Austin & Affordability
6:06 am
Mon April 28, 2014

Do Austinites Have Choices When it Comes to Housing?

If you live or work in the City of Austin, have you asked yourself why you chose to work or live where you do? Well, the City of Austin wants to know the answers to those questions to help plan for the future.

The city is conducting a “housing choice survey.” But with the current shortage of housing, do Austinites have any real choice in where they live?

Word on the street is that Austinites have very few housing choices. At least, that’s what rapper “Blind Man” says as he finds his way with his cane to a bench on East 11th Street.

“Blind Man” is legally blind and he says people with disabilities have the hardest time finding housing. He says that’s why people end up living in less than ideal conditions with their name in multiple wait lists. “But I’m not going to kiss nobody’s ass. Not waiting two or three years.”

Wait lists for affordable units are long because, by some estimates, Austin is short by around 30,000 units.

Cairo DeAngelus is also disillusioned with his housing choices. On his way to the bank, not far from where “Blind Man” sits, DeAngelus says Austin’s housing shortage affects everybody because “everybody wants to live somewhere more comfortable.”

And somewhere convenient. But few people have those choices.

If you ask DeAngelus, he’ll say the choices are “relative to your skin color, your financial situation, even your personality.”

A screenshot from the City of Austin's housing choice survey.

Jonathan Tomko with the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development office has been reviewing the results of the city’s housing survey. The survey is still ongoing. But, so far, he’s found that “about 55 percent of the people responding have made a trade-off in order to live in Austin.”

What does that mean? Some people are paying more to buy a home in Austin than they would’ve spent in another community. Others are living with less space. And others are renting rather than owning.

Once the survey is completed, city planners like Tomko will use the data to craft some solutions to Austin’s housing problems.

“There’s a lot of research that indicates that housing affordability can impact a wide variety of issues,” Tomko says, “it can have an impact on traffic and transportation infrastructure costs, such as having to widen expressways, which can be very expensive if more people are commuting from further away.”

Looking at building the right kind of housing is a cheaper and faster solution than building more highways. And that’s one reason why a housing choice survey is necessary. But changing the way a city plans its housing stock takes years, between five and 30.

In the meantime, landlords like Jacinta Avila are enjoying the renter bonanza.

“I kind of like that there is a [housing] shortage,” Avila says. She owns two homes in northwest Austin. She says it gives her assurance that because her houses “will never be vacant” and she can increase the rent.

Now Avila lives very close to downtown and walks everywhere. That’s the challenge city planners are trying to meet – to build more walkable communities for a much larger number of Austinites.