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.

What the hell is any of this for?

It is my understanding that we, as a society, decide to have laws to serve one of two purposes. Either a law is written to attempt to protect citizens and their property from random acts of violence (what I suppose some theorists might call “a monopoly on the means of violence”), or it is written to protect citizens from the negative consequences of their fellow citizens’ actions (in Economics speak, “negative externalities”).

An example of the first is murder. Murder is illegal because it is morally wrong, sure, but it’s also illegal because none of us would want to live in a society in which anyone can be murdered with impunity. Just ask people in Ferguson. An example of the second is speeding: the act of speeding may not inflict harm on either the driver doing the speeding or on anyone around him at the time, however, if everyone drove as fast as they could, our roads would be much more dangerous and we’d all suffer as a result.

As I learn more and more about Austin’s–and, really, every other city’s–building codes and zoning restrictions, I’m increasingly starting to wonder which of these purposes these rules serve. If you look at Austin’s 100-page “Zoning Guide” (a handy PDF published by the city), you’ll find that the city has very specific laws governing how far your property is from the curb, how far it is from your neighbor’s house, what the allowed square footage of the lot is, how much of the lot can be covered by buildings (of course, only certain things count as buildings, while other things that you might think of as buildings don’t)… and on, and on, and on. The level of granularity and complexity in the building code is kind of astonishing, and as I read it, I can’t help but wonder: what the hell is any of this for?

I’m sure that anyone wanting to support the existence of a building code (and by this I mean anyone who wants to defend it for reasons other than wanting not to bite the hand that feeds) could make the argument that it falls into the second category, namely, that it protects us from the negative consequences of our neighbors’ actions. But, the thing is that every city in the nation–and Austin is no exception–has at least one part of town that was constructed before it adopted any building codes. These neighborhoods are usually thought of as the most charming, desirable parts of town to live in, and not only because they’re close to downtown. Part of their charm is in their non-compliance, the fact that they were built at a time before people constructed every building to excruciatingly exacting standards.

Right now, the city of Austin is going through the process of rewriting its Land Development Code, and that’s probably a good thing. The current state of affairs is far too complex to no good purpose, and that’s really bad for everyone.