Affordability is perhaps the most acute policy issue facing the City of Austin. Almost every other issue plays into it – economic growth, taxes, housing costs, transportation costs, quality of life, and cost of goods and services.
With so many things affecting affordability, it becomes wildly challenging to put your finger on one magic bullet solution. But one can discern at least two competing schools of thought: urban and suburban.
What Urbanists say:
- more urban growth means more tax income, and thus fewer taxes per resident.
- housing gets affordable if you build smaller homes, and wait for them to age.
- transportation is more affordable if people can swap their car for public transit.
- long-term, urban growth costs less because most of the infrastructure is already available in urban areas to support the new housing. Maintenance is cheaper, per capita.
(What Urbanists won’t say):
- new housing in urban areas is more expensive to build. Only rich people can afford it.
- ‘affordable’ urban housing consisting of mainly 1-BR units excludes families with children.
- spending by the wealthy drives up cost of goods and services for everyone else.
- concentration of the best amenities (parks, museums, libraries, civic features) in the central business district makes living there even more expensive
- short-term, investment to support more urban development will be quite high. Studies justifying cheaper infill growth are flawed – they assign the same unit costs for urban and suburban areas (for example ‘new parkland’ costs $300,000 an acre, which is wildly low for infill), and also assume that urban areas already have resources like open space needed to support density (not always true, especially in early suburban areas).
What Suburbanists say:
- housing in the suburbs is more affordable, because land is cheap, and so is construction of single family housing.
- soft costs (red tape, stakeholder conflicts) are lower for suburban development.
- suburban people don’t expect as many public comforts – culture, curbs, sidewalks, urban planning – all of which should reduce taxes.
- mass transit works poorly in the suburbs, so keep it minimal and reduce taxes. Technology advances in the coming 10 years may fix some problems like congestion or pollution.
(What Suburbanists won’t say):
- if you don’t build any new housing in the urban core, the existing housing becomes really expensive, and existing residents get priced out.
- urban housing is more expensive to build, but often cheaper to maintain.
- suburbs rely on highways that are increasingly expensive to maintain. Ever more of the cost of maintaining these highways is being passed on to all taxpayers, or to users in the form of toll roads.
- owning and maintaining a car is expensive; those who must commute across a metropolitan area to reach their jobs pay a high health cost in stress and lack of exercise.
- most suburbs are relatively new. As they age, costs to maintain infrastructure that is spread out over many miles will skyrocket, and taxes will climb.
- costs for police, fire and EMS consume much of Austin’s budget. These costs are higher in suburbs – it takes more personnel to achieve a 5-minute response time in a spread-out area, than in the urban core.
Austin is blessed with advocates for both these approaches. Look forward to a vigorous debate on affordability during the campaign, including on this site.
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