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How To Keep [Your City] Weird

To protect a city’s character, residents need to welcome change.

Don't worry, Austin is still weird. (effelarr/Flickr)

When the Sound Exchange record store closed in Austin, Texas, in 2003, no one thought for a second that any misfortune might befall Jeremiah the Innocent. Everyone was wrong.

The iconic mural—a friendly painted frog by the freak-folk pharaoh Daniel Johnston—had graced the side of the record store since 1993. In 10 years’ time it had practically earned itself landmark status. It seemed impossible then that anyone could doubt its cultural value. But that’s Baja Fresh Mexican Grill for you. When the chain moved into the space vacated by Sound Exchange, those heartless corporate burrito monsters set about to take the mural down. Had Baja Fresh never heard of Nirvana?

Don’t worry: Jeremiah’s still right where he belongs. After Baja’s plans emerged to put in windows along the wall where the frog frames his eternal query, Austinites showed up in droves to protest the decision. They won. To the city’s surprise, the restaurateur complied. Protests had kept Austin weird.

Of course, longtime Austinites will tell you that the town lost its touch when Les Amis Café closed in 1997 and a Starbucks took its place. Even older Waterlooo residents will scoff at that: The city hasn’t been the same since January 1, 1981, the day the Armadillo World Headquarters shut its doors. The first pioneer who planted a flag in Austin would surely have told you that the second person to get there had already missed out on everything.


Today, when the conversation turns to Keeping Austin Weird, it tends to mean keeping people out. Developers, Californians, festival-goers, franchise owners: The list of factors threatening to emblanden Austin grows longer and longer. To the extent that Austinites are trying to erect barriers to entry for people who might like to live there, the city risks losing something worse than cool: its sense of hospitality.

Austin is still weird, thank goodness, but it’s getting more expensive. A new report from the real-estate services company Zumper finds that from September 2014 to September 2015, rents for a one-bedroom apartment rose 12 percent (to $1,120), while rents for a two-bedroom apartment jumped 9.8 percent (to $1,460). Those rents barely register in the top 20 for U.S. cities nationwide. But Austin’s year-over-year increase is up there among the elite: The only cities with a sharper uptick for one-bedroom apartments were Denver (12.8 percent), San Francisco (13.1 percent), San Jose (19.5 percent), and Oakland (a whopping 26.1 percent).

Arguably, it’s efforts to preserve the character of a place that drive up rents for a city, whether that’s Boulder, Seattle, Washington, D.C., or just about any other great city experiencing growth. Here’s why keeping people out backfires.

Picking character over people winds up hurting both

When beloved Manhattan booksellers or San Francisco camera shops close down, it’s tempting to blame everyone’s who moved in since the good old days. The new arrivals don’t appreciate the right things about living here, they’re ruining it for everyone else—that sort of argument.

But at bedrock, it comes down to housing. “Character” sometimes reads as a dog-whistle: Homeowners who live in affluent communities marked by single-family homes have a lot to gain from pushing back against new housing. Their home values go up when supply is limited, and moreover, as incumbents, they don’t necessarily have an incentive to make room for future residents. What do they care?

Even in a situation where growth really does appear to fundamentally change the character of a city—where cultural change is real and severe—residents aren’t better off fighting to preserve that character. Restrictive, NIMBYist policies at the state and local level have scorched San Francisco, where people are willing to live in wildly uncomfortable configurations in order to be a part of the Bay Area’s incredible economy. Fighting developers at every turn hasn’t preserved that city’s hippie ethos or kept tech culture at bay. Instead it has sped up a regional affordable housing crisis.

Choose your historic preservation battles

Rowhouses by developer Harry Wardman in 1909 in Washington, D.C. (rockcreek/Flickr)

I love D.C.’s old Wardman homes. I adore Austin’s bungalows. In a better world, the historic houses that give texture to a city would be preserved by a marketplace that made enough housing for everyone. In the real world, though, neighborhoods use historic preservation and other tools to safeguard historic housing districts—which winds up being a way of picking winners and losers that only exacerbates the demand for housing.

