Smaller houses -> goodbye center-city schools

Here’s a tip for my pals at the ANC: If you:

  1. Push an ordinance which will greatly add to existing disincentives for middle-income families to live in the central city
  2. Then, shortly thereafter, hold a radio show on the topic of center-city schools, bemoaning the lack of investment and closing of some urban schools by AISD;

we are unlikely to be impressed with your intelligence.
Next week:
ANC dumps a bucket of water on their own head; then complains that they’re all wet.

Surprise! Students want to live near UT!

This is from a thread on the Austin Neighborhoods Council yahoo group. None of the people who post there are remotely likely to be convinced, but some of the people who read (including, I assume, staff members for city council) are still not entirely lost causes. Reposted here for posterity as well.
Block-quoted items are from the person I was responding to.

Mike’s complaint that neighborhoods are reluctant to allow SF to MF zoning changes is completely irrelevant.

No, I’m sorry, but it’s perfectly relevant. The market tried to provide multifamily housing near UT for decades, and people like the ANC got in the way. Students still want to live close to UT; so (more) of them move into houses than otherwise would have. Some who would have lived in apartments instead live in rental houses. This should not be difficult to believe – all you have to do is put yourself in their shoes. Pick between riding the shuttle bus from Far West every day or cramming into a house and riding your bike to campus. I know which one I’d pick.

I understand why these students want to live in a house. Houses are fun. You can’t throw keggers in the back yard of an apartment. You can’t set up a pool table a juke box and a wet bar in the garage of an apartment.

On the other hand, most new apartment buildings have party rooms and pools; and are unlikely to have people living next door who call the cops on you every time you make noise after 10:30 (see below). You don’t have to worry about the trash; you’re less likely to have maintenance problems; parking is a simpler issue; etc.
Only one of us is making an extraordinary claim here. Clearly if there wasn’t pent-up demand for multifamily development in this area, the recent relaxation of absurd height restrictions near UT wouldn’t have resulted in an explosion of new projects, right?

No matter how many apartments we build near campus (and we are building a LOT right now),

Now, after 20 years of building essentially nothing. It’s going to take a long time to catch up.

there will always be people who want the party “frat house” atmosphere you can’t get in a dorm or an apartment.

Yes. There will always be SOME people who want this. But a few such houses in each neighborhood would certainly be better than 2 out of every 3 houses, wouldn’t it? At Penn State (where I did my undergrad years), there were a ton of apartments near campus – far more than UT, compared to the number of students who couldn’t fit in dorms, and the result was that far fewer houses near campus turned into rental properties.

But that party “frat house” atmosphere really sucks for people living next door trying to raise children and wanting to enjoy luxuries of home-ownership such as being able to pull out of their own driveway whenever they want or walk down the street without fearing for their safety.

I live next door to a duplex which until this summer had UT Wranglers in the front _and_ the back. I have a 2-year-old son and a 12-year-old stepson. I’ve called the cops enough that they now have become fairly quiet neighbors. I can tell you from observation that the situation wasn’t ideal for either one of us – they certainly didn’t enjoy dealing with the police or their landlord after some of those parties.
As for the parking issue – that would merit an entirely separate discussion. Think for a moment how you can ethically support the proposition that people in one given house have a right to on-street parking, but people in another house on the same street don’t.
(That’s the end of the posting. It’s amazing to me how quickly people of this particular ideological bent will immediately assume that anybody arguing against their position must not have a family (or, even more common, be a developer. For the record, again, I’m trying to raise a family in the urban core; and I’m not a developer).

Water and micro vs. macro economics

As usual, local leaders (most of whom hail from the environmental side of the divide) want to do something good, but come up with a stupid way to do it.

New rules could force homeowners to make plumbing improvements like removing wasteful showerheads and fixing leaking faucets or sprinklers. It may also include rules requiring watering of lawns and landscapes once every five days.

The City Council appears ready to impose a set of rules which attempt to solve this problem from the top down, via a sort of macroeconomic (for lack of a better word) approach. It will likely work, for given values of ‘work’ – I’m sure they can reduce water consumption to a certain degree with these measures, but it will likely be an inefficient effort which requires additional spending on inspection and enforcement which could be better spent elsewhere.

