Affordable and Inclusive Neighborhoods

Austin’s (Not So) Secret Shame

I used to be proud to tell people I was from Austin, Texas. That pride has unfortunately turned to disappointment and shame.

Beginning in 2009 I became heavily involved in the process of writing a new comprehensive plan for the city I loved. The new plan would be called “Imagine Austin”, and would be based on a vision statement that declared what kind of community we supposedly wanted to become by 2039, Austin’s 200th birthday.

Imagine Austin, when it was ultimately adopted in June of 2012, declared that we wanted to become a “beacon of social equity”, with affordable, economically and otherwise diverse “neighborhoods throughout all parts of the city”, a city that would “view our people as our greatest asset”, and a city that would ensure that the best of Austin, its amenities, its neighborhoods and its financial benefits, were “accessible and affordable to everyone”.

This was a plan of which I could be proud, for a city that I loved. Both as an individual citizen, and as the comprehensive plan chair for the local chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism, I advocated persistently and with great intensity for an ethical, responsible and welcoming version of Imagine Austin, a version that would actually make the city more affordable and accessible for everyone. The plan was ultimately adopted unanimously by the city council and supported by 19 boards and commissions, by the staff, the consultants, and by a near-unanimous citizens’ advisory task force. And this was in spite of a sustained and vigorous effort by the protectionist-dominated Austin Neighborhoods Council (ANC) to defeat the plan. All seemed to be going well.

Unfortunately, all was not well. Whatever one thinks of ANC, you have to admit that its leadership has been persistent. They didn’t give up on trying to undermine the new plan. After 5 years of trying to help implement a plan that was so generous in spirit, my pride has turned to disappointment, frustration and, yes, shame, thanks to the unrelenting efforts of ANC and its sympathizers.

What Austin has once again proved is that when it comes to neighborhoods, this faction of its population supports a protectionist policy that gives the affluent, home-owning voters favored status over the rest of the population. And those voters loudly and repeatedly proclaim to city hall that they deserve that favored status (and unfortunately some city council members agree with them, or at least go along with the idea).

Largely due to our city’s residential zoning policy, a policy that is little changed over the 86 years that Austin has regulated construction of housing in our neighborhoods, those neighborhoods have made us the most economically segregated city in America. And the plain truth is that many of us just don’t care - and in fact will fight aggressively to retain the title.

Virtually every person who knows the business of developing housing will tell you that without a certain amount of density, housing simply cannot be made affordable in the middle of a large, thriving city. It’s always been that way. The reality is that the land cost in any housing project, whether a single home or a large apartment project, cannot make up more than a certain percentage of the final sales price of the completed housing product. That maximum percentage has historically been around 20%. Thus, in order for a housing product to be viable on a specific parcel, the final price, including profit and overhead, had to be at least 5 times the cost of the lot or lots.

As land in central Austin has gotten more expensive over recent years, that percentage has arguably increased a bit, perhaps to 25%, or for some projects, even 33% (although at 33% financial feasibility is difficult or even impossible for most projects).

The effect of this real life relationship between land cost and final purchase price (which most of Austin refuses to think about, much less talk about) is that the amount of housing product that can legally be constructed on a given parcel – in terms of the number of housing units - must go up in almost direct proportion to the increase in land cost, or affordability goes down dramatically.

For example, let’s say that the cost of a typical 1/8 acre lot, due to basic forces of supply and demand found in growing American cities, is $500,000 (which is about the median price in central Austin). That means that, in order to be financially feasible for development of new housing using a 25% ratio of land cost to total sales price, one must be able to legally construct a housing product worth about $2,000,000 on that lot. If that $2,000,000 takes the form of a single family home, you get by definition only one home, and it is a home that few people can afford.

If, on the other hand, one can legally build a small 6 unit apartment or condo project, that $2,000,000 cost can be split into 6 homes costing a little less than $350,000 each – not exactly cheap, but at least a price range that a much larger segment of the population can aspire to.

