All posts by tim

Sunstroke 5k #2 – 2011

Think this shows I’ve been futzing too much with technology over the last year and not pushing myself enough. A really slow start on a beautiful evening in the low eighties with a strong breeze.

Race Time Min/Mile
2 27:57 9:01

Why I can’t vote for Kathie Tovo

I’ve gotten educated about Kathie Tovo. I’ve read her interviews. I feel like I have a pretty good idea of where she stands on the issues. And I agree with her on quite a lot. But her stance on new development I think is going to stop Austin in its tracks. I know I’ve said Kathie Tovo was anti-development and that her stances will increase housing prices in Austin, pushing even more low-income residents out of the city proper, but I wanted to point out what she has actually said.

“The current TIA [Traffic Impact Analysis] is requirement is not sufficient. As our city becomes more dense, we do need
more accurate TIAs and not just for very large projects, but also for medium-sized ones as well.”

Traffic Impact Analysis is one of the easiest ways that neighborhoods block new development projects. And it’s one of the most meaningless. You can do the traffic impact on Barton Springs for a new building on Barton Springs. But does anyone ever do the traffic impact on Barton Springs for a new housing development in Round Rock? Dense buildings in central Austin may mean more cars, but they could also mean more people taking transit, biking or walking. More sprawl in Round Rock means more cars in Austin, period.

“Just a few of the many policies that would help include greater use of city land for housing, support for nonprofit housing developers, and improving the development process for affordable projects. I also pledge to support additional money for affordable housing in the proposed 2012 bonds.”

Her views on affordable housing is entirely that it can be done with tax dollars. While I will support these bonds if she is elected, I don’t think this is what most people in Austin think of when they think of Austin becoming un-affordable. The big problem is that this could easily lead to hollowing out the center of Austin even more. If the only housing in Austin becomes subsidized for the poor, and housing for the extremely wealthy, then we won’t have made much progress. Central Austinites will still be able to get their tables bused, and their lawns mowed, but there won’t be a creative-class or middle-class in Austin any longer. We have to build new housing in Austin until prices go down. It’s always interesting to me that people bemoan the bust of the eighties. The bust of the eighties was GREAT for the growth of this city. It provided tons of cheap property, made the city very affordable and allowed for explosive growth in the ninties. We need new development and we needed it two decades ago. If you’re not a millionaire you can choose to preserve Austin’s neighborhoods, or you can choose to be able to live in Austin. Pick one.

“continued development pressure and higher rents assure us of future issues as the music scene tries to adapt to the changing real estate market. One needed change would be greater attention to sound design before permits are granted both for venues and for new residential development coming up around our entertainment districts.”

I do think she has a point here, although perhaps not the one she intended. Rich people tend to have a lot of political power and they’re already turning down the volume in our city. In the future they may stop new development of music venues and remodeling of existing ones by putting in sound design requirements that are prohibitively expensive. This isn’t predominantly coming from the apartment dwellers, though. It’s from the neighborhoods where the half-million dollar homes are. KGSR’s “Live at the Grove” was shut down by a homeowner just across the street, who bought into the neighborhood AFTER they started the concert series. It is now “Unplugged at the Grove”. Morrison and Tovo are two of the dominant politicians behind unplugging the music in Austin.

“I believe that the Residential Design and Compatibility Standards have reduced conflict in our central city neighborhoods. Although some feared that passage might stifle building in our city, that concern has not been borne out.”

Residential Design and Compatability Standards is known as the McMansion ordinance. She feels it has not stifled building in our city, yet I don’t drive through Central Austin and see tons of new duplexes, and four-plexes. I assume that most of the people I know who say they would like to live in Central Austin, actually would live there if they could afford it. So I’d say it has definitely stifled development, the only other option is that developers are lazy and uninterested in taking people’s money (which seems unlikely). The only places we’re seeing a lot of new development are in areas that are predominately populated by politically powerless minorities or in areas away from the neighborhoods like Lamar north of Barton Springs. Not to mention that it has created the trend of those bizarro tiny third stories on buildings (start looking for them, it’s an easy way to tell if a remodel happened before or after McMansion).

