I returned home today from a summit aimed at generating ideas for improving and retaining the affordability of living here in Austin. The speakers addressed the concept from seven key tenets of affordability—housing, transportation, energy, taxes, food, healthcare, and technology. I attended the summit because I wanted to be inspired by others on how to address living affordably in Austin (or anywhere, for that matter). And, possibly because I could have something to add to the conversation. The truth is that I’ve studied this problem because I’m passionate about this problem, because I’ve lived this problem.
I think that when the public envisions affordability, they immediately picture affordable housing. More specifically, they imagine subsidized housing, often as bland apartments devoid of landscaping or amenities, inhabited by low-income minorities. It is a shame that we’ve reduced our concept of affordability to this stereotype, even to the point that we have developed a code language used at public meetings to fight against the nearness of “those people.” The reality is that affordability is (and should be) important to all of us.
Spending the first part of my career working in the D.C. area taught me a great deal about the cost of living. There I was, making what I believed was a decent wage as a single person; yet, I could not even afford my own apartment, let alone own a home. With a car payment, high insurance costs, student loan payments, and other necessities, I was reduced to renting a room in an apartment with strangers and working a second job to try and reduce my debt.
I longed for Texas then because it promised that I could afford a better quality of life. So when I moved here five years ago I expected that to be true. And it was, to an extent. I took a major pay cut to join AmeriCorps as a full-time volunteer for a year. In fact, my stipend was at just 105 percent of the Federal poverty level. What surprised me was how similar my quality of life was in Waco to what it was in Maryland, where I earned three times more income. I was still sharing a home with people I hadn’t previously known, I still had a car, and I still had food in my stomach (I actually gained weight that year, but that’s a different story!).
Fast forward five years, and now I am a new Austin resident, joined by the droves of others who are driving, flying, and busing here every day to start fresh. But, what the thousands of us relocating to Austin every year are discovering is a harsh reality about what our money gets us…or doesn’t get us.
When considering moving here after finishing my Master’s degree this spring, I had a budget in mind for what my wife and I could afford to pay for rent. But in a city where the average rental occupancy is over 97 percent, our priorities had to shift. Soon, a decision about where we wanted to live became a decision about what was available in our short timeline. And, it didn’t come cheap. Our rent here is nearly 80 percent higher than it was in College Station, and roughly double what we paid in Waco just two years ago. It’s tough to swallow when I write that check.
After my car was totaled in January 2011, my wife and I made the decision to survive with just one car. After our adjustment period, it worked quite well for us in Waco. We had the luxury of working just two blocks from each other, so either of us could access the car if we needed to leave for an appointment or to grab lunch. In College Station, we found an apartment that included a shuttle to campus, so that I could get back and forth from class. We rented a car on those occasions where we needed two vehicles. My best estimate is that we saved at least $9,000 over those two years by sharing one car.
But now we’re back to being a two-car household because both our home and my office are in largely car-dependent areas of the city. In fact, our apartment complex is only accessible from a major freeway. Yet, if just for my sanity I hope to soon live in a place where I can commute without driving onto one.
As newbies to the Austin area, I was most surprised to find out how varied utility costs can be from city to city—even within Texas. We were told to expect water and wastewater bills of about twice what we were used to paying. I’m sure we weren’t the only ones shocked by that news.
Well, this topic is one for another day, but I will say that we can’t expect better schools, greener parks, a stronger police force, and great infrastructure while still demanding reduced taxes. That dream world of ‘more for less’ simply doesn’t exist. Moving on…
One of the things I appreciated most about the person who spoke on this topic at today’s summit was his approach that food affordability is not about the product on the shelf, but about the food system as a whole. So often we narrowly think about food in terms of what it costs us at the grocery store, without ever considering what it takes to get that food there—the billions of dollars spent on food advertising and, more alarmingly, the billions spent by the Federal government to subsidize the production of low-nutrient foods. Of all the points made during this particular discussion, it was most shocking for me to learn that 80 percent of the antibiotics produced are being used to treat animals.
If there ever were a touchy subject in today’s political climate, healthcare would be it. Yet, access to affordable health care is one of the biggest obstacles we face as a country. One point that stood out to me was that part-time workers in the service industry are the most likely to go without health coverage; yet, this industry is one that is growing daily to support the lives of those with more disposable income (and not coincidentally, adequate health insurance).
Even with health benefits available to me, I worry about what the financial burden would be if I were to need significant medical care in the future. In the last two years alone I have had both an endoscopy and an MRI, the latter of which cost me close to a thousand dollars in addition to my regular insurance premiums. For a low-income household, that dollar amount could easily be the difference between having a home and being on the street.
Often forgotten in discussions about affordability, access to technology is something that will only become more critical in the future. Job searches and applications are more and more automated. Banking can be done almost exclusively from a smartphone. Yet, alarming numbers of elderly and low-income minorities do not have adequate access to the internet. Instead, some continue to rely on classified ads for their job hunt and on expensive “financial services” to pay bills and transfer money to others.
The cost of technology is certainly a factor, as prices for home internet access, a phone with data capabilities, and even cable television can easily reach several hundred dollars per family per month when combined. And, in some cases, opting out isn’t even an option. Here at our apartment complex, basic cable (and I mean basic!) is mandated in our contract at a hefty rate of 53 dollars per month. This doesn’t even include a cable box, digital video recording, and even some local HD channels.
So what can we do to right the course of the ship that has been speedily sailing into unreachable waters? For starters, Austin is in a prime position to address many of these issues as it begins work on completely rewriting its land development code—the so-called teeth behind the recently adopted Imagine Austin master plan. We have an opportunity to demand a higher concentration of homes built near where transit is expected to be constructed and to demand that we can (legally) add garage apartments or backyard cottages to help defray our mortgage costs. We can also push to ensure land is developed more efficiently by reevaluating parking requirements and encouraging infill development where excess parking exists. We should even go further, demanding that new development be connected to the surrounding neighborhood, rather than isolated like many suburban subdivisions and apartment complexes.
We should be working to rethink our property tax structure, so that it doesn’t unfairly burden lower-income homeowners when the values of surrounding properties rise. Even more, we should find ways to maintain affordability for current renters rather than allowing landlords to simply push them out for higher-paying tenants.
Today’s summit was entitled ‘100 Ideas for an Affordable Austin,’ and I’m hopeful that at least as many ideas were generated during those few hours on a Saturday. I was pleased to see such a decent crowd present at this event, including educators, planners, architects, students, retirees, nonprofit developers, real estate agents, and even some of those who need the work of this group the most.
Personally, my mind has been full—both with disappointment at the injustice of how we’ve made living unaffordable, and with hope that our collective voices can make even a small difference.