Transformative Street Change

So I support the new Land Development Code (LDC) process. This is the thing formerly known as Code NEXT. But I’ve been thinking about two problems with it:

  • Deed Restrictions
  • It’s not enough

Deed Restrictions

The biggest problem with the LDC is that a huge part of our housing exists in areas with HOAs and deed restrictions. These are private covenants that will keep new housing from being built, regardless of how we re-zone the city. The city cannot override them. Also most of the neighborhoods without deed restrictions tend to be poorer and/or full of people-of-color. So without tackling the deed restriction problem we will guarantee further gentrification and displacement.

If your neighborhood was built after the 90s there’s little chance that you could possibly be impacted by the new code. But of course hat housing is exactly the housing that is most in need of transformation to deal with climate change. We cannot provide transit and walkable amenities to these neighborhoods without more people. And we cannot add more people because of deed restrictions.

Not Enough

I also think part of the issue with the new LDC is that it is not transformative enough. It’s pretty clear how it will inconvenience me, but it’s very unclear if it will go far enough to make my life better. Nearly everyone I’ve ever talked to responds positively to pictures of pedestrian centered European villages, but think there’s no way to do that here.

But what if we could?

Develop the Roads

The City of Austin owns most of the roads in neighborhoods. And those roads are *not* covered by deed restrictions. It’s part of the way we build neighborhoods. Developers build the roads and then hand them over to the city to maintain. What if we turned neighborhood roads into housing?

I know this is a huge change. But as we watch Australia burn it’s also the kind of huge change that I think people could get behind. Because we can demonstrate that things really will become more pedestrian and transit friendly. It won’t be a “wait and see eventually positive change will trickle down to you”. It will say “you can have this change now!”

Right now pretty much all neighborhoods in Austin look like this:

But what if we transformed the road into a bike track, house, and sidewalk. The city can take the easement on narrow streets, but trust me when I say that most roads in Austin could easily accommodate a full-sized house (or even better row houses) in the middle of them.

The bike track and sidewalk would eventually meet a corner with a major arterial where there would be a bike shed for storing your bike and a bus stop. Retractable barriers would keep cars out, but allow in police, ems, and maintenance vehicles.

Places where multiple streets meet in a neighborhood currently have even more space!

These streets (and some cul-de-sacs) would become small neighborhood parks. Think playscapes, basketball half-courts, and fenced-in dog parks.

Rather than all homes at corners we could also allow space for cafes, pubs, daycares, doctor’s offices, and small groceries. They would be only reachable by active transporation so we wouldn’t have to worry about negative issues like traffic, drunk drivers, etc.

Obviously there are a lot of specific issues related to specific places that will need to be addressed, and we’ll need a LOT more buses. But it will be very easy to justify those buses when everyone is using them.

What do you think? Would you be interested in this sort of transformative change in your life? What would hold you back?

Why your house is not an investment

Your house is not an investment. It is an asset.

I was talking to one of my neighbors. We’re both overwhelmed by our large suburban yards. She had talked about selling but decided not to. Her problem? Despite it being worth at least double what she paid for it, she can’t find anywhere to buy that would let her take out that money and not live somewhere completely impractical. Sure you can get a $100k home in temple, but that commute isn’t worth it.

I decided to quit. Give up on trying to maintain my yard. Something had to change. When we moved into this house I wanted to move into a garden home. I was already done doing yard work. A decade of substantially increased yard work has not made things better. And moving from working from home, to working in the office meant I no longer could keep up.

So I started looking around at homes. Selling our house we could afford a half million dollar house with only a small increase in house payment. Which sounds great. The only problem? It would increase our tax payment by 225%. Which would be like adding another half a house to our house payment. And unlike a house payment if our house keep going up in value that amount would keep going up. 10% a year increase in taxes on a half million dollar house is a substantially larger number than 10% a year increases in taxes on a quarter million dollar house.

So do we have an asset that has increased in value? Nope. We have an asset that has inflated in value along with all the other homes around us.

So we’re taking out a home equity loan and paying someone to make the yard lower maintenance. Also we’re going to do a ton of work ourselves and invest tons of money in those projects.

Because we’re trapped here in our “largest investment”.

Configuring a Wireless HP Printer without WPS

So newer routers don’t have WPS. This can be a problem if you have an older printer that connects to your network via Wireless. Here’s how I got my P1102w working.