A far better approach would be a more graduated and progressive water charge – today, you pay a tiny amount per gallon for the first N gallons, and a higher (but still very very cheap) amount per gallon for the remaining gallons you use, where N is an amount which appears to be designed to handle a small family’s typical water usage if they don’t water a lawn. Adding more gradiations to this scale and more drastically accelerating the water cost as you go up would be the smartest way to internalize the incentives you want people to have to conserve water, without the need for a big bureaucracy at the city. (Yes, rain barrels should still be subsidized – there are drainage benefits to them which far exceed the tiny water supply benefits). Some people would xeriscape; others would take more showers instead of baths; others would wash dishes differently.

You don’t really care HOW they do it; the only interest of the city is in delaying the need to obtain more water supply. The additional cost to the city of this solution is basically zero.

This particular approach, which I dub “marketatarian”, uses the power of the market to solve a readily identifiable problem involving what’s commonly referred to as the tragedy of the commons, but doesn’t wallow in the mire of hard-core libertarian nonsense (whose practitioners would go on and on about how the market would solve the water supply issue if we just let it do so, but would then call the pricing strategy above an example of socialist statism run amok). The Sierra Clubbers, on the other hand, typically have such a deep-seated mistrust of capitalism (thanks to those self-identified libertarians, among others) that they can’t even wrap their heads around the simple fact that the market is a really really really good tool to solve problems, as long as you supply the right rules inside which it must operate. In this case, the only rules are “less water supply” and “progressive pricing so we don’t completely cut off poor peoples’ basic water needs”.

By the way, the lack of support from the city for people who want to install “grey water” irrigation systems is another big part of the problem here. Now that we have a small child in the house who likes baths and I spend a couple nights a week soaking my aching legs in hot water, we send a ton of water down the drain which could just as easily be dumped in the yard.

This starts a new category I’m working on – titled “subsidies to suburban sprawl”. This water billing scheme is one of many such ‘user fees’ which total up to massive undercharging of suburbanites for the costs they generate compared to urban dwellers. More to come – next up: garbage collection.

Also found another new Austin blog which seems right up my alley: New Urban Prospect.

Bicycle Helmets Don’t Work

Update: Austin group fighting the mandatory helmet law is at http://www.nohelmetlaw.org/
Since the mandatory bicycle helmet law is rearing its ugly head here in Austin again thanks to the efforts of former mayor Bruce Todd, the following analysis of actual real-world results of increased bicycle helmet use in other countries is particularly relevant now.
The New York Times covered this for the USA in 2001. In short: Bicycle helmet usage went way up, but head injuries and fatalities didn’t go down. This matches the observations in Australia, the UK, and many other countries.
Ride with a helmet if you want. But don’t get smug about those who don’t – they’re NOT “organ donors”, they’re NOT stupid, and they’re NOT irresponsible. THEY’RE actually the smart ones, given the apparent lack of benefit to wearing bicycle helmets.
And, please, stop the bullshit analogies with regards to seat belts. Nobody ever stopped driving because of seat belts, and even if they did, why would we care? Bicycle helmets are hot, uncomfortable, and inconvenient – and results in country after country show that many people simply stop cycling when their use is mandated. You don’t have to carry your seat-belt around with you when you park your car; your car likely has air-conditioning; you’re not actually exercising when you drive; seat belts are built in to the car; etc. Oh, and don’t forget: seat belts, unlike bike helmets, actually WORK. The analogy couldn’t be any worse if they tried.
If it’s so damn obvious that people with “something up there to protect” would naturally choose to wear bike helmets, then why is it also not obvious that the same people would do so when driving their car? You get the same impact protection; but you’re not sweating and you have an easy place to stow the helmet when you’re done (inside the car itself).
Wikipedia has outstanding, heavily footnoted, coverage of bicycle helmets, if you don’t like the “cyclehelmets.org” people.

