Two weeks ago, Austinites said “screw you” to Uber. Knowing the rideshare company and its smaller competitor, Lyft, would likely bolt if they rejected a rollback of the City of Austin’s regulations, voters said no anyway.
Uber lost the referendum because voters detested the company’s strong-arm campaign tactics, which brought into sharp focus just how arrogant and strong-armed its business tactics have been.
But I’m going to exercise my blogger’s prerogative and offer up another, deeper reason, without any evidence whatsoever.
Many of the voters who rejected Uber’s ultimatum were fired up by the frustration of living in Austin these days. They are tired of the traffic that’s wasting more of their time and creating more air pollution. Their neighborhoods are being overrun by newcomers with little history in Austin and no sense of the place. As their homes value rise, their property taxes eat up more of their money.
For Austinites on the margins — most musicians and artists, servers and bartenders, hotel workers, and mechanics — the city has become hostile territory.
The reality of Austin is increasingly at odds with natives’ memories of Austin.
What’s changed is that Austin’s one of the big deals in the information economy. Apple, Google, and Facebook operate there. So do Ebay/Paypal, Oracle, Silicon Laboratories, and Applied Materials. San Antonio companies such as Rackspace Hosting and the cybersecurity firm Denim Group have a presence there because they need to access the city’s tech talent — it’s still way harder to come by in SA.
The impact of this growth shows most dramatically in Austin’s housing statistics. The city’s median home value last year was $227,800, according to the U.S. Census. San Antonio’s median? Just a shade more than half that — $114,600.
An aside: we’re hearing that San Antonio is a “city on the rise” much less often these days, for a few reasons. The biggest is that then-Mayor Julian Castro took off to fulfill his real ambition — to make Julian Castro a true national Democrat. Whatever the reasons, I’m glad “city on the rise” as a brand is withering away. I suspected that, to the people who repeated COTR ad nauseam, San Antonio would look an awful lot like Austin when it stopped rising.
Not that that’s even possible. Technological preeminence is not in San Antonio’s DNA.
Invisible in Austin: Life and Labor in an American City, published in September, gives a good historical rundown of Austin’s exceptionalism. It started after the Civil War with Austin leaders keeping tenement housing and other kinds of public housing out of their city. They didn’t want factory workers mucking up the place. Factory owners got the hint, and manufacturing never became a major part of the local economy.
Attempts to exclude the great unwashed didn’t stop there.
“Historically, there has been a consistent failure on the part of city actors to make affordable housing a necessary part of urban growth in Austin,” wrote the authors of Invisible in Austin, which profiles 11 people struggling to survive their city’s economic boom.
Austin’s development was anchored in the University of Texas and state politics and government. From there, you get the idea — brain power, research capacity, and the rise of “the creative class.” It’s a short jump to tech Mecca.
And to Tesla Model S sedans cruising down Congress Avenue, the best concoctions that mixology has to offer, and glitzy condo highrises overlooking a city whose culture is under new management.
Uber and Lyft were at the heart of it all. They made up the transit system for the new elite.
On May 7, Austinites stuck with more of the downside than upside finally had a chance to act collectively, and they did a William F. Buckley Jr. They stood athwart history yelling “Stop!”