Austin is proud — even smug, some say — of its reputation as the state’s most progressive city. From the tree protection ordinance the City Council passed in 1983 to the paid parental leave policy it approved last month — both the first such measures in Texas — it has cruised the leading edge of environmental and social issues.
But a University of Texas study released last week documents a surprising divergence from that activist stance: the city’s longstanding failure to enact adequate policies to protect its citizens from substandard conditions in rental housing, where more than half its population lives.
“We were shocked at what we found when we compared what Austin was not doing compared to other cities around the country,” said Heather Way, director of the UT School of Law clinic, whose students authored the study. “Austin has frankly had a laissez-faire attitude toward problem properties going back 10 or 20 years.”
According to the 88-page report, the city’s lax approach has resulted in ineffectual code enforcement on every front: identifying and monitoring even the most egregious code violations; getting substandard rental housing fixed and taking action against landlords who fail to correct unlawful conditions. Austin has 30 code enforcement officers assigned to neighborhood-related issues; Dallas has 200. In 2012 Dallas issued 1,173 citations just for building code violations; Austin issued 169 citations for all land-use violations, including building codes. Only 19 were at multifamily properties.
In a city nicknamed “the Portland of Texas” — the real Portland in Oregon started its own landlord training program in 1989 — how did that happen?
“That’s a fascinating question,” said city demographer Ryan Robinson.
The usual answer: It was only yesterday that Austin was a laid-back college town, blessed with a wide choice of cheap, decent places to live and no need for policies dealing with gritty urban issues like housing blight. But in fact, Austin graduated to the big leagues decades ago, leading the growth that has made the Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos area the 11th largest metropolitan area in the country and upending old assumptions about itself. But in fact, Austin graduated to the big leagues decades ago, rapidly growing into the 11th largest city in the country and upending old assumptions about itself.
In just 20 years, Austin went from being one of the most affordable rental housing markets in the country (based on 1970-1990 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development data) to one of the least affordable. An estimated 57 percent of renters in Austin are unable to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rates, putting the city in company with Newark, N.J.; Reno, Nev.; and San Jose, Calif., according to the latest analysis by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Today, Austin apartment rents average more than $1,000 a month — the highest in Texas — squeezing the poor and less poor at the bottom of the rental market, where the so-called problem properties cluster. And Robinson doesn’t expect the thousands of new apartments under construction in close-in neighborhoods to lower prices much in the short term, contrary to what the law of supply and demand might indicate.
“My sense is that the net result … will be to simply increase the collective cachet and appeal of the urban core and make it that much more expensive,” he said earlier this year.
Changing demographics make more Austinites vulnerable to the hazards of a runaway market. The foreign-born population — among the least likely to complain about lousy housing conditions — more than doubled. Home ownership declined. More than 57 percent of Austin households live in places they don’t own — about the same as Washington, D.C., and a higher percentage than in Chicago, San Diego, Houston, Dallas.
Perhaps the most telling indicator of how times have changed: Nearly half of all rental households in Austin — 48.6 percent — are “cost burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent.
Statistics like those point to big-city realities, and a more plausible reason for the laissez-faire approach to housing issues. Interviews with current and former public officials, real estate experts and citizen activists suggest that Austin has simply lacked the political will to do things differently.
“We have very laudable standards on the environment and are willing to go to bat, even to war on those issues,” said Kurt Cadena-Mitchell, a leader with Austin Interfaith, which supports some form of rental registration. “To go to war for the poor, that type of will is not embedded here.”
“My view of it is we’re not as progressive in some areas as our reputation says we are,” said Democratic media consultant Dean Rindy, who has been involved in City Council politics for 40 years. “I describe the majority as neo-liberal — that is, socially liberal but often aligned with corporate interests and the business community.”
In Austin, real estate and oroperty development have long been outsized players in that community. Both the Austin Apartment Association and the Austin Board of Realtors have vigorously resisted any move to require all multifamily property owners to register with the city and submit to periodic code violations. They say that the city should make better use of the enforcement tools it already has, including stiffer penalties and more aggressive prosecution of repeat offenders.
