Affordability Really is Just a Word in the City Budget…

Let me begin this post by talking about Manchaca Rd. Manchaca is my neighborhood’s “main street,” or whatever you call a hellish highway near your house with far too little pedestrian infrastructure. On Google street view, it looks like this:

Screen shot 2015-09-19 at 7.38.33 PM

From the point of view of someone whose son is presumably going to attend Joslin–that school on the right hand side of the picture–in about 5 years, this street has a lot of problems. First of all, the sidewalks are way too narrow, so that you can’t walk two abreast on them. Second, they’re right up against the curb, putting small children trying to get to school dangerously close to traffic that is regularly going 40 – 45 miles an hour. Third, the sidewalk is frequently blocked by vegetation, or it’s incomplete, or there’s a utility pole on it. Fourth, and perhaps most annoyingly, it’s very difficult to cross Manchaca on foot. The traffic moves so fast on it that, even if you think you’ve got plenty of time to get across, you might find a car right on top of you before you make it. There are only four traffic lights on Manchaca between Ben White and Stassney, and two of them change so infrequently that I’ve frequently found myself waiting 3 to 4 minutes at them just to cross the 30 feet or so to the other side of the street.

Manchaca isn’t really unique, of course. It just happens to be the nearest-to-me example of a phenomenon that really is more common than not in Austin’s streets. Many, many, many of our roads would require significant upgrading to make them even a little bit safe for pedestrians, let alone welcoming or inviting to walk on. I’ve heard it said that it would take around $1 billion just to get our city-wide sidewalk deficit up to zero–that is, everywhere that needs sidewalks will have them–or about the same amount as the latest failed rail bond.

So, anyway, as an engaged citizen and Austin Neighborhood Advocate, I started calling 311 on a semi-regular basis to bring up issues relating to pedestrian safety in my neighborhoods. I asked for more safe ways to get across Manchaca, more and better sidewalks, and so on. And every time I’ve managed to talk to someone who works in the relevant city department, I always end up hearing the same refrain: “There’s just no money for that.”

This brings me to a letter from my council member, Ann Kitchen, that was recently posted on NextDoor (among other places). In it, she says the following:

During this year’s budget process “affordability” was more than a word, it was our guiding principle.

Ok. Fair enough. I understand that lots of people have been harmed by Austin’s sky-rocketing housing costs, and I know it was a big issue in the elections last November. So I guess I’m glad that it’s more than a word. A little lower down, though, she says this:

For the owner of the median value home, the city property tax bill decreased by $14. That means, with a limited total fee increase, the total bill from the city will increase by only about $4/month.

Wait, what? A $14 / month savings is taking affordability seriously? It isn’t an increase, so for people on a fixed income who are stressed by rising assessments that’s probably a good thing–but what about everyone else? Those tax savings wouldn’t cover one extra night out at Torchy’s a month; let alone help keep us in our home if we were so tax-burdened that we were thinking of moving out.

And then, what about renters? I suppose it’s at least theoretically possible that landlords paying reduced property taxes* might result in lower rent. But given the 99.9999% occupancy rate (or whatever it is), I think it’s much more likely that landlords would just pocket the extra savings and treat themselves to some ice cream.

Of course, if you’re one of those people who has a $2 million mansion in Tarrytown, these savings start to get pretty substantial. I’m glad we’re helping those people out–I’m sure they’re hurting. Maybe they’ll be able to use their savings to get another boat.

I don’t know enough about the city finances to be able to say exactly how much this tax cut is hurting city services. But, in the face of the massive need to upgrade and improve safety on our city streets (among many, many other pressing needs), I would have preferred it if council had just kept my $14 / month and used it for something important, because clearly they need it more than I do. How about more traffic signals on roads that used to be rural but are now major arteries? Or how about a few feet of sidewalk here and there? Or subsidized affordable housing? Or even better kolaches for city staff in morning meetings?

