Austin is experiencing a moment of anxiety and introspection unlike any I have seen since I came here 44 years ago. There is a sense that this place, much loved by its residents and envied by many outsiders, is headed in the wrong direction. While Austin’s economy is booming and people are choosing to move here in droves, the things that attract and retain people are being eroded at an alarming rate. The key problems are the skyrocketing cost of housing and diminishing racial, ethnic and economic diversity.
There have been many conferences, seminars, committees and commissions established to find the answer. Many people are hard at work helping with parts of the solution. Among these are nonprofits like Foundation Communities, CDCs like Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation, the revitalized Housing Authority of the City of Austin, the City of Austin’s Code Next rewrite (my thoughts on Code Next are here), planning studies, etc. Their contributions to answering this challenge are essential. Yet, the people I talk to say a systemic solution on a scale that will turn things around still eludes Austin.
I’ve decided to step back from specific initiatives to consider the elements of just such a systemic solution. I am not able nor do I think it appropriate to offer all the details that we need to put in place. But I have a proposal for a framework to begin to answer the question, “How can Austin build a diverse, affordable, fair and inclusive community?”
Austin must first understand that the solution to these problems will need a regional view – one that does not stop at the city limits. There is simply not enough land area in the city, and particularly not enough in the most desirable central city neighborhoods, to accommodate everyone who wants to live there. Yes, existing neighborhoods must change and embrace significant increases in density. But, density increases will have to be responsibly limited to avoid destroying the characteristics so sought after in these neighborhoods.
For those looking for single family homes with large backyards, the periphery of the city and surrounding towns offer the only large areas of undeveloped land to accommodate expansion of this housing type. In new regional single family home development we must build under policies that avoid repeating the exclusionary practices that have produced today’s problem. Alarmingly, Austin’s conversation is confined to the city itself. A regional conversation has not even begun. Austin must engage and respect its neighbors because we are all in this together.
What must change in existing neighborhoods is their extreme and accelerating economic, ethnic and racial homogeneity. Along with that change, the gentrification of historic lower-income neighborhoods of color has to be halted if we are to keep the precarious economic and racial integration still in place in a few areas. Therefore, growth in existing neighborhoods has to somehow primarily be focused to permit people of color and poor and working poor people to find and maintain homes there. Creating the tools to make this happen will be a big challenge and require great creativity.
Growth in existing neighborhoods has to permit people of color, poor and working poor people to find and maintain homes.
Economic diversity in many of Austin’s central city neighborhoods used to be fairly common. That diversity is now rapidly diminishing. Racial and ethnic diversity never really existed in our neighborhoods, or only existed temporarily as neighborhoods of color transitioned to white neighborhoods. Austin’s neighborhood gentrification has been produced not simply by market forces but first through City-supported racism and later through private economic exploitation abetted by City policies.
My point is that neighborhood economic diversity should not be as much of a political hard sell in Austin as elsewhere, because it was part of our recent history. Racial and ethnic diversity, however, will be more difficult to achieve. Both will need political leadership to reverse disastrous past City policies. More challengingly, a broad, popular articulation, embrace and prioritization of the civic value of economic and racial diversity must be built among a majority of Austin citizens. This will require effective political leadership.
A further complicating factor is that the tools necessary to achieve affordability and diversity are going to be opposed, and many will be taken away, by our radical right-leaning federal and state government – neither of which subscribe to most Austinites’ values of integration and diversity. Funding for housing and transportation will shrink. The Texas Legislature will continue to aggressively take away from Austin the local governmental powers necessary to meet these goals.
In spite of these impediments, now is a uniquely propitious time to undertake this task. Our citizens are energized as never before to save the things they love about Austin. We are politically organized and seeking ways to fight back against the actions of federal and state politicians who demean our values and work to take away our rights. As they resist federal and state politicians, local citizens will find local action to be an area where they can express and act on their positive values.
The values of several Austin neighborhood associations are in line with expanding their affordability and racial and ethnic diversity. Neighborhood association leaders can bring along their residents if doing so does not drive existing residents out of their homes, addresses their increasing housing costs and if the process enhances their quality of life. All of these things are achievable by, and I would argue are only possible through, embracing a new commitment to diversity and inclusion.
Austin’s existing neighborhoods are the place where the solution begins. We need to say to neighborhood associations: “You need to find some room in your neighborhood for affordable housing and for people of color.”
Austin’s existing neighborhoods are the place where the solution begins.
I differ from my well-meaning friends in the growing “urbanist” movement who advocate for “YIMBY” policies (or “Yes In My Backyard”). This libertarian vision proposes largely repealing land use and neighborhood protections in the belief that this will spur affordable housing production and fix the affordability problem. But I believe that this approach, closely akin to that espoused by many private homebuilders for decades, would devastate the things that make central city neighborhoods desirable to so many people.
On the surface YIMBY would seem to address integration by countering NIMBY. But the limited application of YIMBY to older neighborhoods does nothing to advance racial and ethnic diversity and integration outside the handful of older neighborhoods it would impact.
