One media gig I don’t envy is that of editor Michelle Pitcher of the Austin Business Journal, who must write the latest statistics for the Austin Board of Realtors every month. (Sorry, REALTORSTM.) I mean, what more can you say about housing prices in Austin? They are stupid high! And the supply is very rare: “In February, there was only 0.4 months of stock on the whole [five-county] metro, about 7% of what a balanced market needs,” she wrote this week. Ipso facto, the median home sale price in each of these five counties is increasing in double digits (percentage) year over year to reach the highest levels on record. recorded, or probably even imagined by many central Texans. Officially, the median home price in the Metro is $499,995, which you can round up; this is 28% higher than last year. In the city of Austin it’s $565,000, for what in many cases it’s a smaller home. Bastrop County are 61% higher than last year; those in Caldwell County were up 57%.
These last two are, you may know, the poorer parts of a metropolitan area where the east-west economic divide delineated by I-35 is far from eradicated, no matter how quickly Elon Musk builds “Gigafactories”. I know many of you agree with me that creating decent housing for the more than 2 million Central Texans where they are needed is not just one, but really the only political goal which deserves the attention of local elected officials, who here as elsewhere are the main decision-makers in housing policy. Without it, none of our economic development efforts will be sustainable (even Musk says so), the educational performance of our schools will not improve, the social determinants of good or bad health will never change course, and we will invite climate disasters through the door. Other than that, Austin will still be fine, right?
No one really lives alone
I’m not one of the grumpy Armadillo-era diehards who thinks that Metro Austin’s three decades as one of America’s three fastest growing cities (once joined by Las Vegas and Orlando, now by Raleigh-Durham and Nashville) have been largely destructive. I don’t know what the cut-off date is that distinguishes the “more or less native” from the toxic newcomers – the the ChronicleThe first issue date of was September 4, 1981, which is seven years before I arrived here and at least 20 years before everyone else. More importantly, despite Austin’s decades of self-identified specialty and weirdness, most people have come here for the same reason they go elsewhere – to be prosperous. We were ahead of the curve in defining this prosperity as including more than money and clinging to “quality of life”, but it was good jobs that got people here (including good jobs of artists, musicians or filmmakers) and it continues to be.
Housing shortages exist in Austin because we have proven that we are not smarter or more creative or of better character than the rest of America.
But people can’t live in the bank! The more recent phase of the boom seems to have been accompanied by a greater realization that Austin is not inherently and inevitably more affordable than the tragic coastal cities that will be man-of-the-century disaster areas. Nor are our current housing costs and shortages a function of historical and economic accidents, a confluence of returning black swans to roost on Lady Bird Lake.
They exist here because we have proven that we are no smarter or more creative or of better character than the rest of America, which is suffering a nationwide housing crisis from the coasts to the Sun Belt to the Rust Belt in the countryside. Federal policymakers and financiers suggest the United States is short by 4 million housing units to meet the needs of its population. Of course, these gaps are not evenly distributed, but the gaps do not exist independently of each other either. Housing prices in Bastrop are influenced, not at all so far, by the wealthy NIMBYs in California.
Maybe a better character
When I started pleading and scolding to make solving our housing crisis the moonshot of modern Austin’s generation, I heard enough positive comments to make me think we realize that our lives as Central Texans are also interdependent, no one really lives alone. That was about all the happy talk was about, as we realized that 1) we were also going to have to shoulder the burden of defending civilized democratic values and indeed basic human rights against the barbarians (which took four years to America to realize they weren’t the proletariat); 2) that said barbarians did indeed smash all the furniture and crockery here in their largest modern project, the state of Texas; and 3) that we will be discussing this for next year’s local election politics in Austin. But we have to turn our attention back to that and be happy warriors about it.
The best way to achieve this, not just in our business, but in the very substance of the ideas and goals they are meant to advance, is to be collaborative, not competitive. The nasty hash that was made of efforts to rewrite Austin’s 40-year-old land use code was supposed to be the first (participatory planning! yeah!) but became the second, as braggarts lit the courier machine to position. – the centering of easy white appeasement as a radical act. (The real political radicals in Austin are all YIMBYs, you should have noticed by now.) The fruits of this bad faith are often disguised as concern for the poorest among us, but that often evaporates as soon as it becomes clear that the best thing we could do for the poor is to give them money, and failing that give them services, for as long as it takes, which may be generations. Building new subsidized housing for them, no matter how well-performing, is the least effective and most expensive way to meet their needs. Just building a bunch of new housing for everyone and anyone – hundreds of thousands of new units in places all over the region (but not just anywhere; that’s why we have horrible traffic that we we’re spending about $15 billion to solve and in the process create new places where housing is needed) – and make sure everyone in this ever-richer city has money to rent or maybe to buy, would be both more direct and more effective. We need to judge our next mayors and council members on how they plan to do it, and nothing else, and not let them change the subject.