Flipping the Script: From Affordability to Ability to Afford

I live in Austin Texas where the two most common topics of conversation these days are affordable housing and manageable traffic. When I think about them I’m reminded of the “Your Home Sweet Home Is My Home” episode of the old “Dick Van Dyke Show” in which Rob & Laura find a house that seems perfect until they get to the basement in which an enormous boulder resides consuming the space. The real estate agent wants to sell the house and encourages them to think of ways to make the boulder useful or at least disguise it and Laura even goes so far to suggest that they all take a few steps back and perhaps then the rock won’t seem so big. Needless to say, it’s quite funny, yet ultimately futile, and they decide against purchasing the house.

Why does this seemingly random pop culture reference come to mind? It is a great illustration about how issues shaping our lives are handled in many cities, including Austin. Housing and traffic are huge elements affecting the quality of life experienced by the average Austin resident. The policymakers and developers really like selling the idea of Austin and know neither issue can be equitably solved without the active participation of the community members who are living with the problem every moment of every day. Residents are encouraged to step back from the issues and gain perspective. And, just as in the Dick Van Dyke episode, many long-time residents are choosing to opt out and are looking for another ‘house’.

How can this be solved? The simple labels of ‘Housing’ and ‘Traffic’ are covering up a complex set of issues that can only be solved in partnership with the community bearing the heaviest burden of those problems. There is not one simple top-down fix that will make housing affordable or traffic negotiable. When the city creates an ‘affordable’ housing solution, it often shifts the financial costs from the housing column to the transportation column.  And this only looks at the monetary costs saved, excluding the physical and mental health costs plus the time away from friends, family & community, all the things that make life enjoyable…definitely not a sustainable exchange. The loss of this community wealth might not be noticed by the newer residents, but is leaving large holes in the fabric of our community, without those holding the history of Austin sharing that wealth, the future is incomplete.

This brings me back to my opening thought: flipping the script from ‘affordability’ to ‘ability to afford’. At first glance these might seem to share a similar message. However, the former measures value from the outside based on averages and potentials; the latter speaks to changing the model to strengthen the individual’s ability to access more knowledge and options. Investing in people is always the best bet, it is where innovation is born and commitment to community resides.  I don’t think it’s too late to rewrite the future of Austin, or any other city, however it is going to take community members to come together around shared values to demand a seat at the table. And, if they are denied, to make their own table and get on with the task of deepening their community roots, planting and growing the trees that will provide shade for generations to come.

This week’s inspirational article…

The Cost of Community vs. Living Close

Rachel Quednau, Contributor & Communications Specialist at Strong Towns.

How much additional gas, parking passes and car repairs must residents spend as a result of living in auto-centric areas, and, after calculating that, are they really saving anything with the cheaper suburban house?