This ultimately puts me in complete agreement with Kathie Tovo. Given the meagerness of the tax savings for the average Austinite, it’s hard for me to get on board with CM Kitchen’s assertion that this is an accomplishment worth crowing about. If anything, it makes it seem like affordability really was just a word. You know, like a “what we can do so that we can say we did something about affordability?” kind of thing.

Now, if they could just find $60,000 to get another traffic light on Manchaca…

*It’s worth pointing out here that much of the tax savings are coming from an increased homestead exemption, which wouldn’t even apply to renters at all.


Parents: Chill the F@*k Out

The past few weeks, much to my wife’s chagrin, I’ve been talking to everyone who will listen to me about this book. Just in case you don’t click on the link, here it is again:


I mean this book.

This book is absolutely an amazing read for anyone who has children, works with children, has any interest in children, or was a child themselves.

There’s a lot I could say about this book and why it’s so great. To begin with, it covers all the bases of a great popular book about science.* But, most importantly, it really has a beautiful and amazing thesis. That I think every parent should turn somehow into a mantra that they repeat to themselves every single day.

Quoting here from the introduction:

There is a simple way to summarize much of the research on the neuroscience of child development: children grow like dandelions. In Sweden, the term maskrosbarn (dandelion child) is used to describe children who seem to flourish regardless of their circumstances. Psychological studies suggest that such children are relatively common (at least when raised by “good enough parents who do not abuse or neglect them).

Or, in other words, parents need to chill the f@&k out. When it really comes down to it, a child is in many ways very essentially who they are, regardless of the behaviors and individual decisions their parents make. Research seems to show that small differences in parenting don’t really have that big of an impact on how children turn out over the long haul. So long as any two parents aren’t abusive or neglectful (or impoverished), their kids will turn out equally well.

Unfortunately, our culture really doesn’t believe this at all. We can’t let go of this idea that the seeds of our adult selves–the good, the bad, and the ugly–are indelibly planted in our blank slate brains by our parents. Too often, we think that our destiny is solely dependent on the parenting abilities of our primary caregivers. And this has some negative consequences.

Speaking as a teacher, the most glaring of these negative consequences is in the way parents nowadays relate to their children’s education. Since we think every moment in a young person’s education has long-term consequences that couldn’t possibly be more weighty, we agonize over every single decision. Each time a child struggles, I see parents deflate not just because they’re worried about their children but because on some level in the back of their mind is the judgment of all society that they must be somehow deficient as parents if their children aren’t doing well. It is, in short, their fault if their kid is struggling with school.

You can see this stress play out for most of the parents at my school. School is a major source of stress for many of the parents I talk to. It makes their home lives miserable, and their relationships with their kids suffer as a result. Many parents who say they have great relationships with their kids also say that school is frequently the main sticking point in that relationship; and in some cases it’s become so consistently negative as to be nearly toxic.

Of course, another piece of this collateral damage is on the kids themselves. If it’s their parents fault that they’re not doing well, there’s absolutely no room for them to take responsibility for their actions as students. And boy, do kids use that out. Given the opportunity to blame someone else for your problems, why wouldn’t you?

I’ve written already about the coddled kids meme, and I would argue that what we think is overly-coddled kids whose parents attempt to shield them from failure is actually a symptom of our societal blaming of parents for kids’ outcomes–outcomes over which parents have very little control. Parents attempt to over-compensate for their kids failings because, I believe, they think they’re the ones ultimately responsible for how their kids turn out. Unfortunately for them, they’re pretty much wrong.

In the realm of the serenity prayer, I think it’s important for us as a society to start recognizing this fact and start focusing on the important thing that parents really do have control over. That is, of course, their relationship with their kids. I’ll bet if you look back at your own upbringing, you may not remember much of how your parents decided to raise you, but you will remember the quality of your relationship with them. Were they happy? Did you have fun together? Did they play with you? Are you still close, even now? Or do you cringe when they call?

The bottom line is that this world would be a better place if more parents had that as their primary goal for their children. Instead of agonizing over every little detail, we need to chill the f@*k out and just focus on enjoying our time with our kids.


*Post pending on this one.