The Water Treatment Plant

I really think this is just a wedge issue for some suburban voters in far-West Austin and some SOS people. The water treatment plant is being built at 620 and 2222. It’s just a way to pickup votes and is not a particularly interesting debate. Shade voted for it. Since Tovo wasn’t in power she can say she wouldn’t have and pick up a lot of rich West Austinite votes. Considering this interesection already contains a fitness club, HEB, Target and Starbucks, it’s a bit hard to pretend that a Water Treatment Plant is somehow the development in the area that will break the camel’s back.

“The discussion of density must mature as our city grows. The question should be about what type of community we want to live in and what type of businesses, services, and housing we need to make that happen”

I think ultimately Tovo has made that decision. She wants to live in a ultra-wealthy suburban neighborhood in the inner city, without new aparments, but adding the occasional new store and light business condo development. I think that’s how the majority of Austinites would like to live. But ultimately there are too many of us and more moving here all the time. The only way towards a sustainable future is to build lots more new housing to try to lower prices and create the kind of concentration in the city that will allow the walkable, transit-oriented, eco-friendly future so many of us imagine. That’s why I’ll be voting for Randi Shade on June 18th. Join me.

Austin and Gentrification

I just posted a comment on a speakup austin! in response to a request for subsidizing business development in East Austin. And it got me thinking about explaining in black and white, why new development is the only way to get affordable housing in central Austin and stop gentrification.

I think ultimately there is no way to provide enough affordable housing through subsidizes. Nor is there a way to stop building of condos and boutiques in East Austin through bans or code enforcement. We’ve been doing that, and in the past decade we’ve seen the African American population pack up and leave and the colonization by whites.

We have to attack the real problems of Austin:

  1. The majority of Austin wants to live in zip codes 78704 (Bouldin, Zilker, Travis Heights), 78701 (Downtown), or 78751 (Hyde Park).
  2. There is not enough affordable housing in Austin, and not enough public will to spend the kind of money it would take to build hundreds of thousands of units of subsidized housing.

The answer has been staring us in the face, but seems unattainable. Provide more housing in 78704, 78701, and 78751. That’s where people want to live. So provide them housing. This will pull hipsters back out of East Austin leave more housing for the poor. Because the hipsters want to live off South Congress, and 2nd Street, and off Duvall.

Encourage the destruction of old apartment buildings and replacement with ones that double or triple the number of residents. Provide incentives to replace Hyde Park’s old suburban style office buildings with ground floor commercial with residential above. Allow automatic up-zoning of single-family lots to multifamily to allow duplexes and four-plexes. We need more housing and we needed it a decade ago.

Will this create changes in the neighborhoods? Absolutely. But in case you haven’t noticed there’s already been changes in the neighborhoods. Hyde Park, Downtown, and 78704 are almost entirely white, and the median income of whites living in Austin is $90,000/year. The neighborhoods have already turned into upscale white suburbs. If we’re going to fight to keep Austin weird we need to get the artists and weirdos back in there. And we’re going to need a lot more housing to do so. Pretending we can keep Austin weird by subsidizing housing for 10 artists is just silly.

Common wisdom is that families won’t live in apartments or condos. But 78741 says that they will. We just need more condos or apartments that are 2br+ and that can be had for less than $1000/month. And we’re going to need a LOT more apartments, before we start seeing those prices again. The first hundred-thousand are going to be $2000/month. The next hundred-thousand may be $1500/month. But if we keep building we’ll get there. And we can’t get dismayed by the initial high prices. Because the demand for a $400,000, 600 square foot condo just shows how much building we have to do.

Or we can keep doing what we’re doing. You can’t afford to live in central Austin right now can you? And the prices are still going up. Do you have a better solution?

City Council Candidates 2011

Hey did you know we’re having a city election in Austin on May 14th? Did you know early voting starts May 2nd? Fantastic, here’s some info on where to vote.

But are you feeling like you haven’t heard enough ranting from me lately, and would like to know who I’m voting for? Great! Read on… (and don’t forget to read the Austin Posts’ candidate interviews, and decide for yourself)

Place 1

Let’s start with the easy one first. Chris Reilly has been a pretty good council member. I don’t agree with his every decision, but he’s made practical decisions and he’s not anti-growth. You should read about the other candidates in this race. They’re colorful. Especially Norman Jacobson the anti-fluoridation candidate.

