Keep Austin Weirdly Unaffordable
Austin's Resistance to Land Use Reform Keeps the Weirdos Out
Have you heard about the best city in America? Everyone is super chill, each business is locally-owned, the cost of admission to the coolest concert in town is the price of a cheap beer, and the houses are all affordable. There’s something different in the spring-fed waters there that makes it distinct, unique, more interesting than some run-of-the-mill Midwestern metro or coastal-elitist megalopolis. It’s the vibe, you know. Some folks like to say this place is a little weird—and we ought to keep it that way.
I’m talking about Old Austin. We’d love to have y’all for a visit sometime—just hop in your time machine and you’ll be right on your way.
Old Austin is the city that used to be; it doesn’t exist anymore. Mourning the Austin of yore is a popular pastime for long-time Austinites who have watched it change before their eyes. The city’s unofficial motto, “Keep Austin Weird,” captures both a lamentation and a plea.
The slogan sprung fully-formed from the head of librarian Red Wassenich in the Year 2000. Though it seemed like an off-the-cuff remark on a radio program, it reflected Wassenich’s more deep-seated nostalgia for a lost past. A New York Times profile captures both the longing and disdain of the phrase’s creator:
He had watched unhappily as Austin, his funky, once affordable hometown, had been transformed into a high-tech boomtown. Suddenly, people in expensive clothes driving expensive cars were buying houses at ridiculously expensive prices. Restaurants held wine-tasting parties at $50 a glass.
It was a common sentiment. The phrase caught on and really stuck when a group opposed to the expansion of a Borders Bookstore adopted it as a rallying cry—“Keep Austin Weird” meant “Keep Out.” What began as a lament for the way things were has been invoked ever since to protest things that might be.
For a city that has seen such transformative growth, it’s easy to understand the appeal of a motto that speaks to a romanticized notion of the past. But Austin’s past, going back to its founding in 1839, is one of near constant change.
The old streetcars of Congress Avenue gave way to passenger cars—and, against the protests of more than a few Old Austinites—will in the future make way for light-rail cars. South of Fourth Street, the gambling dens and brothels of Guy Town made way for less lubricious and licentious activities, lamentably requiring future politicians to do their misdeeds elsewhere. Moontowers used to be the sole source of electrified light over huge swathes of the city; today they are totems to an alien past. Fourth Street itself is a more-modern appellation, for Austin’s east-west streets originally bore the mellifluous names of Texas trees: Fourth used to be Cedar. Cesar Chavez replaced First Street which replaced Water Avenue, and MLK Boulevard replaced 19th Street which replaced Magnolia—and you can bet when Austin’s black community sought that renaming, a certain subset of Old Austin lamented that change, too. Not everything in Austin’s past should be remembered fondly.
Old Austinites eventually came to accept the street name changes, but not the ballooning prices of the homes along those streets. In a later interview, Red Wassenich again lamented the loss of affordability. “[W]eirdness requires cheapness,” the interviewer explains. “The kind of folks who can produce the city's unique culture—the live music, the oddball art—need to be able to afford to live there.” But, as Wassenich bemoans, “‘Now we have the highest cost of living in Texas. Most weirdos don't have a lot of money.’”
And that’s because of something that didn’t change in Old Austin: the land development code.
For nearly a century since the city implemented its first code, just like almost every other American city, Austin prioritized large-lot single-family homes to the exclusion of smaller, more affordable ones. And just like every other American city, Austin is experiencing the consequence of that policy: a surge in home prices that has driven lower-income people away. The housing shortage is now commonplace in nearly every place.
In that regard, Austin is not particularly weird. If the city has failed to keep its weirdness, it’s because Old Austin failed to transcend the crippling banality of its land use policies for so long.
The policymakers of yesteryear mistakenly sought to preserve the form of the city as it was—with its neighborhoods of low-rise, large-lot houses—missing the point that it was the people, and not the shape and size of the houses, that made the city weird. They chose to ossify a suburban housing model—one typically associated with The Stepford Wives and American Beauty—and were surprised to find that Austin eventually became as interesting as, well, the suburbs. To preserve the neighborhood character, Old Austin made it illegal to build the kind of housing that the characters in the neighborhood could have afforded. Nobody should be surprised that, priced out, the weirdos took the weird with them.
The weird thing is that Austin is trying to fix it.
Austin City Council got a belated start on some major policy reforms this year. Of course, “Keep Austin Weird” has been invoked at times in protest of these changes, which cumulatively will allow for more affordable home options to be built for the first time in generations. But there’s still a subset of resistance from the denizens of Old Austin who fail to recognize that their opposition to unstoppable social and economic changes has only made the consequences of that change worse. No one knows if the special sauce that once made Austin weird can be concocted again. But we do know that standing in the way of necessary reforms will not stop the city’s growth or bring back the creative weirdos who can no longer afford to live off of free beers and door money.
So rather than attempt to resurrect an Old Austin that no longer exists or never really did, Austin could try to do something truly weird: it could dispense with the exclusionary and often racist land use policies of the early Twentieth Century and try to build a New Austin for the Twenty-First. And one day in the future, the word might get out:
Have you heard about the best city in America?
It’s an eclectic crowd of teachers and techies, makers and musicians, artists, assembly-line workers, and rocket scientists. They live in vibrant neighborhoods, in homes affordable at a range of price points—townhouses and sky palaces for some, triplexes and tiny homes for others. It’s family-friendly, single-friendly, child-friendly, senior-friendly—hell, it’s just friendly. It’s got funky shops, corner stores, and yes, some big chains, too. But the streets are safe and clean, transit runs on time and often, and property taxes are reasonable. It’s still growing, of course, but they’re making room for everyone and solving problems as a community.
They say there’s something different in the spring-fed waters there, something about the vibe, you know. See, the people of New Austin—they look forward to the future and are building their city accordingly, and together.