Delusional thinking on the homeless in Austin, Texas

Yet another Big Plan is set to founder on the rocks of human nature in a blue city.  Austin, Texas may be America's fastest rising Mecca for young, hip, hi-tech folk, with its university; fast growing tech community; and music, film, and art scene.  But along with ambitious professionals, the city is drawing two other groups: tourists and the homeless.

Now, in a bizarre plan, the city's mayor, Steve Adler, wants to link the latter two groups in what he thinks is a symbiotic relationship that will actually become a case of parasitism that kills the host over time.

KXAN-TV, NBC Austin, describes Mayor Adler's plan:

Monday morning,  Mayor Adler will lay out a plan that could reshape the east side of Austin's downtown for the future. Adler, along with various community partners, will describe a massive development program meant to increase tourism to the city. Money generated from those tourists will help pay for permanent homeless housing and the wrap-around services that go with them.

The plan hopes to leverage what several different groups want.  The tourism industry has wanted an expanded Austin Convention Center. Advocates want more permanent housing and support for Austin's homeless.  Supporters of Waller Creek want to completely revamp the surrounding park for a one-of-a-kind outdoor space. Adler calls the situation in east Austin, the "downtown puzzle." Monday, he'll try and show how the pieces will fit together. ...

Peart says the amount of homeless is a common complaint for the tourism industry.  He thinks hotels will go along with increasing the "bed tax" to 17 percent, if the city expands the convention center and puts more resources to house people. ...

It would create a downtown TIF – or tax increment finance zone – that could dedicate $30 million in future property taxes to pay for homes for about a quarter of Austin's homeless.  

Local politicians adore taxing hotel rooms and beds.  They think their own voters don't pay these taxes.  What they forget is that when you add close to 20% to the cost of hotel rooms, you drive away business.  Event planners carefully scrutinize hotel costs when selecting cities to host their affairs.  Austin has the advantage of being lower-cost than many other long established magnets, like New York and San Francisco, but that cost advantage will diminish.  For individual tourists, those suburban hotels start to enjoy a substantial price advantage over downtown.  Along with Airbnb, Austin's hoteliers will have to worry about lower-taxed competition across the city line.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the equation that event planners and tourists consider, the attractiveness of the city will change.  Mayor Adler and his supporters think the convention center and other amenities they plan will draw more tourists and convince more meeting planners to select Austin, as well as diminish the number of people on the streets by a quarter.

But what is missing in this entire article and presumably the plan is any consideration of who the homeless are and how they came to be in Austin.  The implicit assumption of the plan to tax tourists to make the homeless more comfortable in Austin is that a finite number of homeless people exist there – and that once services are provided, those people will no longer be homeless.

Photo by Jana Birchum, Austin Chronicle

This is magical thinking because it ignores human nature, not to mention the experience of San Francisco.  That city's generous aid to the homeless has not kept them off the street.  It has attracted thousands of more homeless, who relieve themselves on the city's streets, repulsing tourists and locals alike.  Calcutta by the Bay.

Residents of both Austin and the Bay Area tend to think of themselves as especially smart, and they often congratulate themselves on their superiority to the yokels.  They prefer to live with comforting but unrealistic assumptions about human nature.  Simply put, they are progressives, and their plans to make things better almost always make things worse in the long run.

Hat tip: David Paulin

If you experience technical problems, please write to