For reasons that I don’t yet fully understand, I was appointed to the Austin Music Commission this past summer. No, really–you can check. Our first meeting as a new commission was a few weeks ago, and one of the tasks I set for myself was to read through the entirety of the Austin Music Census before that meeting and come with some goals for the city. Like every other resident of Austin, I read the press about the census, but also like every other resident of the city, I hadn’t read the actual document itself. If ever there was a TL;DR, this was it.
Having finally made it most of the way through, I think I’ve figured out exactly where I want to start. It can all be summed up in the phrase:
Austin, it’s time to stop being a dick and let the goddamn kids play on your goddamn lawn.
As I’m sure you’ve heard somewhere, Austin is a very young city. Our median age is 31.1 (at least, according to a Google search), which is five years younger than the national average. Of the 110 or so people moving here every day, you’d better believe that a lot of them are under 30.
If you go to any meeting involving local governance, though, you’d be hard pressed to see that population represented. Whenever I go to neighborhood meetings, I’m usually the youngest person there by about 25 years (at least). I don’t really have the data to support this, but I’d be unsurprised to find that the median voter age in city elections is around 65.
That, of course, is certainly not unusual when it comes to local politics. The problem in Austin is that a significant number of those older voters have essentially decided that their governing philosophy is “Hey, kids, get off my lawn!” I’ve been to many of those meetings, and I’ve heard a lot of anger about this or that thing being forced down somebody’s throats (which, quite frankly, it rarely is), and I can’t help but feel like the resentment is at least a little bit sourced in the fact that all these folks simply don’t like 20-somethings. They don’t like their strange tattoos, their fashion, their love of craft beer and locally-sourced produce, their weird music and the fact that they like to party all night–next door or elsewhere. They especially don’t seem to like that they usually rent their houses and tend to move every year.
Some of these grievances are probably reasonable and some aren’t–but the fact remains that as a result of having a city code that has essentially been written by folks whose only goal is to get kids to stop moving into their neighborhoods, our music industry is facing a couple serious problems.
First, let me point this out, from page 10 in the census:
Regulatory Inefficiencies Appear to be Creating Productivity Loss for both Venues and City Staff: Venue respondents found the City’s permitting system to be inefficient, cumbersome, and confusing. Respondents indicated both in survey data as well as focus groups and interviews that the process was very difficult to navigate and time consuming. Also, since there is no single department or point of contact at the Citythat is designated to handle venue questions, many felt that there is a “no man’s land” problem of getting stuck in a system in which different departments or personnel may provide conflicting information to applicants, but there is no single point of escalation or path to resolution.
Here in Austin, complaining about city staff is pretty common. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Zucker Report–a report which was commissioned to evaluate the permitting departments at the city–some pretty damning things came out of it. It may be the case that this is the fault of bad city staffers, but I would like to put forward that this happens because Austin’s city code is confusing, complex, and contradictory. It is also all of those things entirely on purpose. If your goal is to get kids off your lawn, one way to do it is to write laws that are so complex that they’re next to impossible to follow, meaning that you can always find some violation if you want to shut down a party. Sick of living next to a thriving coffee bar with live music on Sundays? Just call city code and complain about their parking ratio. That’s probably a violation, and it will probably cost that bar owner thousands to fix, and could (hopefully!) put them out of business. Then it can be replaced with a nice quilting shop or something.
Another thing that folks complained about in the census was a lack of affordable housing for rent. This was especially true for musicians (and less so for venue owners and non-musician industry employees), many of whom are really, really poor. Everyone in this city knows we have an affordability crisis, but what we don’t know is that that crisis is largely due to the fact that central neighborhoods like Hyde Park, Clarksville, Tarrytown, and so on, have pretty successfully fought any increase in their housing stock for at least 20 years. This history of resisting densification has led to the extreme pace of gentrification we see on the East Side and has resulted in the utter dearth of available rental units since Austin’s population started exploding. As long as there are more renters than there are rental units, landlords will hold pretty much all the cards and be able to charge whatever the hell they want for rent.
So, as a newly appointed member of the Austin Music Commission, I plan on making simplifying and re-writing our city code my first priority. In the short term, I think we need to look into ways to help venue owners to navigate our city code and to help musicians and other young people find housing. In the long term, though, we need a city code that is transparent and easily understood by everyone, and that encourages music venues to stay open and to grow their business. We need a city code that makes it easy to build rental housing so that musicians (and other young people) can find housing they can afford.
In other words, we need to find ways to keep the kids on the lawn.