What’s been happening in Austin and a number of other cities across America for decades now is that a certain faction of the population has selfishly sought to keep an affordable level of density out of the neighborhoods in which they already own their own homes. The result has been a national housing affordability crisis.

When affordability goes down, economic segregation is the obvious and inevitable result. As many have heard, Austin now has the worst economically segregated neighborhoods in the entire country. Why? It’s not hard to figure out: Austin has had for several decades now a political climate that is one of the worst in America in terms of embracing the change in housing policy that is necessary to retain and improve affordability in our neighborhoods.

That policy is based upon the idea that “protecting” our central neighborhoods from relatively inexpensive housing in the form of more apartments is a good thing. It’s not.

First of all, the market itself will do plenty of “protecting” on its own, without help from the government in the form of restrictive zoning policy. In a free market, at least until and unless people once again flee to the suburbs (which I suspect will never occur again in our lifetimes), neighborhoods close to downtown will virtually always cost more than those located farther out from the center of the city. It is not a proper function of government, I would argue, to exacerbate that price differential by limiting the types and amount of neighborhood scale housing that can be built in those close-in neighborhoods.

The fact is that our city has grown large enough that our housing stock must evolve from being dominated by detached, single family dwellings to one that is eventually dominated by multifamily dwellings – essentially apartments, small and dense townhomes and row houses, and condominiums. In other words, big cities need big city housing, especially in the core of the city where land costs are the highest. If that evolution of our housing stock is not allowed to occur, we will become more and more a city where only the affluent can afford to live, and our economic segregation, already the worst in the country, will get worse and worse.

This is where the “pride turned to shame” comes in: there is a significant segment of our city’s population that, based upon their behavior in the course of the CodeNEXT process, clearly doesn’t care about our level of economic segregation. And a number of our city leaders not only go along with that lack of caring, some of them proactively advocate in favor of that point of view.

Contrast what our altruistic and inspirational 2012 Imagine Austin plan said about neighborhoods with the pro-segregationist language from the mayor’s 2017 state of the city speech:

From the Imagine Austin vision (p 84):

“Economically mixed and diverse neighborhoods across all parts of the city have a range of affordable housing options.”

And from the mayor’s state of the city address:

“For starters, let’s agree we will not force density in the middle of neighborhoods. There’s no sense in shoving density where it would ruin the character of the city we’re trying to save in the first place, where it’s not wanted by its neighbors, and where we would never get enough of the additional housing supply we need anyway.”

In just 5 short years, we have fallen from trying to be a “beacon of social equity” to listening to our own democratically elected mayor preach in favor of keeping our interior neighborhoods “protected” from affordable housing and therefore, evermore economically segregated. Thus the transition from pride to shame.

Just as has happened at the national level, our community has made at least a temporary decision to use government policy to create an ever greater level of income and wealth inequality, and to separate those economically disparate groups geographically. As the CodeNEXT process gets closer to completion, we are showing what we truly care about, and what we don’t care about. There are clearly a significant percentage of our citizens who actually want our neighborhoods to be segregated, and a number of our council members choose to support them in that effort.

And the blame does not lie solely with the protectionists. The rest of the community, including even the so-called “urbanists” and “density advocates”, have not shown nearly enough bravery in calling for dramatic change that would result in material improvement in our affordability level or our level of economic desegregation. In large part, they have been totally content to advocate for such timid and insubstantial changes (i.e., a modest increase in garage apartments and fourplexes) that, even if they get what they are asking for, they stand no chance of creating an adequate housing supply or of improving the affordability and inclusivity of our neighborhoods.

Austin should be ashamed of itself that we continue to allow the protectionist and segregationist crowd to drive our housing policy.

Frank Harren
January 2018


Thanks for taking to the time to write and share your thoughts. I’m in great agreement. I would like to adjust one thing (as a way to represent my own perspective):

You wrote:
“The fact is that our city has grown large enough that our [[[housing]]] stock must evolve from being dominated by [[[[detached, single family dwellings]]] to one that is eventually dominated by multifamily dwellings – essentially apartments, small and dense townhomes and row houses, and condominiums.”