However, the apartment group does favor the more narrowly focused inspection program proposed by Council Member Bill Spelman, which applies only to landlords with a history of code violations. After first opposing it, the Realtors now say they support it, too.
“We genuinely want the issues of health, safety, blight and crime mitigated,” said Rachel Fischer, spokeswoman for the apartment association. Such a program “should focus on bringing properties into compliance as quickly and efficiently as possible,” she said.
The last time Austin made a concerted effort to bring problem properties in line was in the 1990s, using one of the federal grants that the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration gave cities to help clean up crime-ridden neighborhoods. Around the same time Dallas started its own Support, Abatement, Forfeiture, Enforcement (SAFE) unit; unlike Austin’s, it still operates today. Dallas pays the tab, $1.2 million a year.
But when Austin’s grant money ran out, the city “just went back to ordinary code compliance,” recalled Jay Adkins, a former assistant city attorney who worked the cases.
“It seemed to me a very effective program,” Adkins told the American-Statesman. “It’s not like we were going to ordinary, well-maintained apartment complexes and looking at picky things. We were targeting places that were a nexus for crime, drugs, prostitution. People came out and shook us by the hand, thanked us for being there.”
Former Mayor Bruce Todd served on the City Council between 1991 and 1996, during that short-lived enforcement effort. A lot was going on. The Texas economy had crashed, filling homeless shelters to capacity. Thousands of people were living on the streets of Austin, prompting the council in late 1995 to pass a controversial ordinance — sponsored by Todd and backed by the downtown business community — making public encampments illegal.
The availability of low-income housing was a pressing concern, not its condition, said Todd. “I don’t recall anybody pushing that issue. Political will seems to be driven by crisis as much as anything else. Until there were examples of substandard housing from a compliance standpoint, it wouldn’t have risen to public awareness.”
A myopia peculiar to Austin also played a role. “The fact that we’ve been so organically successful as a city — things have been so good here for so long — leads to a perception that whatever it is, it’s not broken, everything is fine,” said Robinson.
A turning point came last year, with the collapse of a walkway at the Wood Ridge Apartments. By then Austin’s SAFE team — which had raided the same apartment complex back in 1997 — was long gone. Dozens of multifamily properties were accumulating complaints and citations — but paying few penalties — for violating fire, safety and building codes, city records dating from 2007 show.
In 2000, when Robert Doggett, now general counsel with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, was an assistant city attorney in Dallas taking landlords of problem properties to court, he visited Austin to see how it was handling such cases. He was surprised to find that the legal department had not assigned attorneys to pursue them.
“They said, ‘Robert, we don’t have these problems in our city. Our system works fine,’” Doggett recalled
In 2009, the Austin City Council initiated meetings of “stakeholders” to advise city staff how an ordinance should be crafted requiring registration and periodic inspections of multifamily rental properties. But in typical Austin fashion, 16 meetings over the course of a year produced zero consensus over whether such an ordinance was even needed.
“There was no kumbaya moment with people joining hands and saying, let’s target this,” said Mary Ingle, a member of the North University Neighborhood Association. “It was kind of a free-for-all.”
The only tangible result was a February 2011 one-page memo to the council from William Rhodes, then director of code compliance, stating that before the city could develop a registration program it needed to conduct a survey detailing the condition of Austin’s apartment stock — numbering at least 135,000 units. In other words, forget about it.
Neighborhood representatives complained the discussions were dominated by the real estate groups, whose members attended the daytime meetings in far greater numbers. “There would be maybe three or four of us versus 20 or 30 of them, no exaggeration,” said Jolene Kiolbassa with the Heritage Neighborhood Association. “We had no idea what we were up against.”
“We were not shy about our concerns and apprehension in opposition to that program,” said Emily Chenevert, spokeswoman for the Realtors, “and will continue to communicate directly with the council so they can be aware of our feelings on the issue.” She saw the stakeholder process differently — as a “collaborative environment” that addressed a broad range of neighborhood concerns, from occupancy limits to nuisance abatement.
