What is really causing Austin’s homeless crisis?

If you read the first part of this story, you know Austin is currently experiencing a homeless crisis, and the city council is about to spend $28,000 per homeless person over the next year to try and solve the growing disaster.

You also know Austin’s proposed “solution” is simply to follow the same failed “spend lots of citizens’ money” plan that San Francisco has already tried. The Bay City will have spent over $153,000 per homeless person in just four years, and their crisis has only intensified.

The results in San Francisco have made it clear what Austin City Council shouldn’t do to solve this problem. But here’s the real plot twist in this entire story: Austin City Council actually caused this problem in the first place.

Indeed, city council is not only dumping truckloads of cash on a failed plan to fix this disaster, they created the disaster itself.

Here’s the short of it: Austin currently has a scarcity of affordable places to live, and that shortage is not only forcing people to move out of the city, it’s also forcing them onto the streets.

“What creates homelessness is a lack of affordable housing,” said Ann Howard, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition.

A Bay City report showed that 63 percent of homeless people said the reason they were still trapped in homelessness was because rent was too pricey. And that’s not surprising in San Francisco, where the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is a staggering $3,700 (the highest in the United States). The same trend is happening in Austin, where rents are rising among the fastest in the nation for big cities (not that Austinites needed another reminder).

“There is one simple answer,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler. “Want to help people? House them. Want to stop people sleeping in public spaces? House them.”

But why is there such a shortage of cheaper places to live? You can thank city hall.

The reason is simple. For years, both Austin and San Francisco city councils have enacted fees to make construction costly, and now housing prices are now out of reach for many people.

That’s it.

Minimum lot sizes, height limits, solar-ready requirements—those terms are just an introduction to Austin City Council’s encyclopedia of construction fees and restrictions. Fee by fee, brick by brick, council effectively built a towering wall that is blocking working-class people from affordable housing. Just take a look at these numbers:

In Dallas, their city council may charge only $120,000 in construction fees on a four-story apartment complex. In Austin, our city council charges closer to $1 million.

All of those extra fees means there is that much extra to pay in rent.

“Every regulation the city does just adds another layer of cost to what would be an affordable house otherwise,” said Donovan Davis, president of Austin firm Danze & Davis Architects. “What used to cost maybe $75 for us to do a site plan in Austin now costs over $2,000 because of the amount of time it takes to do all those regulations that we do.”

Because Austin City Council charges endless fees on construction, they’ve driven up the median home price to nearly $372,000. The median price in Dallas? $213,000.

Surprisingly, even Austin council member Greg Casar, a proud member of the Democratic Socialists of America, recognized the shocking fact that charging construction developers expensive fees makes it expensive to construct anything.

“Sometimes our own rules get in our own way,” Casar said. “One of the most important things we could do is get the city out of our own way when we try to build affordable housing.”

So with that recognition, does that mean Austin City Council will finally tear down the wall they’ve built, liberating affordable housing for all and solving much of their homelessness crisis?

Sadly, no.

What’s truly shocking is that after city council (somewhat) admitted their own fault in this disaster recently, they approved a resolution to remove a few construction fees, making new housing a little cheaper. But puzzlingly, their dubbed “affordability unlocked” action only applies to a handful of specific projects, not the city as a whole.

So, the overall problem remains. Their “fee wall” is still standing tall, continuing to block Austinites from an affordable place to live, and continuing to turn more and more to the streets.

Austin’s unfolding homeless disaster indeed traces its roots back to Austin City Council; though they seem to, in part, recognize how they’ve caused this, they’ve opted to follow a failed plan rather than seek a real solution.

Maybe that’s the real crisis here.

This is the continuing story from the first “Austin Crisis” article. You can read Part I here.

Jacob Asmussen

Jacob Asmussen is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard. He attended the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and in 2017 earned a double major in public relations and piano performance.