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.

Want to fight gentrification? Go to West Austin.

Gentrification has been in the news a lot in Austin lately. The Jumpolin saga touched a lot of nerves, and then there was the report that ranked Austin as the most economically segregated city in the nation. Just yesterday, a number of businesses in East Austin woke up to find some pretty nasty stickers affixed to their shop windows.

I’ve lived in Austin for 12 years, and the gentrification of the East Side has been part of the Austin conversation the entire time I’ve lived here. On some level, I get why people are upset about it. What I don’t get, though, is why West Austin is–and as far as I can tell, always has been–missing from that conversation.

Let’s look at that economic segregation report. If you actually read the report, you’ll find this nice little nugget:

Economic segregation is driven by the choices made by more advantaged groups. The creative class is more segregated than either the working class or service class. College grads are more segregated than those who did not finish high school. The wealthy are more segregated than the poor—indeed they are the most segregated of all groups, and by a considerable margin.

In other words, Austin’s Economic segregation can be attributed to the rich choosing to live in areas where they will be surrounded exclusively by other rich people. You can see this really clearly by looking at a map of Austin, broken down by median family income.

Screen shot 2015-03-19 at 11.43.23 AMYou see the big swath of dark blue? That is where the rich people live. They live there in neighborhoods that are frequently gated and at the end of long private drives. They live there in neighborhoods that are entirely inaccessible by transit, so if you are employed as one of the help, you’d better be making enough to have a car of your own.

Of course, the wealthy have lived apart from the rest of the city in West Austin for a long time, dating back at least to the ’20s. It’s a little-discussed fact that Clarksville (where the present median list price for a home is $1.23M) was a historically black neighborhood, founded by a freed slave. At least, that’s what it was until the city forcibly removed all people of color from that area as best they could. At the same time, neighborhoods like Hyde Park were developed that explicitly excluded people of color.

Austin isn’t at all unique in having a chapter like this in its history–in fact, nearly every US city has some dark race-related policy in its archives somewhere. But I’m bringing this up because those neighborhoods that were forcibly made into all-white, all-wealthy parts of town still very much are. It seems as though this fact is so deep in the background of our city’s understanding of itself that we pretty much take it for granted. In all the raging against the way the East Side has been changing, there’s been little to no mention of the neighborhoods that East Side residents were intentionally excluded from in the first place.

Meanwhile, residents of those wealthy neighborhoods continue to organize and agitate for the right to make their neighborhoods more exclusive. They’ve pretty successfully stymied development, fought affordable housing in their areas, and put gates on public streets. Each of these efforts is made for some sort of theoretically valid reason (cut-through traffic, losing neighborhood “character”), and is frequently cloaked in social-justice like language, but the end result is to make the wealthier parts of town more off-limits to everyone else.

So when people like PODER protest the gentrification of East Austin, I certainly get it. In the rising real estate values of their neighborhoods they see another Clarksville brewing. Not to mention the fact that their neighborhoods are filling up with hipsters, and that’s got to be annoying. But to focus exclusively on the East Side is to miss at least half the picture.

Why I’m Not Going to Teach My Son 10 Things

Over the past few months, there’s been a bit of a trend in my Facebook feed of people sharing articles with titles like “10 Things I Will Teach My Son.” Usually, they’re talking about some set of important values often involving gender or bullying or something like that. Oftentimes, they’re kind of vaguely feminist–talking about how we should teach our daughters to be strong and independent and our sons not to ogle.

I find all of these articles–yes, all of them*–highly annoying.

The reason why isn’t that I think anyone involved in either writing them or sharing them has bad intentions. In fact, I generally agree with most of the values people share in these. That might be because many of them are really just a collection of platitudes and clichés, and are saying little more than something along the lines of “being nice is good”–but I digress.

The real thing I find annoying about these articles is the model of parenting–and, by proxy, of teaching–that they present.

Whenever I read one of these articles, I always find myself imagining the author’s image of themselves as a parent. Their children surround them, say, by a perfectly built fire, and listen diligently as their parents dole out wisdom and advice. “Beauty is a state of mind, my darling girl, not a state of body,” they’ll say, while their daughter quietly nods, trying to process this profound nugget of wisdom.

Please!

Anyone who’s actually taught young people should know that it doesn’t work this way. Sure, we adults are older and therefore inevitably wiser, but that doesn’t mean that our kids will see us that way. That doesn’t mean that we can simply share with them the conclusions we’ve come to after years of hard-won experience (conclusions like, “You should set goals for yourself, and then work hard to achieve them”) and expect them to adopt them wholeheartedly.

It’s fairly easy to get a little kid to parrot back the values you want them to share with you, as all young children learn a lot by imitation. They also, for the most part, enjoy pleasing authority figures by telling them what they want to hear.

However, as kids get older, they begin having a multitude of their own experiences and very quickly start drawing their own conclusions about what they mean. Some of the time, the conclusions they draw may be ones that you want them to draw (e.g., “Being kind to other people makes them like me more). At other times, they might not be (e.g., “I can gain acceptance from my peer group by putting down people of lesser social status”). And you can’t really control that.

When I’m happiest with my teaching, I feel like I’m not necessarily “molding” my students, but rather stripping away the crap that keeps them from being who they are. Deep within each of them (sometimes buried very deeply) is a long list of unique ideas, thoughts, and talents. And if I’m successful, I’ll be that teacher who’s able to help them find that thing that makes them special.

Which brings me to what I’d much rather do for my son when it comes time to teach him important values. Living a good life isn’t a lecture, it’s a dialogue. It’s a long series of questions about what it means, exactly, to do good in this world. And the answers I’ve come up with in my too-short time on this planet certainly aren’t going to be any better than the ones he does.

And through all of this, I hope I can maintain with him what I think is the real difference-maker and parenting and teaching: a great relationship. I’m willing to bet that it’s much more likely that he’ll share the values I want him to share if he and I get along really well. And I’m willing to work to make that happen.

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*Broad generalizations are OK on the internet.