Place 3

This one looks to be a race primarily between Randi Shade and Kathie Tovo. Shade has been a decent council member. She’s admitted that she’s made mistakes and she’s still learning, but she seems to have one of those rarest of abilities in politics – the ability to change ones mind. Her answers in interviews show she’s more interested in solving hard problems where multiple people have legitimate competing view points, then providing easy election sound-bites. Her discussion of single member districts in the Austin Post interview I think really highlights how she thinks and weighs issues.

Tovo was running a fairly information free campaign until recently, but has four main points that you’ll find on her website and reiterated in campaign Q&As:

Completing Communities

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p>This is central to her platform, and sounds great. But I can’t for the life of me figure out what it means. The best I can gather she wants to integrate commercial into the fabric of neighborhoods so that you can shop and work where you live. Which sounds great, but she was been a driving force in the Austin Neighborhood Council which has spent the past decade fighting any and all change in our urban neighborhoods. So I can’t really buy that this is more than a sound bite, like loving picket fences, lemonade stands, and american flags. I want to work and shop in my neighborhood. But the city has to let a developer re-zone a residential plot to commercial for that to happen.

Ensuring Affordability

She thinks that the foremost issue affecting Austinites is affordability. And that the economic incentives to lure Formula 1 racing to Austin should have been put towards affordable housing. Which is great. But she hasn’t addressed how exactly that would work. Or if we would raise taxes to provide more affordable housing. Because the subsidizes necessary for the city to directly fund affordable housing and property tax abatements and make any real change would be a large chunk of change. And she also spends a lot of time talking about reducing taxes. So it’s puzzling how this could be achieved.

She was also a proponent of the McMansion ordinance that has not only stopped large family friendly housing from being built within the central core, but has also stopped duplexes, four-plexes and apartment complexes. The Austin Neighborhood Council has repeatedly fought apartment complexes in our central core.

Since getting the McMansion ordinance enacted Tovo has moved into a 2700 square foot home. But I think it’s just classified as a mansion, because it’s old.

She also opposed the development at 801 Barton Springs (the vacant lot across from the Palmer events center that houses snow cone stands in the shadow of two tall buildings). Interestingly enough she does still own a rental property in Bouldin Creek that has winter views of downtown. Views that would potentially be obscured by a building at 801 Barton Springs.

So while she says she’s for affordability, her actions seem to be the actions one would expect from those trying preserve the value of their property, over a concern for housing the poor.

Respecting Citizens and Saving Schools

That’s technically two, but seriously? One of those is what everyone’s jumping on this season because of the outrage over the fact that city hall was using email and walking decisions to make decisions outside of public view. But why should we trust Tovo? She’s been a longtime member of the Bouldin and Austin Neighborhood council who are well known for making obtuse decisions outside the purview of public scrutiny. And Saving Schools? Considering the City Council has zero authority in that area, I’d say that’s a pretty strong campaign slogan, with absolutely nothing behind it.

Place 4

This one is a tossup for me. Morrison absolutely needs to go, and it’s unlikely to happen. She along with Tovo are part of the Austin Neighborhood Council crowd. They’re pretty popular and they’ve managed their message about preserving Austin’s character quite well. The problem is that realistically unless you’ve been here longer than Morrison, you’re actually part of the threat to Austin’s character.

During her short time in office she’s been a huge threat to the Austin music community in attempting to shut down outdoor music in favor of the neighborhoods. She’s been against pretty much all new development unless it’s a development by her cohort Brian Rodgers (who basically buys blighted strip malls and makes them prettier, but only slightly more pedestrian friendly). And she’s been a proponent of the historical tax breaks which led approximately 100 of her richest West Austin neighbors to apply for tax breaks in a single year. Costing millions in tax revenue when the city and school district need it most.

Toby Ryan and Eric Rangel are both young and inexperienced. I’m favoring Ryan because he has better name recognition and has a clear plan for helping Austin’s music scene.

So that’s it. My ranting’s over. What do you think I’ve got wrong (or right) here?