I write:
"The fact is that our city has grown large enough that our [[[infrastructure]]] stock must evolve from being dominated by [[[sprawl, strip malls, canyons of parking garages, and large empty parking lots]]]] to one that is eventually dominated by multifamily dwellings – essentially apartments, small and dense townhomes and row houses, and condominiums.

Canyon of parking garages: San Jacinto and Trinity streets for 10 downtown city blocks!!!
Large empty parking lots: Hobby Lobby at N. Lamar, and the examples go on and on and on…


I agree with you. The Honorable Mayor Wynn’s New Urbanism Vision Imagine Austin has been totally ignored by the Mayor and City of Austin Texas Oligarch, Pro California Realestate Evaluations, and Pro Neighborhood Community Only District City Council Persons Alter (Got support from Allandale and Rosedale Neighborhoods when they are not part of District 10) Pool, and Tavo. They are only for their own political gains at the expense of Austin as a whole. Our property values in Central Austin will surpass San Francisco once Biotech Startups and Boston Money :moneybag: as well as Silicon Valley money moves into the urban core in greater numbers. Where are the neighborhood centers? Not at Anderson Lane/Mopac/ Burnet Area. Not at Anderson Mill Area. Those City of Austin Texas Council persons and Mayor Adler should be ashamed. Use my Twitter Hasgtag #codenextnoway to voice your opposition and dissatisfaction of the current version of Codenext. It’s a complete failure of the Imagine Austin Plan if Codenext is approved. We need new leadership at City Hall.

@harren, we agree on so much, except the conclusion, therefore must be looking at a pretty important variable differently. Time. I don’t buy the Chronicle’s propaganda that CodeNEXT is one for the ages, a once in a lifetime change that will shape Austin for 50 years. I will give you even odds on whether the 2018 map is significantly redone within 10 years. I know we are in a time of I want it now, I want it my way or the highway, but if Imagine Austin is a goal to achieve by 2039 you don’t have to have it all laid out in 2018 to get there.

Like any member you should be free to have your say, but when the header says FAN Board Member, then you go on to “imply” the Mayor is a Segregationist, I take exception with that, and if it was a Board position would turn in my badge. ADU’s are now allowed places where they were not before, not perfect, but progress. A CodeNEXT will likely be passed that is another step forward, but we only get steps forward with a Mayor in office who is pointing that direction. Anything that causes one vote to not be cast supporting change, is done in support of status quo.

@Michael_McGrail Absent a significant natural or economic event, Austin property values will not surpass San Francisco or come anywhere close to it because of both supply (capacity / cost of earthquake proofing) and demand (including salary) differences. Austin is a state capital and university town, we can’t move all the government employees to Buda, and I can’t see the State paying them San Francisco salaries. I do agree CM’s Alter, Pool, Tovo are pointing in the same direction. CM Flannigan, Renteria, and Kitchen were at the Mayor’s campaign kick-off. My guess is we will get a CodeNEXT that both the Mayor and CM Kitchen can live with for 2018, the version CM Gallo could have lived with is off the table. Let’s all look at the mirror and move on, I for one at least was block walking trying to get the vote out.

Phil, this article is clearly my individual opinion, and nothing else. I have nothing to do with the fact that the forum shows me to be a board member when I post something, and frankly I was not aware of that feature. So in the event you are troubled by forum readers knowing that I am a board member, I want to make it very, very clear that this article is not a FAN adopted position.

Secondly, however, I find your comments about “time” to be quite troubling. It is a fact that what is on the table in 2018 in terms of residential zoning policy represents virtually no change from what was adopted for the same residential areas 90 years ago pursuant to the 1928 comprehensive plan, which was explicitly and specifically racist. How slow is slow enough for progressive change? We did not become America’s most economically segregated city by accident. It’s far past time that we confront segregation openly and aggressively.

