Austin housing advocates must stop ignoring the middle class

This is an excerpt from the April 30 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Here are some stats on the Austin real estate market I received recently from Bramlett Residential Real Estate:

Just consider how bonkers this is. The average sales price has increased 34% in a year. The median sales price has increased almost as much –– 29% –– so this isn’t just a matter of the top of the market being distorted by an influx of filthy rich Californians. The price for every type of housing in every neighborhood has increased dramatically.

Perhaps the pandemic has prompted something of a national housing bubble, but the skyrocketing prices in Austin are just an acceleration of a long-term trend. Austin’s booming tech sector and its cultural status will continue to attract wealth and home prices will respond accordingly.

This situation offers a prime opportunity to make the case for housing reform. And yet, unless housing advocates change the way they talk about the issue, nothing will change.

What they need to do is pretty simple. They need to start talking about the middle class.

The market doesn’t just hurt the poor

There’s a striking difference between how Democrats on the national stage and local progressives talk about economic challenges. On the national level, you hear a lot about the “middle class.” On the local level, you hear more about those who are “low-income” or, increasingly, “the working class.”

There are a few reasons you talk about the “middle class.” First, it’s a term that a broad swath of Americans identify with, even if in many cases they are too poor or too rich to fit the description. Far fewer people think of themselves as “low income,” and if you talk about helping the low-income, most assume that that help will come at their expense. This is probably compounded by racial resentment where whites assume that efforts to help the poor only help minorities. Ronald Reagan understood this well.

The good news is that, because Austin is much more liberal politically than America as a while, I don’t think city leaders face the same risk of backlash in advocating for the poor as leaders at the national level (the likely passage of Prop B notwithstanding). But the poor alone do not constitute a winning political coalition. And they’re not the only ones being hurt by Austin’s reactionary housing policies.

The problem is, every discussion of housing reform ends up centering on narrowly-defined “affordable housing.” The meaning of the term varies, but usually in Austin it refers to rental housing that is restricted to those at 60% of the area median income or for-sale units restricted to those at 80% AMI.

We should all agree that we do absolutely need more housing serving those income levels. Indeed, as the homelessness crisis illustrates, we need housing serving much lower income levels. This is why the $550M of affordable housing bonds that Austin voters have approved in the past two election cycles are so important.

The problem is that we need housing to serve the huge percentage of Austin’s middle class that does not qualify for income-restricted housing but is not able to afford the skyrocketing prices that the restricted market is producing. Just check out these income levels:

Any new multifamily or missing-middle housing that does not include units restricted at 60-80% AMI is decried as “not affordable” or “luxury housing.” Nevermind that the new units are often much cheaper than the single-family houses that would be built without the new zoning. Nevermind that the proposed new units are often much cheaper than the homes owned by the Council members, Planning commissioners or neighborhood activists standing in the way.

Here’s the question that every Council member should answer: Where do you believe your staffers who are making $50-75k/yr can afford to live? Assuming you’re not going to give them giant pay raises, what can you do to help them afford a home in this city?

Assume that Council aide is lucky and has a spouse or partner that makes the same amount of money. Even if we assume they don’t have significant student debt (which many do), where in this city can they realistically aspire to buy a single-family home? I’m not even going to bother with the Central Austin neighborhoods where barely anything is listing for under $1M anymore. Let’s look at what’s available north of Rundberg:

Or University Hills and Windsor Park:

Or south of Stassney and William Cannon:

And it’s only going to get worse.

So what “character” is our current code protecting? What character is being preserved by zoning that does not allow anybody who can’t afford 5,750 square feet of land into a neighborhood? It’s not a middle class character, that’s for sure. In my own neighborhood of Southwood, just south of Ben White, bungalows are being scraped left and right to be replaced by large single-family homes or duplexes that hardly any of the longtime residents or families of the children who attend nearby schools (Joslin Elementary, Crockett High) can afford. This is the recurring scene:

As Austin grows, there are going to be more and more people who want to live in the city and are willing to buy smaller units in exchange for being in a great neighborhood, a shorter commute, walkable amenities. These people will be looking for advocates at City Hall. Now is the opportunity to show them who’s on their side.

This is an excerpt from the April 30 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

One thought on “Austin housing advocates must stop ignoring the middle class

  1. Austin doesn’t care about middle class….teachers, policeman, firefighters, nurses, secretaries, bartenders, wait staff….etc.

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