Pressure City Council to fix Austin’s hostile renting environment

Cuillin Chastain-Howley

If you’re a college student, there’s no way around it — searching for housing sucks. You can opt to pay exorbitant amounts to live on campus or even more exorbitant amounts to live in a West Campus apartment. If you don’t have the money to live near UT, you can live in one of the Ballpark affiliates. If you’re lucky enough to get an apartment that is in livable condition, you still have to deal with drug dealers and burnouts living next door.

This problem is pretty easy to diagnose. Capitalism motivates industry to create the most profit that it can, at all costs. It’s unconscionable that someone would have to pay half of their income, or even more, for rent, but in Austin that’s an extremely common reality. Beyond the increasingly exorbitant costs of housing, landlords and apartment complexes exploit their tenants who are too inexperienced or busy to fight back. The Texan recently reported on University House wrongfully terminating the contracts of its tenants, forcing them into more expensive units. Practices like this are commonplace within Austin’s housing industry.

Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot that UT itself can do to improve the housing situation for students. In large part due to a significant lack of funding, the majority of UT’s student body — 86 percent — lives off campus. Making on-campus housing affordable and accessible for this 86 percent — well over 30,000 people — is untenable and unaffordable. That doesn’t mean that fixing housing for students is impossible — it just means we should look in other places. Instead of relying on UT to fix housing for students, we should focus on pressuring Austin legislators to make the process of renting more affordable and less exploitative for all their constituents — not just students.

Student-centric solutions will not work because they ignore the central problem of housing in Austin — it’s a city that was built for a much smaller population than the one it currently has to support. The influence exerted by property owners resistant to the construction of more affordable apartments only makes the problem of finding affordable housing in Austin worse.

Marcus Denton is the housing chair of the Austin Democratic Socialists of America, a political organization that rose to prominence as a socialist alternative to the inadequacy of America’s two-party system. The Austin DSA heavily advocated for the paid sick leave policy that recently passed the Austin city council, and have many other policy issues that they want to solve, including housing. While the DSA believes that housing is a human right that should be provided for all, Denton acknowledged just how far we have to go before we reach that reality.

While housing is an extremely complex topic, Denton diagnosed a few key factors that have influenced the housing situation in Austin getting as bad as it’s been. Most influential among these is the continued disregard for the concerns of renters among Austin politicians. The process of neighborhood planning is currently a fight between single family property owners who want to keep renters and apartment developments out of their community, and developers who want to squeeze as much money out of their tenants as possible.

An audit of Austin's neighborhood planning process found that it "lacked robust and representative participation." The plans did not seek the input of renters, who were not represented in meaningful numbers. In one neighborhood, only 10 percent of the voters on the final neighborhood plan were renters, despite that group making up 82 percent of the population.

It’s easy to speculate why renters might not be involved in this process: those who rent are less economically privileged, and aren’t able to expend valuable time on political activism. However, if we ever want to make housing in Austin better for all, we must pressure Austin legislators to seek out the voices of renters and build city planning and zoning laws with the concerns of less privileged individuals in mind.

Chastain-Howley is a rhetoric and writing senior from Arlington.