If anyone knows about the costs of growth, it's Brian Rodgers, a successful commercial real estate investor in Austin, who has long been a thorn in the side of his brethren in the real estate industry. He has spent innumerable hours and dollars (his own), starting in 2007, challenging the growth-for-growth's sake game that is squashing affordability and the quality of life in Austin, Texas. Now, as Austin continues to accelerate unbridled growth, Brian's words in this video of a presentation to the Austin City Council in 2010, is a challenge to US, ordinary citizens, to do the heavy lifting. This is why we created the League of Independent Voters in the fall of 2013.
The story of Austin, is the urban side of the League's fight to rein in government. It is not much different in many Texas municipalities and other high growth cities across America. Cities are all about development and developers often offload the costs of for development onto the backs of current residents. Who else do you think pays for the roads, schools, police, fire, water and wastewater infrastructure demands of population growth? There are more enlightened cities that charge impact fees on new developments. However, thanks to our legislature's captivity by the real estate industry, Texas municipalities are limited to charging impact fees in only four areas (roads, water, wastewater and drainage fees...that's it!) and the amount is capped.
The League believes there will be no reform until and unless we -- ordinary citizens -- position ourselves, along with the few like Brian Rodgers, to take on the most powerful lobby in Texas. That is not the oil and gas lobby (they are Queen). The lobby King in Texas is big real estate.
The "growth-for-growth's sake" lobby always plays the trump card of job creation to squelch opposition. However, a growing body of evidence refutes these claims. For one thing, as growth creates jobs, it destroys others -- like time-honored farm and ranch jobs. And, out of control growth destroys affordability and the quality of life as entire communities struggle to pay for the costs of growth, that is all the new roads, public safety, schools, water and other demands for services that growth demands. Who pays for all of this? In Texas, it is mostly the current residents who pay for all the newcomers' needs.
Then there are the constant arguments for subsidizing even more growth through tax subsidies to lure businesses here. Rodgers has said that tax subsidies are not inherently bad, but should only be used to alleviate poverty or in a few other instances. Right now, they're being used to drive more growth, accelerating the need for more infrastructure paid for by John and Jane Q. Taxpayer. In Austin, there are no requirements to hire the chronically unemployed, nor to do local hires.
Rodgers became a leader in busting the abuse of tax subsidies when he spearheaded a citizen's petition drive in the city of Austin, gathering nearly 30,000 signatures, calling for a public vote on stopping a $60 million subsidy of a luxury mall -- The Domain. It failed at the polls in 2008 by just 2% in the face of a last minute $400,000 ad campaign funded by the Austin Area Chamber of Commerce, the Real Estate Council of Austin, Simon Malls and others (let's call them the "growth machine") using then Austin Mayor Will Wynn (yes, that's his name) as their promoter. (Go here for the full story on the Domain).
Though The Domain mall continues receiving subsidies from the City of Austin, on the heels of the next big taxpayer giveaway -- to the billionaires at Formula 1 -- an energized voter revolt led to another petition drive for a fundamental restructuring of Austin's voting system. Austin had become the largest city in the country without districts. All city council members were elected at-large, making it difficult for anyone not backed by the well-heeled business interests to compete. Consequently, these seats were dominated by the real estate interests that had the big money to fund citywide campaigns.
A citizens petition forced the election to a single-member district system for the Austin City Council and the first citizens redistricting commission in Texas! This 30,000+ signature drive, and successful campaign for passage in November 2012, was conducted under the umbrella of the now defunct Austinites for Geographic Representation. Linda Curtis, now the League's Executive Director, helped lead that campaign with Rodgers providing some of the most critical funding. Years of hard work have resulted in a highly competitive race for all eleven (10 districts and for Mayor) -- in November 2014. Front and center in this election are all the things Rodgers has been talking about and, as Rodgers says often that, "Growth must pay for itself".
The work that Brian has done in Austin to study the impact of growth and its related subsidies the industry demands -- for all the new infrastructure new residents need -- cannot be superimposed on other cities. If you want to know how this works where you are, you have to study it. That said, use Brian's work as a model to get after the growth lobby in your community. We'll even help you do it.
Check out the site below thoroughly to learn what's involved. Don't miss the study by Eben Fodor author of "Better Not Bigger", and commissioned by Brian Rodgers. It will show you how, for every new home built in Austin, developers offload $27,000+ in infrastructure costs onto the backs of current residents. Just use the search button and put in "Fodor":
You can also view the power point presentations linked below from a Candidate School for Austin City Council candidates in May 2014. This is one of our favorite slides reminding us of a basic rule in biology the growth lobby ignores.
The Growth Machine
Total Accounting and Impact Fees (just one way to make growth begin to pay for itself)
Alternative to Chamber Economic Model (if not in-migration, then what?)
Housing Costs & Sorting
Austin City Budget
Water in Austin
We also recommend reading Roger Baker's piece in the Rag Blog entitled, "The Rise and Rise of Austin, Texas".