[Editor’s note: Very special thanks to Terrence Henry for making this interview happen. TL;DR: Niran Babalola’s message challenges Austin “progressivism” by highlighting systemic discrimination through Austin’s land use laws. The message relates to modern policies and recent votes from City leaders.]
Niran Babalola is in love with cities.
“They’re amazing things,” he says, “where all these people come together in one place.” Babalola, the head of the housing and land use reform group DesegregateATX, is an Austin native who has spent much of his free time in recent years reading everything he can to understand cities better and what makes them work. And he’s found that the way Austin’s does things — whether it’s transportation, land use or housing affordability — tends to ignore the best practices of others and ends up only serving a select few.
“We’ve decided in this city not to govern for the have-nots,” Babalola says, pointing to land use policies that favor expensive single-family homes over denser, more diverse types that serves a wider range of people.
“We are the most economically segregated city in America, the only city with a declining African-American population.”
Over a long conversation (and a few cups of coffee) this summer downtown, Babalola told me the story of how Austin’s promise for all has been betrayed by its protectionism for the privileged few. A condensed version of our conversation follows:
TH: So how did we get to where we are today?
If you ask economists about how economic segregation occurs in cities, they’ll tell you it’s the policies of a city that makes it happen. They’ll point to studies showing how restrictive zoning laws cause economic segregation. The harder you make it to build homes, the more economic segregation you end up getting, especially in a city with a thriving economy like Austin’s. If you limit the number of homes, all you end up doing is pushing people out.
If you want to include all kinds of people, you have to include their homes. You have to include them in your neighborhood. Otherwise you’ll be pushing them further and further away from all the public investments we’ve made together.
If you look at the laws in effect in Austin’s central neighborhoods, in the vast majority of them, they say you can only build the most expensive type of housing: a single-family home with a big yard. Mixed-income neighborhoods in the core of the city are essentially illegal. But if you look at the statistics about what kinds of homes people live in, it will show you that the vast majority of white families live in single-family homes in Austin, a minority of black and hispanic families live in single-family homes. It’s not just economic segregation, it’s racial segregation. And we’re surprised we have an affordability problem!