I would suggest that we discuss this in further detail offline.


@Phil_Wiley Thank you as always for participating in these discussions. It is important that everyone, whether FAN board member, FAN individual member, or other members of the public be free to express opinions respectfully in this forum.

I recognize that you are concerned about @harren advocating for his views with “FAN Board Member” attached to his name, and that you believe it implied he was officially speaking on behalf of FAN. However, please note that:

  1. The forum software automatically attaches the “FAN Board Member” (or similar officer) designation to every post by a FAN board member. The label provides factual information and does not imply, as you seem to have interpreted, that every single statement a FAN board member makes in this forum represents an official position of FAN.
  2. FAN’s policy positions are determined solely by supermajority votes of the full membership. Members of the board do not determine the policy positions of the organization.

Moreover, if any board member, or any member of FAN, wishes to make a written statement reflecting FAN’s adopted policy positions, you will generally find that statement in a blog entry or in a media release or letter on FAN letterhead, generally after vetting to ensure it truly reflects the positions the membership has voted to adopt.

@harren did not imply the the mayor is a segregationist; he simply pointed out that one of the practical implications of exclusionary zoning policies he has defended is to perpetuate segregation. If we are to believe the research and what the Obama Council of Economic Advisers and Department of Housing and Urban Development has stated regarding land use regulations, this notion should not be controversial.

For comparison, consider a conversation about the impacts of eating choices on animal welfare. (I am an omnivore, so the following scenario is purely hypothetical.) Imagine I told my wife, “When you choose to eat meat, you are perpetuating a system in which humans slaughter millions of innocent animals every year, with many of the animals raised under inhumane conditions. I believe it is shameful.” Am I calling my wife a mass murderer and torturer, which are personal insults, or am I expressing an opinion as part of legitimate discourse?

Speaking entirely for myself as a neighborhood advocate, I will be supporting the mayor in his reelection bid, because I believe he will do more to advance the cause of neighborhood inclusion and improvement than any other viable candidate would. At the same time, I fully support anyone who speaks the truth about the practical effects of certain policies and approaches the mayor has advocated. No one should have to “turn in their badge” for doing so.

Cowardice asks the question: "Is it safe?"
Expediency asks the question: "Is it politic?"
Vanity asks the question: "Is it popular?"
But conscience asks the question: “Is it right?”

And on some positions, it is necessary for the moral individual to take a stand that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because it is right.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

@harren, happy to talk offline, we have a tradition of trying to find common ground and/or expose our differences here, so allow me this.

I am not troubled by the fact that people can see you are a FAN Board member, anymore than I am that it is public record I voted for your second term, and have expressed enormous appreciation for the work you, @rcauvin @Pete_Gilcrease , among others did to get FAN started.

At this point in time we appear to have one candidate for Mayor who has openly and aggressively advocated for the policies that most concern you, and myself. You could call it “preaching” because that is what heart felt advocacy is. We have another who, in my opinion, knows it is not sustainable long term, but has tolerated / accepted / acquiesced that large portions of the population are not ready for the inevitable, and concluded middle ground is the only way forward short term. Upon very close scrutiny, I remain convinced that the choice of words in your post, likely unintentionally, implied the later was a like minded “preacher”. Unfortunately your opinion piece, completely unknown to you, carrier a banner of Board Member, which some new here, or mischievous, might conclude or imply as a FAN position statement. I appreciate your clarifying the situation, and think it best for FAN that you did so.

As for @rcauvin thanks for clarifying for the public how things work at FAN. Related to the Dr. King quote

And on some positions, it is necessary for the moral individual to take a stand that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because it is right.

If you think my speaking openly was not intended to be in the best interest of the organization, it’s members, it’s cause, i.e because it is right, please tell me if you suspect I sinned on door #1, #2, or #3. The only badge I offered or asked to be turned in was my own, and if the shoe fits I will wear it.