  • First I reset the internet settings. This involves turrning off the printer. Holding down the wireless and cancel button and then powering on the printer. Once it’s done making noise you can release the buttons.
  • Next I printed a wireless information page. I held down the cancel button until 2 pages printed.
  • Then I connected to the printer’s device network on my Mac. The self-test page has a field Network Name (SSID). A network with that name was listed on my wireless menu under Device Networks. Note that while connected you won’t have normal internet access.
  • I then looked at the Host Name on that self-test page. Mine was NPI79343D. So I opened a web browser and visited:
    http://NPI79343D.local.:80/
  • I clicked on the Networking tab. Clicked on Wireless to the left.
  • I changed the network type to Infrastructure
  • Changed the Network Name to my home network
  • Changed the Security Mode to WPA/WPA2 and then entered my password.
  • I then hit Apply and got a blank white page. That’s good. It meant it had stopped using the device network and moved to the main one.

And that’s it. My printer is now discoverable and working again.

The Arts Should Be Your Anchor Tenant

In Austin recently a strip mall was converted into a mixed use project with housing, restaurants and a parking garage. It’s something we see in lots of cities across the US, but this one was different. The new restaurants immediately had patrons (and lines). There’s a fine-dining restaurant completely hidden from the street full of people. People know the names of the stores in the new development. What did this business do right? They anchored it with the Alamo Drafthouse Movie Theater. Their parking garage is always full and the complex teems with people.

This should be a model for every new development, although obviously there are not nearly enough movie theaters to anchor every new complex. Where to go from there? How about a performance space? Performance spaces bring in technicians and actors for rehearsal every night of the week. Technicians and actors who must be fed. It brings in wealthier clientele to performances. Clientele who generally have an intermission where they get up and stretch their legs (and discover all the great businesses your complex has to offer). A small subsidy to a performance group can provides a steady stream of traffic to keep your other renters thriving and rents high.

If any developers are reading this and would like to work with the arts community, I’d also love to push for a density bonus for providing affordable commercial space in vertical-mixed use projects. Just like we have density bonuses for affordable housing today. There’s no reason we couldn’t have a compliment on the commercial side.

Who’s the lobbyist?

According to the Austin Monitor Council Member Pool has joined forces with the Austin Neighborhood Council to make lobbying rules more strict. Which sounds great. Should people who make more than $1,000 in a field related to their volunteer efforts at the city be required to register? I mean if we forget that this favors kicking out the qualified in favor of the retired and wealthy, it sounds rational.

I’m 100% in favor of this as long as we include people who’ve seen more than $1,000 increase in the taxable value of their house in the past year. Council Member Pool has seen her home value go up almost $200,000 over the past 5 years. Since being elected Council Member Tovo has seen her taxable value go up over $100,000 on her homestead.

And we’re worried about the impact of people making $1,000 or more corruption our government? What about those whose policies are pricing out renters and first-time home buyers and are enriching their pockets to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars? Aren’t they lobbyists as well?

 

Single-Family Homes and Social Justice

Have you ever thought about how people know where “good schools” are? Like really thought about it. With the exception of people like me and my wife who can not only tell you which programs each school has, but also how their test scores rack up relative to other schools. Most people aren’t like that, though. At best they might which of the 4 rankings the TEA hands out their school has obtained. And then there are plenty of schools that have the best rankings from the TEA that “people have heard have challenges”.

So how do we find “good schools”.  Take a minute and think about areas around you. How do you know they have good schools? What are the features of the communities?

I’ll bet you came up with something very suburban. Single-family homes with large green lawns. Homes on cul-de-sacs. New homes being built all the time. Ultimately these places do frequently have better schools by keeping out everyone without a college education, or parents rich enough to help with the down payment.

 

But this is ultimately the zoning of discrimination. It allows racism and segregation to persist in the guise of an obtainable dream. But the down payments and housing prices can always be set just a bit higher to ensure the right sort of neighbors.

We see this in Austin. Super-high end suburbia in the city ringed by apartment complexes. But what if we knocked out the suburbia entirely?

Seattle’s doing something very interesting about this. A Seattle committee recommends replacing “single-family zones” with “low-density residential zones”.  Every neighborhood right now that has single-family homes could add row houses, duplexes, and triplexes. This is something I’d really like to see happen in Austin. What do you think? Would you be willing to give up a suburban single family neighborhood to help out people who rent? If you rent would you be willing to fight for this change?