Putting the house on the market?

So I’ve been considering putting our house on the market. If I wasn’t a ridiculous optimist it would be right now. Why you ask?

Because I believe Texas is poised for a spectacular financial implosion. Republicans in Texas have gotten off claiming that times are bad all over, so the budget here is nothing special. Except that our current budget shortfall isn’t the product of a bad economy. In fact Texas’ economy is pretty good. State Comptroller Susan Combs recently released news that sales tax receipts were up. That’s good news. The economy is getting better and better. The problem is that in a year of fantastic growth tax receipts only increase in the millions of dollars. The current budget shortfall is in the billions.

So what went wrong? In 2006 Perry and the Republican legislature passed “property tax relief”. This cut was supposed to chop 33% off of property tax bills. But all it ended up doing was chopping 33% of the states property tax revenue off. After all was said and done this property tax cut actually ended up increasing most citizen’s tax bills by 5%. The Texas legislature meets every two years (bienium). In 2008 when they met the federal government was handing out block grants for all sorts of programs. Perry and the legislature took that money with open arms and used it to plug the massive budget hole. So now we’re in 2010 (yes, yes I know it’s now 2011, but they’ve been messing around with silly bills for a few months now). There’s no more federal stimulous money. And there is a fundamental hole in revenue for the state.

The problem with cutting property tax revenue by 33% is that Texas is not going to get more property. And the value of property does not increase fast enough to cover that 33% hole. So now we have a $25 billion budet shortfall every bienium. Not just this bienium. It’s not going to go away because it’s a fundamental hole in the state budget. Sales tax revenue might go up. Property values might go up. But they’re going to increase in millions. Not billions.

And that’s why I don’t support using the rainy day fund. Because you’re doing the same thing that was done with federal money in 2008. There is a massive fundamental hole in the budget. And patching it with savings is not going to close it in 2012. To put the $25 billion in perspective. Austin ISD’s share of the budget shortfall is the same as the entire state of Wisonsin’s budget shortfall.

don’t see the leadership to close that hole. Without that leadership the state is going to implode. Currently there are 977,600 people on unemployment in Texas. Expectations are that after cutting 189,000 teachers to fix the budget and the rest of the cuts to the public sector, that number will swell by 250,000. Obstensibly many of those teachers are going to leave and look for work in another state, potentially taking a college educated spouse with them. The construction industry will take a hit as Texas can no longer afford to build using bonds. No more new roads. No more new schools or stadiums. Texas’ net migration will slow and eventually turn downward as Texas begins to look less like California with cheap taxes, and more like Michigan.

So, you say, Michigan is still around. There are pockets that are really turning around. Michigan has an income tax. Maybe we should all move there.

I don’t see how there is any future for this state without a politician who is willing to suggest a tax increase that will provide $25 billion in revenue. And I’m not willing to raise my kid in a state where the schools are so poorly funded that there are no electives, languages, or advanced placement classes in the high schools. We’ll see if they can fix it.

But if they can’t I’m moving to a state where polticians and voters can do basic math.

Ways to fight urban decay

I’ve been thinking a lot about problems that have become insurmountable in Austin around closing schools, density, and paying for the decay of infrastructure.

One big problem in a lot of cities is the shrinking populations in neighborhood schools. Most neighborhoods are built for families. As the houses are finished a family moves in. Their kids go to school. Every house on the street seems to have a family. The common thinking in Austin is that DINKs (dual-income no kids) come into a neighborhood and start pushing families out of single-family homes by paying a lot for them. Or that the houses are too small for families. I think these might have their place, but I think there’s a more organic reason. Home owners age. Their kids grow up. At some point a neighborhood shifts from every house having kids, to the minority having kids.

My neighborhood is losing population. You could see that as being caused by DINKs moving in, but they seem to be holding steady. One of my neighbors is in his seventies or eighties. Another just saw his only child go off to college. Another is in hospice care. Two adjacent houses and mine hold children. Only the house across the street has those accursed DINKs. All of these houses would have had kids in the late-sixties when they were built. This seems like the most natural possible progression for a neighborhood, and all of my older neighbors are not going to die at the same time so we’re not going to see another massive rush of kids, so what’s the solution for this perfectly normal neighborhood progression?