Like the apartment association, the board says that citywide registration and inspection would be a bad use of city resources and would unnecessarily burden hundreds of Austin landlords in order bring the relatively few “bad actors” to account. On its website, the political action committee for its parent group, the Texas Association of Realtors, pledges to work hard “to make sure such legislation does not get implemented in your communities.”
The same “bad actor” argument was made in Fort Worth in 1996 and in Houston in 2009. But in both cities, apartment associations got on board with the new programs. They were pushed, said participants in those policy discussions, by elected leaders — and political realities.
“You have very well-organized neighborhood association groups of single-family homeowners who believe apartment properties are dragging down home values.” said Perry Pillow, with the Apartment Association of Tarrant County. “At the end of the day, if the votes are there for this, you have to be a realist.”
In Houston, city officials got the Legislature to order Houston to pass an ordinance not only mandating regular inspections of more than 5,000 apartment buildings, but setting minimum standards for their habitability, health and safety. (The city sought the legislation to protect it against possible lawsuits by apartment owners.)
“We developed the political will for that,” said Andy Icken, now Houston’s director of economic development. As mayor, Bill White pushed the issue after a stairway collapsed at an apartment complex in 2008, killing two children. A Democrat who soon became a candidate for the U.S. Senate, White gained an unlikely ally in state Rep. Dwayne Bohac, a Tea Party Republican in whose district a Houston police officer had been shot to death during a pursuit at an apartment complex known for its criminal activity.
Bohac sponsored the enabling legislation, calling it “a basic human rights bill” for tenants. “The basic right is to live in a structurally sound, safe environment where there is running water at the right temperature and they don’t have to be fearful walking through their parking lot and it’s lighted correctly and the balconies aren’t falling down and the pools are protected,” he told the Houston Chronicle.
The Houston Apartment Association fought the ordinance at first. “The inspection program was going to be onerous, and probably illegal,” said Andy Teas, spokesman for the group. “We worked with the city for more than a year and came up with something we can support.”
Apartment owners can register online for free — “a master stroke,” said Teas. Inspections ($4 per unit) are on a five-year cycle, and include interior inspections of 10 percent of the apartments in a complex. An excellent score allows the owner to skip the next inspection in the cycle.
Icken said the new system is working well. The apartment association so far has no complaints.
“Nobody hates a bad property more than someone who is trying to operate a good property nearby,” Teas told the Houston Chronicle. “It only brings down values.”
One thing no ordinance will fix: the white-hot Austin rental market that has eliminated the promotional deals — one month’s free rent, no deposit — that can make it possible for people to leave their shoddy apartments for something better. The cheapest apartments are in such demand (the occupancy rate is 99 percent in the oldest, least attractive complexes) that tenants are reluctant to complain, fearing they won’t be able to find another home if evicted.
“A lot of people are trapped,” said Ken Craig, a lay minister with the St. Vincent de Paul Society. “It’s just too expensive for them to move.”
The same market forces are also making those affordable, “Class C” properties prime candidates for investors who upgrade and increase the rents. When apartments are torn down or rehabbed in Arlington, a displaced family can easily find another option, but in Austin “there’s no place to go,” said Walter Moreau, executive director of Foundation Communities, a nonprofit provider of low-income housing in both cities.
Because of that relentless gentrification, Moreau believes that “Austin doesn’t have a lot of really rundown apartments compared to other cities in Texas. It’s convenient to say political will hasn’t been there, but it reflects the market reality of our situation.”
One believer — an important one — in rental registration is Carl Smart, who heads Austin’s code compliance department. Smart had the same job in Fort Worth, where the real estate industry has worked with city hall in tweaking its registration program over the years.
“We have common interests,” said Smart. “The key is it becomes like a partnership instead of a hardship.”
Note: An earlier version of this article said incorrectly that Austin is the nation’s 11th largest metropolitan area. The population of the metro area, which includes neighboring counties, ranks 35th. The city proper ranks 11th.
Special Report: Read findings of the Statesman’s investigation of inadequate building code enforcement
Interactive: Locations of high-complaint properties
Video: Tenants tell their stories
UT study: Link to full text of research report