Think Creation Centers not Basic Wage

There’s a lot of talk about the need for a basic wage in the US. Self-driving vehicles have the potential to wipe out huge swaths of our economy. The obvious ones – truck and taxi cab drivers. And the less obvious – gas station attendants, fast food workers, grocery store cashiers and anyone else who works in a business that makes money off of luring you in while you drive by in a car.

It’s also pretty clear that a certain subset of the population is too influenced by 20th century propaganda to ever accept a basic wage.

A basic wage is socialism, communism, or welfare – and they don’t want it.

But when you look at the future of companies like Apple, the future is terrifying. Apple requires not only a wealthy consumer base, but a growing wealthy consumer base. Apple cannot survive in a world where the US has 40% unemployment.

I would suggest to see the future we look at Silicon Valley.

We already see the results of people with too much capital and not enough return on investment pouring money into startups praying for some sort of payoff. Take that concept wider.

I participated in Manuel Zarate’s first ArtSpark festival that gave participants space to work and a chance at a cash prize to work on new pieces of art. It kept a lot of people very busy and producing new things for several months. It didn’t have the capital we see in Silicon Valley, but it certainly could. Create foundations to sustain these incubators all over the US.

Inside the incubator participants would receive an “iPhone wage” along with bonuses and cash prizes for creating marketable ideas. Have them on every subject matter –

Create gardening incubators. Transportation incubators. Culinary incubators.

Ultimately they don’t have to be profitable, but if they are companies like Apple get new products, and at the very least they create jobs so people can afford new iPhones.

What do you think of this? Is it more feasible than a basic wage?

 

Denser Cities are not more expensive

A lot of time people trot out the canard that more dense cities are more expensive. A short (but not exhaustive) list of cities that are cheaper and more dense than Austin.

Buffalo
Pittsburgh
Cleveland
Milwaukee
Detroit
St.Louis
Akron
Toledo
Cincinnati

And here in Texas:
Houston
Dallas
San Antonio

Density does not equal expensive.

Keeping traffic out of your neighborhood doesn’t work.

TXDot released a map of the most congested roadways in Texas. There is only one East/West road in Austin on the list – Slaughter lane. I know when I lived at Dittmar and Mancaha there was quite a lot of concern about another neighborhood going in around the corner and what it would do to traffic. A lot of these projects were not pursued due to neighborhood opposition. You can see that there’s a lot of undeveloped space between Mancaha and South Congress.

This picture illustrates perfectly how pushing development away from you can still clog up the streets near you.

slaughter

Looking at the map you can see that Slaughter connects to IH-35 and MoPac shortly after that they become congested heading Northbound. We can assume that very few people living North of Slaughter are driving south to catch more of the congestion as they head into the city.

So the majority of this congestion is coming from the amazing curlicues of culdesacs and sprawl south of Slaughter Lane. The sprawl got pushed away, but it ensured that Slaughter was congested. It ensured that IH-35 and MoPac congestion started further south. In short the neighborhoods that pushed these residents away ended up getting all the traffic downsides, without any of the upsides of more people – better buses, more walkable stores, parks and amenities.

Vouchers and the End of the Suburb

So, new Texas governor Dan Patrick is making noise about passing school vouchers in this legislature. And I see no reason why it won’t happen. It might not get implemented because this ledge frequently writes bills in such a way that ensures a court case, but ultimately I think it will pass.

If I were a large scale home builder I’d be scared witless.

If you ask anyone why they move to the suburbs I almost guarantee they’ll say “good schools”. But what if the suburbs didn’t guarantee good schools? I would expect to see exactly what we’re seeing in Austin. School choice has led to huge numbers of students going to private and charter schools. It also has led to huge numbers of students transfers.  It has completely destroyed the notion (or value proposition) of neighborhood schools.

Parents seemed to have learned from Monty Hall and always choose to open another door. I’m frequently at parties with two different sets of parents who’ve decided to transfer their child. Into each other’s schools. This is common. The grass is always greener in someone else’s neighborhood school.

The other side of school choice is congestion. School choice ensures additional trips during rush hour. This could double commutes for those exclusive exurbs.

I think ultimately this is going to increase the speed of gentrification and the decline of outer-ring suburbs. It’s going to be an interesting change to say the least.