[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!
Our political culture in Austin is broken. We’ve decided we have to exclude people to maintain the things we have and want. The problem is the assumption that exclusivity is a good thing, when we know in our hearts it’s a bad thing.
TH: But in the popular Austin imagination, the response to your argument is that what’s breeding economic segregation is the addition of new housing: the glass towers downtown that get labeled as playgrounds for the rich. And that if we densify and allow more types of housing, it’s just going to go to the wealthy and we’re going to lose the “character” of what makes these neighborhoods unique.
It’s true that when new homes are built, wealthier people are the only ones that can afford them. Lower- and middle-income people in this city aren’t living in new homes. But people have this idea that you can build new homes for them, and that’s not just the way things work, except at the most marginal lands at the farthest reaches of the city. That’s the capitalist system.
So if we’re going to operate in that system, we have to know what to expect. New homes don’t create new wealthy people. They don’t appear out of thin air when a new home gets created. The people who are here already, if there isn’t a shiny condo for them, they’ll buy a single family home.
Look at the East Side. That’s exactly what happens when you have a restrictive housing laws. People with money will look at the housing supply there and say “Hey, this is a good place for me. I’ll just make this a shiny home and live there.” Most of the East Side is zoned for single family homes, so all that did was set it up for this wave of exclusion, because other types of housing are illegal.
In a world where more homes are actually allowed to be built, you can have neighborhoods where some people are in older apartments, some people are in townhomes, some people are in shiny newer buildings. Neighborhoods can evolve over time if you don’t limit the number of homes allowed in them. But if you limit the number of choices, housing will only go to the people at the top.
TH: What’s the example where allowing diverse types of housing and reducing zoning has led to more inclusiveness and affordability? What’s the real-world example you can point to so people can say, “Oh this isn’t just a theory. This actually works”?
So the example you can point to is right here in Austin. If you ask people about West Campus and what’s happened there, they’ll say it’s become more exclusive, less affordable, less diverse, it’s become a problem. To me that’s a clear example of what’s broken about the political culture in our city. Because what’s actually happened there is a wonderful thing. For UT students, for the city, for literally everybody.
There’s been a huge increase the number of students who can actually live near campus, because we as a city changed the rules so more homes could be built there. In 2000, West Campus was 70 percent white. In 2004, we passed the university overlay, which allowed a huge increase in the number of homes. By 2010, that neighborhood was 60% white. More blacks, more hispanics, more Asians can now live in West Campus. We increased diversity by allowing more homes to be built there.
What we need now is actual leaders to step up and say, “We know how to address this problem, because we’ve done it in West Campus.” But there’s no real leadership in this city. We have people who pander to the people who turn out to vote instead of trying to lead everyone to a better outcome.
In 2016, we actually made it against the law — again — to build cheaper homes in Central Austin when we got rid of the small lot amnesty. The homes being built through that tool were 30 percent cheaper than existing homes in those neighborhoods. But some people that lived there, who vote regularly, were mad about it, so we made it illegal. Think about it: we knew how to allow for cheaper homes to be built in Central Austin, and we made it against the law! In Austin! In 2016! It’s crazy. It’s a leadership failure.
No one is willing to take the risk to take this city and deal with our affordability problem and our segregation problem. They just want to put bandaids on it. All the while, Austin becomes more and more exclusive.
TH: But there were leaders — you could argue they didn’t accomplish enough — but there was, before the current council, some significant steps. The West Campus overlay you mentioned, the zoning of transit corridors like East Riverside and South Lamar, that have allowed new, denser housing types to come in. As well as the Imagine Austin plan. There was a movement not that long ago from our political leadership to start addressing these issues of affordability.
There’s definitely been progress, steps have been made. But until we’re willing to call this problem what it is, and actually show this city how these affordability problems are caused, we’re never going to solve them. What’s happened in the past is we’ve snuck in progress that people are willing to accept: we’ll allow transit corridors along some roads, but no one acknowledges what is causing the root problem. And the time for that is past due.
With Imagine Austin, we had a community process where the outcome was a comprehensive plan to define the future of Austin as a compact and connected city that was inclusive for all people of all income levels. It was a definition of our values: we want to make it easier to get around without a car. We want to make it easier to walk and bike. We want to make it so more people can afford to live here.
But what’s happening is, it’s easy to get people to agree to a vision, but when it comes down to implementing the policies to make that vision a reality, it gets controversial. That’s what’s happening with CodeNEXT, the process to change the land use code to make the Imagine Austin vision happen. And there are people fighting it the whole way to keep things the same way they are now.
The problem with local politics is that the most vocal people, the most reliable voters, are the people who are self-interested and benefit from avoiding any change. Things are fine for them, so they’ll fight loudly and consistently to avoid change. It’s not irrational, I accept that. But it is irresponsible. And it’s irresponsible for our leaders to encourage it.
TH: But it seems a lot of people think, “If I stop this condo or mixed-use project from going up, then people will stop moving to Austin. And then the next Liberty Lunch will get to stay open.”
I wonder how much people actually believe that stopping building stops people from coming here. It’s so far from the truth that I can’t understand how people could believe that.
I think when it comes to individual decisions about how we build a certain project, people may think, “Well, if I stop this, then this area I care about will change less.” And that’s wrong. If you stop new homes, you’re going to make the existing homes become more expensive.
Some people believe the East Side can be protected from change, for instance. But I think that’s impossible. I think there’s ways to keep as many people there as possible, which the Austin Fair Housing initiative kinda gets at, but I don’t think you can stop wealthy people from moving there. That’s basically a done deal.
So for me, what I care about, are the families and communities that are already there, and keeping them there and together as much as possible. Stopping development doesn’t achieve that goal, but policies like the Austin Fair Housing Initiative do.
TH: This seems like a moment of political opportunity for people like yourself, where there’s a greater focus on issues of income inequality and racial injustice and progressive policies and campaigns to address them. How do you convince people that one of the solutions will be liberalizing zoning and allowing more types of housing and won’t end up with them losing what makes their neighborhood or city unique?
To me, an entire field of scholars has come to a consensus on this problem. It’s something we should pay attention to, it should be convincing to people, like climate change. For both housing affordability and climate change, the people who have studied the issue agree, they have studied the problem and know how to fix it.
But self-interested people say “Change is bad for me, so I’m going to ignore the facts on this issue.” And that is so disturbing to me when it comes to housing. Because people who identify as progressive, educated people are turning off their brains when it comes to helping other families, helping minorities or lower-income, they’re deciding to go with their gut. The people who claim to be progressive are being regressive when it comes to justice.
We should apply the same standards we have for protecting our own families to protecting other families. And people don’t do that. If we want to solve our affordability problem, we have to accept what the experts have said. We have to allow more housing. Allowing the wealthiest to make laws to protect themselves is a bad thing. This is something that the White House is saying, that Paul Krugman of the New York Times is saying. We’re over-regulating when it comes to housing. It’s not just bad for liberty, it’s bad for prosperity.
I think if we can convince people to look at the problem long enough, they’ll be willing to open their hearts and listen.