If you are twentysomething transplant living in Austin, within the last year, one of your best friends probably moved away. Even if it wasn’t your best friend, you’ve almost-certainly attended going away parties for others who landed another job or were accepted to graduate school. Whether we get too cool, get sick of it, or get priced out, people tend to come and go in this town.
These farewell gatherings are heavy-laden with nostalgia. We sip Lone Star on a porch and opine “the Old Austin;” that mythological place known by few, but claimed by most everyone,
What does it mean to belong to a place? In these settings, it often manifests in turf war style conversations where tenure is measured by how many dive bars you’ve seen shuttered. Maybe it’s something even more obscure, like how “what-used-to-be ____” ditched its dart board in a recent remodel. None of us ever played, to be sure, and yet, it’s absence has a presence. The more dart boards you remember, the longer you’ve been in Austin.
Our social calendars are dotted with these goodbyes, but, in seemingly equal proportion, we also gain the chance to revive friendships with old pals, recently-transplanted here. For every going-away soiree, an e-mail (subject line: “Hello Again!/ Neighborhood Tips Plz”) appears in your Inbox, awaiting a helpful reply.
This city continues to attract as many millennials as it hemorrhages because, turns out, Austinites can’t keep quiet. The secret is long-spoiled. Our economy is good. Winter is gentle. Tacos are delicious.
Underneath our “Don’t Move Here” shirts, we fundamentally remain welcoming to these newcomers. We share recommendations; our favorite “spots” (parking included); ghost stories about dart boards; because, at one point, we were newcomers. For once-transplants that now call this place home, something about Austin compels us to stay, and we want to share what we love about this place. We stay put because of jobs (or maybe, in spite of jobs), but, moreso because this place becomes home. Though I moved here with the flimsiest pretenses (and also left and came back), my life is now deeply interwoven with others whose story matches mine. The revolving door keeps whirring, but we are building community nonetheless.
Yet, as the city changes rapidly, I have realized that my ideas of what “community” means must shift as well. I find myself asking who can afford to stay here. Or whether Austin ten years down the road is one we still want to inhabit, still worthy of our Lone Star soaked nostalgia. More practically, I wonder if it’s one I can afford.
Though our city’s economic growth is laudable, it is increasingly important to consider who shares in that growth, and who will be able to remain in this city long-term. For Austin to retain its cherished weirdness, we also need to maintain levels of affordability that support a diversity of people, energies, professions, and backgrounds.
This November, we have a chance to support that vision by making a historic investment in our city’s housing stock. Following a nationally notable grassroots campaign, voters can approve $250 million towards affordable housing in the City of Austin. This funding will build homes attainable for low and middle-income earners, and simultaneously support long-term residents most at-risk for displacement. 40% of the bond will buy land to build permanently affordable housing via a community land trust model, while additional funding will support new rental properties, supportive housing for homeless individuals, low-income homeownership, and income-qualified home repair programs.
If, like so many of us, you’ve only lived here a short while, $250 million far exceeds any previous allocation for housing in Austin. A quick history lesson reveals that our last housing bond in 2013 approved $65 million (or, about a quarter of this November’s request), while a similar 2012 housing proposition failed altogether.
Study after study says we need this bond, offering evidence of how costs escalate relentlessly while wage growth remains only modest. This graph, pulled from the City of Austin’s 2017 Strategic Housing blueprint, illustrates that relationship all-too-clearly.
In other words, housing costs are skyrocketing, but our earnings are not. We want to stay, but can we afford it? While many of us treat this city like a playground during our twenties, our expectations shift dramatically as we consider whether to settle in or jump ship.
Anxiety around these realities manifests differently. Young professionals question whether this is a good place to grow a career, or if the home they can afford is the one they want. Meanwhile, as our supply of low-cost rentals dwindles, service industry workers and artists (i.e. those most responsible for “keeping it weird”) already bear the worst brunt, relegated to housing further from the city’s core. Neighborhoods once claimed by communities of color are in the foreground of these discussion; we now designate these areas “Cultural Heritage Districts.”
