Can Austin find a comprehensive policy on affordability, mobility?


They assembled at Scholz Garden, the Austin power brokers, their associated gadflies and a handful of academics mingling in the smoker-scented side room that has hosted so many political gatherings over the years.

Ostensibly, they met to consider a series of proposals to preserve affordability in this booming metro area, ideas that came from Liveable City, a local coalition of researchers and activists that re-emerged from dormancy with a report called “Reclaiming Affordability in Today’s Austin.”

The mayor and a couple City Council members pledged their efforts to addressing the vast affordability problem, and the report’s authors urged residents to use their recommendations as a platform for a multifaceted discussion.

The subsequent conversation, however, reverted to narrower points of interest. Concerns about walkability, the “Lexus Lanes” on MoPac, property taxes, development and transportation corridors — a laundry list of important details but, as is so often the case, considered separately and without an inspection of how those factors interplay within an extremely complex whole.

“There is no silver bullet,” said Michael Oden, a co-author of the report and director of the University of Texas’ Community and Regional Planning program. “There is no one thing we can do that will suddenly and substantially make the city more affordable, especially for middle- and low-income households.”

Rather, Oden said, making progress on affordability will require a reduction in both individual and interrelated costs of living.

So while he and his co-authors filed their recommendations under seven specific themes — taxes, housing, transportation, health, utilities, food and telecommunications — they set out to develop each suggestion with a mind toward its relationship to other factors.

“The approach in the report is not about changing any particular program, but to think about more things at once,” said Mark Yznaga, a co-author, political consultant and husband of City Council member Ann Kitchen. “It’s not dependent on any one area.”

The recommendations range from the feasible (identify areas of food insecurity and work to fill gaps) to the quixotic (lobby the Texas Legislature for required sales price disclosure for residential and commercial real estate).

But while state law and other restrictions limit the policies Austin-area governments can pursue, Central Texas might never have a better opportunity to tackle its biggest challenges.

The region’s rapid population and economic growth has delivered a level of prosperity that, even if not shared by all, provides the collective resources to undertake bold ideas — and a cushion for the occasional failure or recalibration.

And, perhaps even more important, research increasingly suggests that local efforts could do more to influence upward mobility than state or national initiatives.

‘Linkages and connections’

The Liveable City report is just one local contribution among a trove of research into this thorniest of urban problems. Yet for all the study, the rising cost of living in Austin and other U.S. cities often produces solutions that are necessary but not sufficient.

“In practice, there often are a number of strategies already at play that tackle these different issues,” said Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “But the extent to which those are coordinated or targeted varies.”

In April, Kneebone and her colleagues at Brookings released a report focused on the multidimensional nature of poverty in America. The study looked not only at income levels, but at how multiple layers of limited education, poor health care, concentrations of poverty and unemployment can raise barriers even higher.

The goal, Kneebone said, was to gain a better understanding of the mix of barriers that different low-income populations might face.

“The consensus is that a siloed approach isn’t going to do it,” she said. “The policy response has to be multifaceted and integrated.”

Policy makers around the country have started to make those “linkages and connections,” she said, developing policies that, for example, combine housing strategies with health outcomes and other social safety nets.

For example, health care research has started to drive further upstream, looking into home, community and social issues as key factors in patient wellbeing. The Dell Medical School created its Department of Population Health in part to study and address these factors.

Stablize costs, boost incomes

As Kneebone notes, elected officials and interested citizens understand that major issues require a blend of integrated and calibrated answers. Few of Austin’s affordability debates pass without references to both housing and transportation factors.

It’s a good start, but the policymaking process does not readily absorb added complexity. The idea of an omnibus affordability bill is unlikely enough, and even if possible it would require coordination with multiple regional governments and agencies.

The city and the region haven’t shied away from comprehensive thinking. Central Texas governments and private entities have coordinated strategies across a variety of initiatives, from regional transportation planning to business recruitment efforts.

The city itself has also launched sweeping efforts — such as Imagine Austin and CodeNext — but in many cases those initiatives fail to spur similarly sweeping changes.

Such is governance. The idea of crafting comprehensive, flexible policy is difficult precisely because it requires a political restraint that doesn’t easily translate into campaign success. It essentially asks citizens to recalibrate how they balance their individual and community interests.

Yet doing so could pay off in multiple ways. The same initiatives that address the cost side of Austin’s affordability challenges might also lower barriers to upward mobility for all Central Texas residents, unleashing more of the region’s economic potential.

Recent research suggests that many of the strongest predictors of economic mobility – education, mixed-income neighborhoods, shorter commutes and stronger families – are most effectively addressed at a local level.

None of the remedies are easy, of course, and many of them would have to counter or marshal powerful market forces.

But if Austin can find a way to address these issues in a comprehensive manner, it might do more than just stabilize the rising cost of living. It might give residents the resources to afford even more.


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