For evidence of YIMBY’s negative effects one need look no further than Houston. The neighborhoods of that city, which has no zoning and almost no land use regulation or neighborhood protection, suffers extreme levels of racial and economic segregation. Houston neighborhoods where low income people of color live have terrible environmental problems exacerbated by chronically low property values and incompatible land uses caused, in large part, by the lack of zoning. On the other hand, Houston’s white, wealthy neighborhoods isolate and restrict themselves and keep up their racial and economic homogeneity not through government policies but through private deed and subdivision restrictions that cannot be overturned.
Furthermore, the private market approach advocated by YIMBYs, seeking to flood the market with housing through land use deregulation, will not produce housing affordable to the poor. The economics will not work. We instead need a realistic solution for racial and economic inclusion.
I propose a different approach. Austin neighborhoods want protections from unaccountable and incompatible development. They should be given what they want, provided they take the responsibility to accommodate more affordable housing and embrace and work toward economic and racial diversity. If an Austin neighborhood association wants to take the responsibility for creating affordable housing, the City should give them the financial resources and the development tools to produce it. We should say to existing homeowners, “Under appropriate guidelines, ensuring fairness and inclusion in the targeting of future residents, you can design it and you can carry development out through a private developer or acting as a neighborhood CDC if you want.”
We would also say to neighborhood associations, “If you don’t want to bring affordable housing into your neighborhood or to work with a developer to do it, then we as the City will give those tools to the housing authority, nonprofit housing developers or, with the necessary controls, private developers who will take the initiative to make it happen.”
We’re talking here about sensitive and responsible new development in existing neighborhoods. We are also talking about a significant neighborhood-based commitment to expand affordability, end segregation and create diversity.
Some might say this is politically naïve, or that Austin neighborhood leaders will never agree. But there are Austin neighborhoods who are voluntarily doing it today because it is essential to the preservation of their neighborhood integrity and quality of life. Unsung national leaders that stand out are the Guadalupe, Blackshear, Blackland and Clarksville neighborhoods. Their neighborhood CDCs can show other neighborhoods how to embrace affordability and achieve integration and diversity. To do so they need more tools to confront displacement and the resources to finance more affordable housing.
Austin CDCs can show other neighborhoods how to embrace affordability, integration and diversity.
In addition to our neighborhood associations, Austin has, as a whole, the most capable leadership it has ever enjoyed on its city council and county commissioners court. Our elected officials will mostly support this effort. But it’s up to citizens to get the ball rolling.
The primary resource Austin has to solve these problems is the extraordinary number of creative people, many of them young, who live here. Economist Richard Florida has pointed out this unique Austin resource in his seminal work The Rise of the Creative Class. As Florida points out, maintaining economic and racial diversity is a value strongly embraced by the so-called creative class and is essential to retaining them in a city. Austin’s creativity is waiting to be tapped to take on this problem. It will require both local political leadership and a critical mass of folks stepping up to get started.
With our souls and the soul of our city at stake, I believe Austin citizens, supported by our elected leaders, need to get to work. I propose the first step is to lay the groundwork in the following areas:
AUSTIN’S AFFORDABILITY, RACIAL AND ECONOMIC DIVERSITY INITIATIVE
A. VALUES / CULTURE
Promote an understanding of Austin’s racial and economic legacy to achieve a political plurality for achieving racial or economic integration (Dr. King’s vision for a ‘Beloved Community’).
Some ideas for implementation:
- Public and secondary education.
- Infuse the issue into local political discussions.
- Engage business, civil rights and marketing communities.
B. CREATIVITY / LEADERSHIP
Make Austin the international knowledge and innovation center for urban affordability, inclusion and diversity.
Some ideas for implementation:
- Establish a Center for Urban Diversity, Affordability and Inclusion at the University of Texas, with an extension program working in Austin’s neighborhoods.
- Make Austin the nation’s laboratory for neighborhood and housing equity.
- Integrate students into neighborhoods to learn, teach and innovate.
- Train and build up neighborhood-based CDCs, developers, architects, planners and community leaders.
- Support neighborhoods beyond East Austin to become diverse through accommodating affordability in exchange for maintaining reasonable land use restrictions.
C. LAW / PRACTICES
Stand against racial and economic segregation and exploitation. (Start with the Four Rights presented below).
Some ideas for implementation:
- Promote and enforce fair housing laws.
- Confront regressive State policies like source of income opposition, anti-inclusionary zoning, rollbacks of density bonuses, etc.
- Integrate the real estate and apartment leasing agencies and promote pro-integrative housing choices.
D. RESOURCES / FUNDING
Create the institutions, financial resources and tools to carry out the work and to support affordability.
Some ideas for implementation:
- Fix the regressive residential property tax burden.
- Expand funding for housing bonds.
- Strategic public land purchases.
- Continue to build a reinvigorated housing authority.
- Affordable housing on public land and major developments (Brackenridge tract, etc.).