Demographic trends show that many of us will leave Austin entirely. Whether for Louisville or Lockhart, millennials are choosing to ditch the hustle in exchange for more time and space to support families, passion projects, and creative capacity. We moved here because we were attracted to the city’s affordability, creativity, and easygoing nature, but these qualities are now threatened. Fast-forward and it’s unclear whether the Austin of 2030 or 2040 has those qualities at all.
Even at present, the physical form of our city is changing. In areas with the most drastic infill development, like East Austin’s Govalle or Holly neighborhoods, contractor-built pop-up boxes appear seemingly overnight. Suburban growth in our surrounding communities casts an even more dramatic shadow, with Hays County clocking in as the nation’s 4th fastest growing county in 2018.
Against this backdrop, more subtle shifts in our socioeconomic and demographic make-up are underway too. For example, from 2011 to 2015, U.S. Census data shows that Austin households making 60% of Area Median Income (AMI) or less ($86,000 for a family of 4) decreased by 4,411, even as we gained a net 34,893 households citywide. This AMI measure is a common threshold for affordable housing eligibility, but also for much of our workforce, period. For example, Austin teachers make over $50K each year on average.
Clearly, this election comes at a critical tipping point in our city’s history. For many households, this bond is urgently-needed and the stakes are incredibly high. But for all of Austin, across all income brackets, we are currently fighting a battle for, as Mayor Adler puts it, “the soul of our city.”
As millennials, we are the chief inheritors of what these bonds will build and how it will impact our region. We are choosing what kind of city will keep us here, or what kind of city will allow us to stay.
Calling out our generation’s apathy is longtime low-hanging fruit, but it’s also no longer true. Recent Pew Institute research reveals that we outvoted Baby Boomers in 2016 and will soon be the largest voting bloc in America. In fewer words, we’ve got the power. While local candidates or referendums are rarely as energizing as Beto or Barack, that power can matter most in state and local elections, where margins are slim, and voter turnout is abysmal.
In a time when it’s never been more hip to be woke, let’s apply that awareness to our own backyard. As it stands, the loudest advocates in our local government aim to preserve a version of Austin they won’t be around to inhabit. Highly-organized resistance to our land development code rewrite (the-process-formerly-known-as-CodeNEXT) has already stymied progress around how much and where we can build more housing. It’s time we get loud too and create the community where we want to live.
Prop A is one way to make sure Austin remains the place we believed in that brought us here. It allows us to build a progressive, caring city, welcoming people of all income levels and aspirations. Prop A will support some of our neediest residents, yes, but also our teachers, artists, friends, and all those folks who actually used the dart boards before we all moved here in the first place. Voting for Prop A trades the transience of our endless going-away parties with a more progressive future vision for our city.
This funding will not house everyone in need; our most recent citywide housing plan calls for 135,000 new units to be built over the next decade. Still, it’s not too little, and it’s never too late. If the underbelly of our economic success is gentrification and displacement, this bond funding enables what few tools we have to abate those forces.
Voting for Prop A is a chance to reaffirm our belief in the Austin that first brought us here. If we are concerned for the “soul of our city,” this bond is a foundational fight in that battle, setting a historic precedent for the Austin we want to preserve and become. By choosing to vote in its favor, we not only support that vision, but also the right to stay and take part in its ongoing creation.
2018 Notley Fellow
Ellen Ray is an urban planner, committed to creating a more equitable built environment. Her work at Cambridge Systematics provides municipal, state, and federal transportation planning and policy solutions. She recently completed a master’s in City and Regional Planning at the Georgia Institute of Technology. While pursuing graduate studies, she worked at the Urban Land Institute, Federal Reserve Bank, and Jamestown L.P. and also served as president of her planning program’s student organization.
Originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma, Ellen received a BA in American Studies from Yale in 2012. Following graduation, she fled the Northeast to work as an Americorps VISTA in Mayor Leffingwell’s office in Austin, then coordinated community involvement initiatives for Capital Metro.
She bikes everywhere and is currently learning to play country-western bass.