Bruce Todd: Worst Person In Austin

I’m kicking off a new category which this entry: a la Keith Olberman‘s “Worst Person In The World”.
The inaugural worst person in Austin is:

Bruce Todd
Back when he was mayor, the city spent hundreds of thousands of dollars originally dedicated for bike lanes to build a park for residents of Circle C who not only were not residents of Austin, but actively fought attempts to annex them later on. Todd was also the primary force behind the stupid and eventually overturned all-ages bicycle helmet law here in Austin. Todd ran on a sort of half-hearted desultory environmentalist platform but proceeded to roll over every time Gary Bradley cleared his throat. Think about him the next time you swim through some algae in Barton Creek or Barton Springs Pool.
Now, he’s at it again. Todd had a serious accident when he loaded his bike up in his car/truck and drove out in the country to do a gonzo ACA ride, was convinced it saved his life, and now he wants to force everybody else to wear a helmet. Despite the fact that they don’t appear to work in general practice, and that the primary impact of helmet laws is to reduce cycling, this is how ex-Mayor Todd is spending his political capital: continuing to willfully make things worse for people who just want to ride their bike to work or to the store.
Despite Bruce Todd’s apparent interest in cycling since leaving office, he has not made any kind of statement I can find about: driver education, cyclist education, facilities improvements, enforcing traffic laws, promotion of cycling as a healthy transportation alternative, etc. No, he hasn’t made one peep except for this push on helmets. Once again: he’s decided that his best contribution is to push a law which will discourage people from bicycling for transportation.
M1EK’s advice is: Wear a helmet when you’re paying more attention to your speed than the road, as Todd apparently was. Wear a helmet when you go mountain biking, sure. But don’t bother when you’re just riding in traffic – it’s not going to help you in any serious collision, and it’s likely to just discourage you from bicycling, at which point your health is going to suffer from the lack of exercise. Likewise, NASCAR drivers wear helmets and have other safety gear which we don’t force on normal motorists driving to the grocery store.
Congratulations, Mayor Todd. You really set a high bar for future contestants for Worst Person In Austin
Update: This entry was dropped from the austin bloggers portal for being “a personal attack” (I then had to decategorize this so it didn’t show up again there on future edits). I don’t know any way I could write this story with the essential bits in it and make it not an attack on Bruce Todd. My cow orker blames Keith Olbermann. I blame the helmet nazis. Nevertheless, this category may have a brief lifespan if it turns out that the rejection sticks – there’s no point writing these for the half-dozen people who actually subscribe.
Update: Austin group fighting the mandatory helmet law is at http://www.nohelmetlaw.org/

Double taxation on city streets

For the anti-toll whiners patriots, and even those who use it to try to get more hits, here’s a story for you.
There’s this guy. His name is Joe Urbanite. He owns a car, which he drives sometimes. He used to walk and bike a lot, but now due to medical problems, can’t bike at all and can only rarely walk. When he drives his car, he usually goes a mile or two to the grocery store on Red River, or downtown via Guadalupe for a show to the main library, or up Speedway to the pool at Shipe Park, or across town on 38th/35th Street to get to his inlaws’ house. Joe’s wife also uses the car a lot to go to the frou-frou grocery stores like Whole Foods (Lamar, 6th) and Central Market (38th). Joe might also use the car later today to go to the hardware store (29th near Guadalupe) to get some wiring supplies. Even when Joe’s going far enough where Mopac or I-35 might be an option, he usually tends to stay away from those highways because he’s found out it’s a bit quicker to stick to surface streets than going through those awful frontage road traffic signals.
Those roads range from very big to merely minor arterials; but we’re not talking about residential streets here. All those roads were paid for out of Joe Urbanite’s property and sales taxes (usually but not always in the form of bonds). And remember, Joe lives in a property which is valued very high per acre compared to Bob Suburbanite, so he’s paying proportionally more in property taxes.
Joe Urbanite goes up Guadalupe to the gas station to fill ‘er up. He notices that the state of Texas has assessed a “gasoline tax” on his fuel. Wow! Neat! Does this money go to pay for the roads Joe used? If so, man, that’s an awesome user fee; barely even a tax at all.
But no. The gas tax in the state of Texas is constitutionally prohibited from being spent on anything but state highways and schools. That means that if it doesn’t have one of them nifty route shields with a number on it, it ain’t getting squat. What about the federal gas tax? In theory, it could be spent on roads outside the state highway system, but it rarely is – most of that money gets dumped right back into big highway projects.
In summary: Joe pays the entire cost to build and maintain the roads he uses out of sales and property taxes. (Compared to Bob Suburbanite, far fewer roads in his area get any state gas tax money). Joe also pays as much in gasoline taxes per-gallon as does Bob Suburbanite, but that gas tax really only goes to build roads for Bob.
So tell me, anti-toll whiners patriots: how, exactly, is Joe Urbanite not double-taxed? And how is this example not much worse than toll roads?