- Support the Mayor’s effort to build an affordable housing investment fund.
- Implement Homestead Preservation Districts.
- Establish an East Austin affordable housing TIF.
- See that developer commitments for density and affordable housing are honored.
- Make housing vouchers work and consider a city supplemental rent voucher.
- Other ideas and initiatives will emerge from UT and neighborhoods.
With the soul of our city at stake Austin citizens need to get to work.
What exactly will the solution look like to Austinites who need affordable housing in a quality neighborhood of their choice? It is not possible to know exactly.
I hesitate to suggest details before the ground work I’ve outlined above is undertaken. But there is a vision developed by folks in another Texas city to consider. Four “Fair Housing and Neighborhood Rights” were developed by the low income people of color I work with in Houston. These Houstonians believe they are losing their right to live in their city. Theirs is a view forged by 150 years of public service inequality, racism, economic exploitation, land grabs and gentrification.
The actions they propose under each right are unique the the circumstances faced by low income neighborhoods of color in Houston. The right actions in Austin will be different in many cases. Yet they illustrate the range of things that Houston citizens have identified are needed to face their city’s unique problems.
Revised with Austin appropriate actions, it seems to me these four overarching rights offer a good starting point for Austin to extend to all our citizens.
HOUSTON’S 4 FAIR HOUSING & NEIGHBORHOOD RIGHTS
THE RIGHT TO CHOOSE
The Fair Housing Act guarantees everyone, including subsidized housing residents and people of color, the right to freely choose where to live. This includes neighborhoods where poverty rates are lower, new jobs are being created and schools are high performing. This requires that government subsidized affordable housing is available in these neighborhoods and that families have the opportunity to use rent vouchers in these neighborhoods.
- Develop a plan to conduct regular matched pair housing discrimination testing.
- Adopt a Housing Authority Section 8 mobility initiative (below).
- Coordinate with effort to define “redevelopment area” to target housing investment.
- Coordinate with relocation and density reduction of Section 8 project based developments.
- Improve and enforce new City/State Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing.
- Carry out a media campaign on segregation, harms and fair housing issues.
THE RIGHT TO STAY
Too often people of color have been pushed out of their neighborhoods when the land becomes valuable. Better public and private services, jobs, higher performing schools and lower crime that comes along with redevelopment is a good thing only if people of color can share those benefits. Instead of forcing people of color out of gentrifying neighborhoods, government must ensure their right to stay and enjoy living in economically and racially integrated, high opportunity neighborhoods.
- Examine minority homeownership trends and a campaign to increase homeownership.
- Develop strategies for integrated neighborhoods that benefit low-income minority residents.
- Track minority neighborhood displacement through gentrification and public actions.
- Adopt strategies to prevent displacement from gentrifying neighborhoods.
- Organize community base in targeted anti-gentrification communities (Community Revitalization Areas).
- Identify and finalize anti-gentrification specific neighborhood demands and general initiatives.
- Undertake, monitor and oversee city commitment to community developed plans.
THE RIGHT TO EQUAL TREATMENT
All lower-income minority neighborhoods have suffered from disinvestment by banks, substandard public services and discriminatory policies of city government. Many times these neighborhoods are sites of environmental blight from commercial and industrial uses. Discrimination against lower-income minority neighborhoods must end. The city and the private sector must begin reinvestment in these neighborhoods and undo the harm they have done.
- Document varying levels of public and private investments in neighborhoods.
- Create Neighborhood Equalization Plans which ultimately commit funds for projects to equalize infrastructure, housing choices, city services and reduce substandard in minority and low income neighborhoods.
- Document the historical and ongoing impact on low-income minority neighborhoods of:
- Housing policies, subsidized housing citing policies, development practices, etc.
- Public services, facilities and improvements, code enforcement.
- Highway siting, public transportation access.
- Environmental hazards and community health.
- Disinvestment by lenders, property tax policy.
- Land use policies, subdivision standards, covenants, deed restrictions.
THE RIGHT TO HAVE A SAY
People have a right and an obligation to participate in the decisions that affect their lives and this includes their neighborhoods. Government has an obligation to afford citizens the right to have a say. Too often in the past lower-income minority neighborhood residents have not learned of plans by the government and private developers until it is too late to affect the project and too often the results have been disastrous. We seek from our city a new commitment of openness, joint planning. and real citizen participation in the planning and redevelopment of our neighborhoods.
- Train communities to negotiate Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs).
- Develop procedures for communities to negotiate CBAs into city ordinance.
- Involve community organizations in process to support or oppose tax credit housing projects.
- Coordinate planning between experts, public officials. private sector and residents.
- Make public and private activities in the neighborhoods accountable to residents.
- Share through the media the stories of low income, minority neighborhoods.
- Communicate clearly the problems and our solutions to policy makers and the media.
- Develop education programs directed at residents (financial literacy, asset building, etc.).
- Create public oversight by implementing a Citizen Fair Housing & Neighborhood Rights Committee with oversight of housing, public works and planning departments.