Where to Live in Austin If You Don’t Exist

Here’s something fun: I wrote an op-ed that the Austin American-Statesman published on Feb. 14. It was my response to a bit of news that I felt exposed a lot of disgusting hypocrisy, as well as indifference to the rights of others. You can’t read the whole thing online unless you’re a subscriber, but I still own the rights to the piece, so here it is:

Where to Live in Austin If You Don’t Exist

One of the things I noticed on moving to Austin is that it’s run by the sort of people who go around condemning others for not caring enough about the poor. We boast about being an island of blue in a sea of red, and we take pride in (among other things) our great concern for the poor. But sometimes one wonders whether that concern is something different, something less sincere. It can be hard to tell — except when the poor go looking for places to live, and then it isn’t.

One might wonder: if we the enlightened are so moved by concern for the poor, then why have we made it so difficult to build places where they can afford to live? There are people who would be happy to build low-income housing, because there is a real market for it, but there is so much red tape and hassle that it is effectively prohibited. Making builders beg so many permissions and kiss so many backsides at such great expense effectively prohibits anything but high-yield development. The result is that in this town that cares so much about the poor, either you’re fairly well off, or you can’t afford a place to live. And as long as nobody examines that too closely, we get to keep on talking about how much the poor matter to us, without actually thinking about them.

But when people are swept under the carpet, they seek ways to edge back out into the light, and then we discover in ourselves an impulse to stamp out that kind of radical thinking. That’s why Austin is currently considering a new rule that will make it illegal for more than four non-related people to live under the same roof. Out of necessity, that arrangement has become common. So we end up with developers building homes with a lot of bedrooms, or with large older homes being modified to the same end, which meets a need for those who can’t pay a lot of rent.

“Stealth dorms”: that’s what we’re calling that kind of housing. That’s clever, because it pretends that only college students need low-income housing in Austin, and so it wipes a whole class of people out of existence before the debate even begins — people who matter, and whose voicelessness we’ll conspicuously simper about the next time we find it convenient. It’s the kind of enlightened sneering that we’ve perfected for when we hate something people are doing, but can’t be bothered to offer actual justifications for taking away their freedom of choice.

It isn’t so different from the attitude that the North had towards blacks after the end of the Civil War. “We care so much about the plight of the poor southern blacks,” they’d pontificate, even as they invented ways to discourage them from moving in next door.

So it is with the elites of Austin, steering us all towards the better society in which we get to preach about how important it is to care about the poor, without allowing them to live where we can see them. It’s so much easier to be conspicuous about how much we care, when we never have to be reminded that they exist.

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