CodeNext may be exhausting, but rewriting our land use laws from 1984 is our opportunity to decide what kind of city we want to be. We’ve all seen friends leave for cities where it’s easier to build a good life for their families, but we’ve never truly reckoned with the fact that our government strongly shapes who gets to live where. We’ve consistently used that power to make it hard for people to live where they want.
It didn’t end with the city’s development plan of 1928, which segregated minorities to the east side of town. Our zoning laws today continue to make it harder for people of average means to live in the parts of town they want to choose for their families.
Our community’s stated intentions have often been good: We made it hard to pave over the land where water filters to Barton Springs and the aquifer on the west side of town. But making it difficult to build cheaper homes on less land guaranteed that our neighborhoods would get more and more exclusive. We made that choice together in 1992 during the Save Our Springs effort and shifted development to the east. The communities that were already there were forced to move further east as the wealthiest pursued their Manifest Destiny.
It’s not shadowy money-grubbers pushing people out of this city; it’s us. If we want people to be able to live where they want, we must legalize housing for more families throughout the city and subsidize housing to fill in the gaps where the free market never will.
We’ve watched prices rise and families be displaced because we’ve never allowed enough homes to let more people live where they want at prices they can afford. Our laws do the opposite: They’re designed to stratify our neighborhoods and concentrate affluence and poverty instead of providing equal opportunity.
If we’re fine with the city we’ve become, then sticking with the status quo is an option. We are not obligated to be a progressive, inclusive city. But if we do care, then we must put policies in place that allow us to coexist. Displacement is not normal; it’s the result of policies we put in place when coexistence wasn’t what this city wanted. We made it illegal for neighborhoods to grow; instead, people get pushed out.
We can start to stabilize prices with CodeNext if we legalize “missing middle” housing types — such as “six-plexes” and townhomes — that can provide homes for more families in our central neighborhoods. Yes, that would change the character of our neighborhoods. The status quo is what makes it so hard for people who were born and raised here to put down roots in the city they love. The status quo is what raises people’s rent and pushes them further and further out of the city.
If we choose an Austin where only expensive, single-family homes can be built in large swaths of the city, then we’re choosing an Austin without service workers, integrated schools and effective mass transit. Instead, we should legalize housing and support housing bonds that can help so many more families stay in their homes or choose to live in the neighborhoods that work best for them. Choosing a neighborhood is one of the most important decisions a family makes — and we’ve done a poor job of making choices available to all Austinites.
Together, we shape who lives where. We should use that power to benefit as many Austinites as possible. We should treat people who want to live in our neighborhoods the same way Austinites already treat people who want to learn our cultures, join our churches or perform on our stages. We should welcome them.
Babalola runs DesegregateATX, an effort to educate Austin about exclusionary zoning.