We’ve Imagined an Austin Without the Poor

Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies released its 2019 State of the Nation’s Housing report, and it makes for interesting reading. Once you get past the standard neoliberal fare about how “there isn’t enough housing” or not enough “choice” or “opportunity,” you can unearth some nuggets.

Two Austin findings stand out: 1.) Real home prices have risen 55% since 2006, and 2.) There was a dramatic decline in the low-rent housing stock. Between 2011 and 2017 Austin lost over 100,000 low-rent (a.k.a. supposedly “affordable) housing units. Use the center’s searchable map to narrow in on the Austin/Round Rock MSA (MSA: Metropolitan Statistical Area).

For some perspective regarding these numbers, consider the following:

1.) The precise decline in low-rent units between 2011-2017 was 101,226 units. “Low rent” is defined as a housing unit with a rent of $800 or less. The census definition of a “housing unit” is as follows: a house, an apartment, a group of rooms, or a single room occupied or intended for occupancy as separate living quarters.

2.) Between 2011 and 2017 the decline in housing unit affordability was a staggering 65.2%.

3.) According to the Census Bureau, the number of housing units in Austin in 2010 was 354,241. The 2017 figure is 417,939 units. This means that Austin was shedding affordable units at a much higher rate than it was constructing new units. And those new units? Not only were they not affordable, they were constructed for profit maximization. The Austin City Council’s value capture efforts (known locally as “community benefits”) were pathetic and utterly not up to the task of stemming the tide.

Those of us who occupied a front-row seat for public housing demolition in the 1990’s are not surprised. But even for me, these are pretty startling numbers. Have you seen these sobering facts properly reported anywhere?

The picture for homeowners isn’t much better. If you are a reader of previous blog posts of mine, you’re already aware of the crazy increases in property taxes in Montopolis and its surrounding environs. The doubling, tripling, or even quadrupling of property valuations within a five year time span have now become a fact of life in the new halcyon Austin our wise and esteemed leaders have brought us.

Meanwhile, our city council is passing anti-homelessness resolutions that are already producing Hoovervilles from the days of yore.

Sometimes the dog catches the car. But tailpipe burns are always a risk. With last year’s defeat of Prop. J our leaders and their backers got what they wanted. Will they endorse “Code Cronk” or back down at the moment of truth? And what about the so-called “Downtown Puzzle?” These remain interesting questions for the residents of Austin, its hoi polloi in particular.

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Let’s briefly talk about real estate finance. How are our banks and credit unions doing? To whom are they lending and how much? Back in the days when we actually had local journalism, we could use tools such as the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act and the Community Reinvestment Act to find out. The big banks long ago figured out how to render much of this data without true meaning—and a large amount of mortgage lending is now conducted by entities not subject to those laws—but the data nonetheless remains worthy of study.

What the data shows is that the benefits of Austin’s recent real estate boom are maldistributed and were disproportionately built on the backs of the city’s poor people of color. You may have been feeling this way for some time now, but the data has finally caught up with what those of us on the front lines always knew. Let’s finally call it what it was and is: a neocolonial form of ethnic cleansing. A 2019 version of urban renewal.

When I worked to preserve Houston’s Allen Parkway Village from demolition back in 1996, I predicted this would happen. I wasn’t alone. That doesn’t make observing and experiencing the neoliberal tidal wave any easier to swallow.

For instance, this is what the HMDA data shows: the primary beneficiaries of Austin’s most recent real estate boom have been whites and Asians. This is true of all mortgage lending institutions subject to the act, including credit unions. It is not a startling finding; the data from other cities (e.g. Seattle or Vancouver) shows similar trends. What it does indicate is how quickly Austin has neoliberalized, even in the past five years.

Entities such as Google and Oracle are now at the apex of this neoliberal real estate state our local politicians serve. But hey, we now have a new MLS soccer franchise! (built atop a property originally identified by city planners as the best affordable housing site in the city). Life is truly lovely when you never have to acknowledge, much less contend with consequences.

Most economic forecasts for Austin predict continued growth, and I agree. What these forecasts rarely acknowledge are the nature and character of that growth, and who benefits and why.

So let’s raise our cups and all say the word together: INEQUALITY

The word was on the lips of nominal “progressive” mayors such as Bill De Blasio and Steve Adler back in 2014. They haven’t been saying the word in public much of late. It isn’t hard to figure out why.