Paired schools

One idea I’ve been playing around with in my brain are paired schools. Each time a school is built it is paired with another geographically close school. These two schools automatically have their boundaries reanalyzed every 5 years (preferably by a computer program that can do things like optimize bus routes), and will be up for automatic closure or consolidation every 10 years if their utilization dips below 80%.

Rather than the current system where politically powerful parents have an incentive to essentially create private neighborhood schools with few students by keeping existing boundaries, this would create a system where parents would constantly be scrambling to be more inclusive. To get boundaries that include more students, and to encourage dense housing and apartments, lest at the end of 10 years their school automatically get closed or merged.

By building this system into the school districts standard operating procedures it would avoid surprises and the sort of uprisings that have recently been seen in Austin where parents feel like this has suddenly been dumped on them.

This could ultimately also be used for things like neighborhood pools and community centers as well.

I had something else on my run, but I’ve forgotten it. What do you think? Would this work, or would it be hijacked the same way school closures are hijacked now?

Why we shouldn\’t just sell AISD HQ.

One of the proposals for shoring up Austin\’s budget woes is to sell the AISD offices on West 6th Street. The current market value is $2.6 million. Which sounds great. But we need to be careful with this. If they sell the offices they have to find a lease. Let\’s say that lease is $5500/month. Since Austin taxpayers only get $55 out of every $100 we give to AISD (the rest going to schools in rural Texas), that $5500 lease will actually end up costing Austinites $10000/month. And that\’s an obligation that will exist if we ever get public school funding fixed. And remember there\’s a cap on the total amount that AISD can tax. Do we really want that much money tied up in a rent payment that we didn\’t have before our budget woes? That\’s going into debt to get out of debt. Silliness.

What AISD should do is sell the West 6th street property and buy a cheaper property in North East or South East Austin. They might only be able to put $1 million towards the budget, but the budget will be better for it in the long run.

Asking Republicans For Help

I just sent the following to my mother. I think the only way we\’re going to get this budget crisis fixed is to get Republicans across the state howling about the teacher lay-offs and school closings. Feel free to modify and send to all your relatives living in Republican districts.

I know you have a lot of friends in Republican districts around the state. We\’re trying to get awareness about the state budget problem. Basically there was a property tax cut two years ago that defunded the state to the tune of somewhere between $15 and 28 billion dollars. To put that in perspective, you could close every prison in Texas and get rid of the entire Texas Department of Justice and only save $14 billion.

This is going to lead in massive cuts at schools, hospitals, and prisons. Austin is going to be over $100 million dollars in the hole due to this shortfall. Richardson $55 million. Plano $65 million. The superintendent of Austin ISD last night approved cutting 158 elementary school teaching positions and 174 secondary school positions. Those are normal teachers. AISD is considering closing 9 schools. Houston ISD is considering 66. This is the bone, not the fat. As someone who has a grandkid going into school next year, I\’m sure this concerns you.

So we\’re asking the state to restore previous funding levels through a small raise in the sales tax, and to use the rainy day fund to keep school funding stable until the revenues start coming in. You can find your state representatives here:

http://www.house.state.tx.us/members/find-your-representative/

Why I Support Closing Schools

I know that\’s like saying you\’re a holocaust denier, or have been exposed to extensive experimentation by aliens life forms, but hear me out.

In 2008, the state of Texas allowed for a 1/3 property tax cut. I don\’t fully understand how this worked, but basically no one I know remembers getting anything resembling a large tax cut, and now the state has a massive budget deficit.

How massive? Between $15 and $27 billion. For those who have trouble with numbers that big (like me), GritsForBreakfast (a criminal justice blog) did the math and we could close the entire Texas prison system and not fill in that $15 billion dollar hole. It\’s worth noting that education is 49% of the budget. Quite simply there\’s no way (for a Republican) to balance the budget without cutting education.

So how does this affect Austin? Austin actually has some of the lowest school property taxes in central Texas, but the state caps those taxes at $1.50 per $10000 of property value. Currently Austin is at about $1.20 per $10000. Of that money we get to spend $55 out of every $100 we take in. The rest of the money is sent to the capital to be redistributed to poor school districts. Poor school districts in this case are mostly rural. This is important to keep in mind. Even if Austin were to raise their tax rate to the maximum we would only get to add $55 back to the budget for every $100 we had to fork over.

