This morning, I sat at my kitchen table and ate breakfast while reading the financial news. On the front page of the Wall Street Journal was an article by Soo Oh titled: Austin, Nashville Rank at Top of Hottest U.S. Job Markets (February 24, 2020). Since I live in Austin, this was no surprise! Help Wanted signs are displayed in many stores. The traffic gridlock is a constant complaint. There are few ‘For Sale’ signs in front of residential homes because homes sell quickly in bidding wars. This is the reality of a booming economy in a sought-after location.
Austin is dealing with growing pains. For example, affordable housing is a major issue. The Mayor, City Council, churches, and non-profits are grappling with visible and growing homelessness. One proposed solution is to update the city property codes to increase housing density. Conflicts have escalated between established homeowners and developers who seek to build new Austin properties for the growing population. Those who already have Austin property desire to keep Austin ‘as is.’ Those who recently moved to Austin and can’t afford housing without a long commute desire affordable central Austin property. Those experiencing homelessness just want a permanent home.
My wife and I purchased Austin property in 2011 during the height of the recession. Land was cheaper in the stagnated economy and mortgage money was difficult to obtain. By the time we built our home, the economy started accelerating. The good news for my family: we were established in an escalating housing market. We like our neighborhood, but we also see that critical services, such as teachers and first responders, can’t afford to live in Austin along with young professionals with families. My wife and I support Caritas of Austin, a long-established nonprofit dedicated to ending Austin homelessness. My wife sits on the Caritas Board and works to address homelessness. Affordable housing is a real problem in Austin. More people are moving to this blossoming city and new housing developments can’t keep pace. Something has to eventually give. The Austin of the 1960s is not the Austin of 2020.
Austin isn’t the only American city to grapple with growth. San Francisco’s housing crisis started years earlier. A recent New York Times article by Conor Dougherty, dated February 13, 2020, is titled Build Build Build … When California’s housing crisis slammed into a wealthy suburb, one public servant became a convert to a radically simple doctrine. The article tells the story of Steve Falk, the former City Manager of Lafayette, California. His story is about courage at work, an example of Christlike character.
Mr. Falk worked to balance the needs of the Lafayette residents and the needs of the Bay area residents who needed affordable housing near the BART rail transit system. When the Lafayette residents wanted no housing growth, his conscience would not allow him to remain silent.
“So he started to rebel. When California’s governor at the time, Jerry Brown, threatened to override local control with a proposal to allow developers to build urban apartments “as of right” — bypassing most of the public process and hearings — Lafayette citizens were apoplectic. Mr. Falk, against his own interest, wrote a memo in favor of the idea.” The city turned radically against him.
“Cannot be trusted,” “ineptitude,” “disingenuously manipulating the City Council,” “should be publicly and explicitly reprimanded” — these were some of the things citizens said in response. His future was untenable. The City Council reprimanded him, and when it came time for his contract negotiation, members of Save Lafayette protested a clause that would guarantee him severance of 18 months of pay if he was ever fired; a few months later he forfeited the amount — close to half a million dollars — and resigned.”
“A city manager has a choice: You can just sit there and be this kind of neutral policy implementer, or you can insert yourself,” Mr. Falk said. “Sitting in your office all day long, you have to ask the question, ‘Why am I here, why am I doing this work?’ At some point, I just think it’s natural that you start making recommendations that you think are in the best interest, not just for the community, but society.”
Mr. Falk understood community to be more than the city of Lafayette. Community extends to those outside his small city. When people ask me about my church community, I think of greater Austin (here) and our world (far), not just those who are church members. Mr. Falk understood the totality of community. In his resignation letter, Mr. Falk clearly and courageously articulated that we are all accountable for the solution, even when life is going good for you.
“All cities — even small ones — have a responsibility to address the most significant challenges of our time: climate change, income inequality, and housing affordability.” … “I believe that adding multifamily housing at the BART station is the best way for Lafayette to do its part, and it has therefore become increasingly difficult for me to support, advocate for, or implement policies that would thwart transit density. My conscience won’t allow it.”