Op-Ed: Let's Tackle Austin's Affordability Crisis Without Villainizing Newcomers

Apr 18, 2017

Nothing is quite as “un-Austin" and "un-Texan" as to be unwelcoming to new people. Yet some Austinites argue that outsiders are destroying our city; it has even become a mantra for them. But what makes someone an Austinite and gives them the right to be here? Being born here? Being here for 10 years? Longer? While Austin does have growing pains, we also have the tools to deal with them, and that does not mean pulling the ladder up on new people.

I am a fifth-generation Austinite, born less than 8 miles from where I now live and less than 1 mile from where I work. My family has lived all around Austin, from Holly to Cherrywood, Crestview to Lakeway, South Austin to Dripping Springs. I am also a descendant of immigrants.

My grandfather spoke Polish when he arrived in the U.S. My great-great-grandparents fled Czechoslovakia in the late 19th century. Another ancestor immigrated from Europe and fought for the Union Army in the Civil War. Regardless of when we officially became “Austinites,” my immigrant family strengthened this community, just as current new arrivals to Austin will continue to do.  

I, too, would scowl at cars with California plates when I was younger. Jokes about the perceived Californication of Austin abounded while I was growing up. One master of this genre was the Statesman’s columnist John Kelso who, from 1994 to 2000, mentioned California in at least 37 columns. Charlie Hodge also mastered poking fun at change in Austin. On his radio show, I would laugh out loud to his comedy bits calling to "keep those [outsiders] from building a Razoo's on Barton Springs."

Working toward a better future, instead of grasping to preserve a romantic notion of the past, means realizing that Austin is facing an affordability and transportation calamity.

But jokes about outsiders is where it should end. Austin must face its housing and transportation woes without villainizing newcomers. Working toward a better future, instead of grasping to preserve a romantic notion of the past, means realizing that Austin is facing an affordability and transportation calamity. These dual crises grow every year – not because of outsiders – but precisely because prior generations have attempted to stop growth. In fact, restrictive zoning that prioritizes single-family homes makes it nearly impossible for new people to move to the city because they have been priced out.

Austin has a rare opportunity to substantially allow more housing construction all over the city. The process to rezone the entire city, called CodeNEXT, has been in the works for more than three years.

CodeNEXT has the potential to ease cost pressure, as well as allow more housing near where people work and play. To achieve true affordability for people across the income spectrum as well as halt displacement, however, the city must intentionally target those goals. Building a residence in the city limits costs more than it does in the suburbs, which results in unsustainable suburban sprawl. In 2015, Austin allowed only two residential construction permits inside the city limits for every 10 people coming into the metropolitan area. When the city makes it difficult to build enough housing, the market turns into a musical chairs game, forcing people outside the city and further from work.  

Austin needs a vision – and the courage to implement it – for spending limited transportation dollars. To ease displacement pressure, council must pass stay in place measures. For low-income households, the city should work toward offering housing vouchers. And finally, to work toward abundant housing, we need a CodeNEXT that prioritizes that goal.

People move to Austin for many reasons, like job opportunities, education, the best BBQ in the world and to escape war zones or violence. At the local level, we cannot – and should not – look to discourage the influx. In contrast, we can change policy to allow more housing construction as well as aid those most in need. But instead of embracing incremental growth, we have pushed growth to the suburbs. Instead of investing in more efficient transportation infrastructure like bike and transit-only lanes, we’ve watched our highways become choked within months of expansion completions. Is spending millions – sometimes billions ­– of dollars to maybe save a few minutes, a worthwhile public investment?

Austin can do better. We must do better. Let’s make an Austin for everyone.

Christopher “Kaz” Wojtewicz is a student at UT’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. He is also a board member of the grassroots membership-based organization AURA.