Seattle took a breathtaking step in the fight for affordable housing this summer when the city acknowledged in a formal way that the single-family housing zones that dominate the city geographically were built by racist policies. The fight to change the zoning rules for single-family homes to at least allow the possibility for building low-density buildings is not just fair, it’s an inoculation against an affordable-housing crisis that could be right around the corner. Of course, many of the ostensibly progressive homeowners who call Seattle home are objecting strenuously to such zoning changes. (Liberal in the streets, NIMBY in the sheets.)

Historic preservation isn’t the enemy. Not at all! Churches, libraries, museums, certainly some historic homes: These are all appropriate subjects for preservation, markets be damned. But in Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser recently overturned a decision by her predecessor to allow a historic structure called the Franklin School to be redeveloped into a contemporary art center. Her decision to go back on her predecessor’s word was an enormous mistake—for any number of reasons—fueled by a desire to lure a luxe hotel or a tech center to D.C. (The school building isn’t suited for either and can’t be adapted, thanks to its interior-preservation status).

Historic communal spaces should have historic uses that benefit everyone. Housing districts that benefit only incumbents, at the expense of past and future residents, don’t deserve the same consideration.  

Immigration is what keeps places ‘weird’

Encouraging immigration isn’t strictly up to local government, in terms of policy. But cities that do more to accommodate immigrants do better. Cities with large shares of foreign-born residents outperform those with smaller immigrant communities. High levels of immigration, coupled with desegregation, have brought down violent crime rates in a number of cities that have been described at one time or another as “murder capitals.”  

And as everybody already knows, immigration is the vital wellspring for cultural intangibles: food, art, music, etc. It would be awkward to try to put a value on what immigrants bring to a city, culturally, but let’s just say that it’s high.

Affordable housing set-asides aren’t enough

America’s affordable-housing crisis can’t be resolved by inclusionary zoning alone. Requiring developers to preserve a certain share of new housing units for low-income occupants is useful, especially when a city is growing in a bonkers way, like New York, D.C., or San Francisco (and Oakland and San Jose).

But local governments also need to strive to bring down the costs of new construction. Matt Welch, editor-in-chief of Reason magazine, writes in the Los Angeles Times about how local policies in Los Angeles (and California) make building new housing far more expensive than it needs to be. I don’t agree with him on eviction rights; but removing statutory housing limits, rethinking developer fees, and releasing rent controls would make it easier to build. Importantly, with lower costs, developers can afford to build for smaller margins, meaning more-affordable housing developments.

Affordability is critical for a city that is both weird and chill. It is the nadir of cool to say so, but the key to cool for a growing city is to build. Creating new space for incoming residents (say, annoying Californians who move to Austin) affords housing space for existing residents (say, waiters and musicians who rent). Those luxury condo towers rising all over Austin don’t bug me. If they weren’t there, the Californians moving to Austin would just buy up the duplexes and studios where students and artists live. (Filtering: so cool.)

Make decisions as a city, not as a neighborhood

Every cool college town in America needs to look at this thing that Boulder is doing and then not do this thing.

There’s no such thing as destroying demand

Maybe residents could do something to destroy the demand that draws new residents who change the pH balance of a city. Through extreme NIMBYist policies or aggressive public hostility, perhaps residents could keep away change. Protests in San Francisco haven’t stopped the wheels on the Google Buses from turning, though.

It may be just as impossible for San Francisco to ever build enough housing to satisfy demand. California Governor Jerry Brown seems to think so: At a conference for the Urban Land Institute this week, he sounded some dismal notes on the possibility of change or reform to the state’s stringent housing laws and entrenched attitudes toward development.

While it might be too late for the Bay Area, other cities can learn from their mistakes. Some fights to save character hurt people. There are more important fights for residents and more legitimate interests for local governments than preserving a city for the people who happened to be fortunate enough to get there first. Change sucks, but it’s better to live somewhere uncool than unfair.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.