career. Yet as a single, educated white woman with privilege, I still can’t afford to buy the childhood home I grew up in. The truth is that the American dream I was sold is merely that — a dream. The same work hard and can-do attitude that got my parents a home is now for some barely enough to make it. The name of the game is “luck”, and even that’s growing scarce. I didn’t get lucky, and if you didn’t already, chances are, neither will you. For ever increasing numbers of Austinites today, luck has run out. We must ask — why is something so fundamental to the American dream as buying a home based on luck, not hard work? Don’t we all deserve a chance? How can we fix it? Well, let’s start with how we got here.

How did we get here? By design.

There just isn’t enough housing in Austin to meet the demands of our growing city — and much of what we are building is high-end luxury housing, inaccessible to most buyers. At this rate, we’ll never catch up. Why? Well, there are many reasons. But the way we’re growing isn’t normal and we shouldn’t accept that this is just what happens as a city expands. 

“It is our recommendation that the nearest approach to the solution of the race segregation problem will be the recommendation of [a separate] district as a negro district… as an incentive to draw the negro population to this area.” Let’s go all the way back to 1928, when Austin implemented a city plan and land use policy specifically intended to segregate communities and exclude people of color from home ownership. They did this directly with relocation programs, redlining, and deed restrictions — and indirectly, by imposing minimum lot sizes to price out lower income residents. We see lasting effects of these practices today in the way our city continues to be segregated.

“If we don’t build it, they won’t come.” The 80s saw a big tech boom in Austin that sent our population through the roof. This was met by fierce opposition from neighborhood orgs and environmental protectio groups looking to put an end to city development and turn away the people flocking here in droves. The 1984 land use code rewrite actually resulted in more restrictive zoning — it illegalized duplexes and apartments in virtually all neighborhoods and implemented strict “compatibility” requirements that limited the height of buildings. Did it work in curbing Austin’s growth? Well, no, we continue to attract tech companies, music gurus, and nature enthusiasts alike — yet we refuse to build for them. Despite these restrictions, our population continues to explode but we haven’t updated our land use code since 1984. 

“Drive ‘til you qualify!” The other reason is our “drive ‘til you qualify” mentality. We don’t feel a sense of urgency to change that land use code because there’s so much space to grow. As Texans we see those limitless horizons and think we can go on building forever. Can’t afford to live in Hyde Park? Keep driving out of the city until you can afford a home! 

What could possibly go wrong? Like exclusionary zoning practices, it’s simply not sustainable. When I say unsustainable I don’t just mean the environment — I literally mean we can’t keep building like this. It costs more money to keep up with roadway, emergency services, and public amenities infrastructure. It costs more in housing for homeowners and renters alike as we consistently fall short of building housing to meet demand. And worst of all, our most marginalized communities pay the price for it as they get pushed further away from transit, job opportunities, and essential community services. 

A hundred years ago these decisions affected communities of color. Now, the decisions made by our predecessors are negatively affecting all of us — by design.

“Okay but Morgan, it seems like City Council has known about this problem for a long time. Why haven’t they don’t anything about it?”

Because they’re fine with the way things are. At the RNC national convention in August, the St. Louis couple who aimed guns at protesters warned of single-family zoning being abolished, worried that low income housing will creep into the communities they fought so hard to preserve. We associate this mindset with political conservatives, but in reality it exists all across the spectrum. In fact liberals tend to couch this fear in more ‘palatable’ language to make it more appealing — but it’s the same mentality that’s directly led to and perpetuates Austin’s housing crisis. In other words, until we overcome our fear of multi-family development and change our approach, our housing crisis is here to stay. 

So, what do we hear/see from the current Austin City Council, D7 rep that alludes to a desire to maintain the status quo? A few examples:

So, where do we go from here? That depends on us.

The greatest irony of the “getting lucky” narrative is that my dad, now retired, wants to move back to Austin to be close to me, but he can’t afford to buy a house here. Austin’s reached a crossroads where even getting lucky is becoming a thing of the past. 

We can change course now and keep up with our city’s pace of change, or we can continue down the same path and turn into San Francisco — and the outcome of the 2020 City Council races may very well determine our fate. This decision is about much more than building more houses. It’s about choosing for ourselves — and for our entire community. For the present, and for generations to come. We have to tackle this problem in a comprehensive way that ensures future generations can buy into it and present generations can stay.

Changing course: A vision of success 

My vision of success is an Austin where people who work hard, like my parents did, are able to achieve the middle class American dream of buying a home. An Austin where people can “age in place” — an Austin where you can navigate different stages of your life in one district. Graduate, get a new job, start a family, get divorced, or retire. I envision a city where we live close to diverse transit options and schools and jobs and our favorite local businesses, and our most vulnerable communities aren’t displaced from their homes because of rising costs. 

Thing is, achieving my vision doesn’t mean eliminating single-family homes and building big commercial apartment towers. It simply means ending our housing shortage by easing zoning restrictions, diversifying housing options in all Austin neighborhoods, equitable city planning that mitigates gentrification, and streamlining our permitting process. 

Keeping the status quo: Austin, the second San Francisco

In a recent Austin Independent questionnaire, District 7 council member Leslie Pool opposed reducing minimum lot sizes. This is an example of leadership choosing to preserve a system designed to exclude. It calls into serious question her commitment not only to making Austin a better place to live, but also to systemic reform. You see, the current minimum lot size requirement was specifically designed, in the 1928 city plan, to keep lower income home buyers (see: people of color) out of Austin’s most desirable neighborhoods.

It’s now been 36 years since our last land use code update. If it worked, we wouldn’t have a housing crisis. So what happens if we continue down this same path? Well, we’re on track to become the next San Francisco.

San Francisco is well known for its iconic culture and booming tech industry, just like Austin. But it’s also suffering a severe housing shortage and notorious for not only huge income disparities, but rampant homelessness… just like Austin. Right now, Austin’s houses are valuing at a faster rate than San Francisco’s are. We look at the Bay area with abhorrence, but really it’s a looking glass into our near future. 

Concluding Thoughts

The funny thing about change is, it happens whether we want it to or not. We can’t control whether things change, because they will one way or another. We only have control over how they change. For decades now, Austin’s leaders have taken the bury-your-head-in-sand approach to responding to growth and we’re paying the price for it.

But there’s still hope, it’s not too late to turn things around. We can make Austin more affordable, for everyone, and we have to start now. The choices you make on the ballot this election season aren’t just for yourself — but for everyone in your community. Those same choices don’t just impact us now, but will determine whether the generations that come after us will be able to achieve the middle class American dream. 

So — are you okay with the way things are right now and what’s looming on the horizon? Or do you think it’s time for a change of course?