You maniacs! You blew it up!

Council last night passed the McMansion Ordinance with 0.4 FAR applying to everything (totally rejecting the Planning Commission’s efforts), and while they were at it, removed the “quick review commission” which could have provided a cheap(er) quick(er) path for obvious variance cases like mine. This means my next door neighbor wouldn’t be allowed to build a second floor to expand his 1010 square foot house (family of 5).
Let’s review: The unmitigated evil of this task force, and yes, I’m going to name names now, includes these sterling folks:

- Karen McGraw, Hyde Park Neighborhood Association (link is to one of three properties at same address for her and husband): Has worked for years to stifle multifamily development in this area – leading to unintended consequences such as superduplexes and “McDorms”. Lives in a property with 3500 square feet of developed space, including a garage apartment, surrounded by properties which are more like 1100 square feet. Incompatible size and bulk, anybody?

- Mary Gay Maxwell, North University Neighborhood Association: Likewise has worked to obstruct multifamily development for years – and then has the gall to simultaneously complain about students renting houses in our area. Lives in a 2-story house which ‘towers over the backyards of its neighbors’.

- Chris Allen – lone person on the task force from the neighborhood side who understands anything about development – misled people for weeks and weeks into thinking the ordinance would have no effect on cases like mine, then switched tactics late in the game and started smugly telling people that I should just build “habitable attic space” or a basement, and, if that might be a wee bit too expensive or impractical, just go to the “quick review commission”. Nothing to worry about, right? Except that the “quick review commission” just evaporated. Say hello once again to our old friend, the neighborhood-pandering kilodollars-wasting Board Of Adjustment!

Tell me again why these people have any moral justification whatsoever to tell me that I can’t have a garage apartment and a second floor? (Neither of which would, unlike Maxwell’s, ‘tower over my neighbor’s yard’?)

Tell me again why these people have any moral justification whatsoever to tell my next door neighbors that they can’t have a second floor unless they tear down their existing garage apartment?

Tell me again why these people, who were wrong about opposing multifamily development, should be allowed to do even more to attempt to obstruct the market’s desire to provide additional housing supply in the central city? (By further disincenting duplex and garage apartment development – both of which are much more affordable than single family homes, even tiny ones).

I’m disgusted. It’s 9:00 AM, and I need a beer.

Contest Idea: If/When my next door neighbors move out after they find out they can’t build their second floor, and we’re left as the only family among about six houses full of students (thanks to the fine work of Ms. McGraw and Ms. Maxwell), what should I do about it? Most entertaining suggestion wins a prize.

Update on McMansion Ordinance

Tonight the City Council considers it. I spoke before the Planning Commission on Tuesday night (very late) and was covered by Fox 7 (including screen time I missed seeing, although my cow orker says I did pretty well) and the Statesman. Oddly, KVUE spent the most time with me but didn’t even run a story on the meeting (admittedly it went so late everybody had to cover it on Thursday instead of Wednesday). Maybe once they figured out I was ‘the crackpot’ they abandoned the story.
The Chronicle’s fluff coverage of this issue makes me sad. I alerted them to this impending fight a couple of weeks ago, but all they’ve done is this analysis-free notice-like blurb.
Planning Commission gave a thoughtfully skeptical endorsement – raising the FAR for lots with duplexes or garage apartments to 0.5 (which completely lets us of the hook and is a great help to our neighbors, as well as reducing MOST of the city-wide affordable housing disincentives in the original ordinance).
It’s being fought vigorously by the Task Force, who, frankly, doesn’t like secondary housing units in general (as well as multifamily development in the urban core. And McDorms. And superduplexes. Keep pluggin’ them loopholes!).
Meanwhile, the one city council member who bothered to respond to me is apparently using boilerplate about how this ordinance is a supposed “compromise”. (Not the PC version, but the original 0.4 FAR version). How, exactly, is this a compromise? I give up the right to develop my property and in return I get to live among people who already developed their property in the way I’m now not allowed to do?
The rhetorical gymnastics people will go through to avoid simply opposing bad neighborhood actors are just amazing.
No further crackplogging for a while – parents are in town.