Ken Corby in Austin Habitat for Humanity
As vice chair of the Austin Habitat for Humanity board, I became familiar with Ikram Nassif’s story. She moved to Austin after fleeing Beirut, Lebanon, in 1998. Shortly after, she moved into government-subsidized housing and began the job she still has to this day, as a housekeeper at the Four Seasons. Despite working long hours for 17 years, Ikram could never afford to move out of subsidized housing, not with three children to feed and clothe and certainly not in a city where housing costs have skyrocketed.
Nassif is one example of a systemic flaw in our American dream: dedication and hard work will get you there as long as your dedication and hard work are in a higher wage bracket. Unfortunately, this is now truer for Austin than any other U.S. metro area. Our city has become a major player in the wealth-gap game, and the issue can be tied directly to housing.
According to a recent study by the Austin Board of Realtors, the average home price in Austin is now more than $300,000. In May, prices jumped $20,000 in only 30 days. These numbers have made it impossible for anyone low-income to buy a home. With equity tied directly into home buying, they also make it impossible for such a person to increase their wealth.
The capital city’s job market is one of the healthiest from a federal standpoint, but when you look in the microcosm, you see most of the opportunities are created in low-paying jobs, such as Nassif’s. This has an interesting effect. Unlike the national trend of declining rates, Austin’s homeownership rate has stayed at 45 percent for more than a decade. The increasing prices blocked out new owners and instead created habitual renters. Now, as home prices rise, these renters don’t experience wealth growth. Instead, they get increased rent, which decreases their wealth. For people who are already low-income, this hit is devastating: 69 percent of low-income Austin renters spend almost half their income solely on housing.
The issue is daunting, but as a city we recognize this. Mayor Adler’s adamancy for more affordable housing is a step forward. As an organization, Austin Habitat does more to combat these affordability issues than many know. Here, I do not refer to breadth, but rather depth. It is understood we build homes. It is not understood that our clients make mortgage payments, physically build the homes alongside volunteers and are required to complete financial and mortgage counseling courses. We also have a home-repair program, which makes critical repairs to existing homes, and we offer free financial services to the public. After 30 years and 395 homes built, we have been fighting. We fight not just for affordability, but for sustainability. To achieve this we must innovate.
With the landscape of Austin changing so rapidly, land to build on is becoming scarce, especially for a nonprofit that can be easily outbid by private businesses. This means we are faced with the question: “How do we continue to serve people at the same rate?” We have to adapt. We will begin constructing denser, two-story housing rather than the sprawling one-story family homes we do now. Not only will it allow us more flexibility with land, but it also does something much more impactful in a city that desperately needs it: It allows us to serve more deserving, low-income people like Nassif, who work their entire lives toward something which is out of their reach even though they are the very backbone of our community.
Our programs cannot single-handedly solve our city’s affordability crisis, and it will not turn the housing market around or make income levels rise. We are only one organization. We will continue to change the lives of our families as we have been for 30 years, but we cannot do it alone. Austin Habitat needs community support. The city needs to listen to Mayor Adler. In order to drive prices back down, Austin needs to build more housing — but on a reasonable scale that doesn’t include luxury high-rises. We need the American dream back before the wealth gap swallows us whole.
Ken Corby is the vice chair of Austin Habitat for Humanity’s board and its current interim CEO.