We are property rich, but our students are poor. Property rich districts like Plano don\’t have all the programs we need like ESL, dual-language, and free lunches. So when the state cuts their funding it doesn\’t create the massive holes it does for AISD.

The CFO of AISD spoke last night and AISD\’s projected budget shortfall depending on how the state deals with cuts is projected to be a minimum of $55 million and could go as high as $120 million. They sent away the facilities task force to come up with $10 million in cuts, which is the proposal they brought back. But people talking about how to make up the difference are conveniently missing the fact that we don\’t need to come up with $10 million to save our schools. We need $55 million. Cutting programs, teacher and administrative salaries are still probably going to be in the $45 million dollars the budget commitee has to come up with.

I know that it\’s unpopular to say you support closing schools, but if we don\’t close schools that\’s 200 teaching positions (on top of whatever cuts the budget committee feels they have to make in teaching staff). And I think the teachers are more important than the name on the building.

Pretending we can \”save austin\’s schools\” is as much fairy dust and puppies*. We can\’t bake sale our way out of this. The district needs a tourniquet, not a band-aid. I support solving the problem by raising taxes at the state level, but that\’s rainbows and kittens with the current legislature.

I have my finger crossed for the $55 million number. I\’m hoping we get out of this only closing 9 schools and with class sizes under 30. I\’m hoping we get to keep art and music. Only time will tell.

* rainbow/kittens phraseology courtesy of @mdahmus

Better Know the Opposition

or why I’m voting YES on Prop 1

I ran almost 9 miles yesterday. I went from my neighborhood, took the Country Club Creek Trail under Pleasant Valley to the Hike and Bike trail, ran to IH-35, crossed, and came back home.

I was running along the trail that the Amli South Shore has put in.

Tangent: That is a really nice piece of trail. They have it running from the street all the way to the shore. It adds about twice as much to the trail as if you were walking on the sidewalk. They have a firepit, lounge chairs, and park benches. All public property from what I can tell.

And I got spit back out on the sidewalk. Where I ran into a huge sign:

Vote No on Prop 1. Wrong priorities, Wrong Time.

Which is kind of interesting because it was right outside an apartment complex. I’ve highlighted it below in red.

I had to draw in the Amli South Shore and it’s trail. Please excuse the rought drawing. Of course the apartment complex in question is against completing the trail. They head out of their complex to the right and they’re on the trail. They head out to the left and they’re on the trail, and inside their complex they have their own private boat dock. Their land is completely at grade, and to complete the trail would simply involve removing two small pieces of fence. But instead the city has to build a boardwalk around this property to connect two pieces of trail.

Of course these people are going to be against the bond. It allows the public to use what they’ve been treating as their own private property. I get to run on sidewalk so they can have a private boat launch.

This isn’t where all the boardwalk money is going though. There’s a stretch under IH-35 that’s never going to be possible to complete without a boardwalk. The grade running from Joe’s crab shack to the McCombs Business School is a pretty insane change in elevation and barring dynamiting the cliff face, we’re not getting a trail on it.

But what about mobility?

So I found out last night that if I worked downtown (which I plan to do in my next job), I can have a 30 minute commute.

Running.

That’s almost entirely on trails. I’ll definitely be doing that. Especially if some of the bond money for sidewalks finally gets sidewalks along Pleasant Valley. This is insane to me. I started making mental notes last night of all the missing sidewalks on Pleasant Valley. Bear in mind this is where the South East HEB is. This isn’t a case of “if you build sidewalks people will walk”. This is a case of “these sidwalks (or lack thereof) are pretty crowded”. I dodged two strollers on my run last night.

But Pleasant Valley is still missing major chunks of sidewalk. I’ve outline the missing stretches in red below.

We should fix this. Just like we would fix a road that people drive on everyday. It’s ridiculous that people in the surrounding area, people who do walk to the HEB, don’t have sidewalks to walk on.

Please. Vote YES on Prop 1