Growth Machine

Growth Machine > All Episodes

August 18, 2023

Grow or Die

By: Audrey McGlinchy

(Episode 7) Now that the machine has done its job, what now? We explore some of the existential questions that Austin’s housing market has wrought.

The full transcript of this episode of Growth Machine is available on the KUT & KUTX Studio website. The transcript is also available as subtitles or captions on some podcast apps.

Harvey Molotch Hello?

Audrey McGlinchy Hi, Harvey. This is Audrey in Austin. How are you?

Harvey Molotch Hi, Audrey. Let me get my system ready.

Audrey McGlinchy This is the last episode of our podcast. And to end this whole thing, I thought I’d go back to the beginning, to the root of it.

Harvey Molotch So my name is Harvey Molotch. I’m now retired, but I was a professor for many years at New York University, London School of Economics and Sociology at UC Santa Barbara.

Audrey McGlinchy I mentioned Harvey in Episode five that Bill wrote about tech, but I didn’t mention him by name. I called him some sociologist. Sorry, Harvey, what.

Harvey Molotch Else can I tell you about me?

Audrey McGlinchy Harvey studied cities for decades, and one of the things he wondered was.

Harvey Molotch Who run cities? How do the political factions shape up? And given who wins and who’s in charge, what are their goals and how do they function?

Audrey McGlinchy In the 1970s, Harvey came up with a theory, and it was basically that the people who run a city are anyone who might benefit from population growth, from more businesses, more people moving to their city. That generally makes money for people in real estate and business, from developers to car dealers and the politicians they support.

Harvey Molotch If you want to find out what a city is all about in the sense of the important people having something they share in common, it’s to use the city to grow the city even more.

Audrey McGlinchy The leaders of Austin have been really good at this historically. They’ve used the city’s low cost of living. It’s great natural resources, Barton Springs. It’s music to market the city and attract more and more people. More people need more homes and places to shop, benefiting homebuilders, landlords, business owners. Harvey argues These people are different than the people who simply use the city as a place to live and work.

Harvey Molotch They have a great interest in exactly what goes on. How many people will be brought in, where will the traffic lights be? And they operate through organizations that they create and they influence politicians and they stay on topic.

Audrey McGlinchy All of these things working together to grow and grow and grow a place. And one day these ideas came together for Harvey and he could boil it down to two words.

Harvey Molotch I was walking down the street, and I think it might have been just like that. And I thought, Oh, I got it. It’s a growth machine. That’s what all of this is.

Audrey McGlinchy It’s a growth machine. Harvey was the one who coined this term, and Austin isn’t the only place with a growth machine. Harvey lived and worked in Santa Barbara for years. It’s a city on the California coast. Beautiful weather, palm trees. Its population is about a 10th of Austin’s. But Harvey says, like every U.S. city, the growth machine does its job and growth wins out.

Harvey Molotch There was a visible politics of people who were trying to restrain growth in development piece by piece. No, please don’t. I’m against widening the freeway and your arguments that it will bring us more business. It’s not working for me. I’m just here for the palm trees. And then even though most people are want the palm trees and not the freeway, a compromise is struck in which the freeway gets its wind. And it made visible to me that the instrumentation of the city, even in this most beautiful of towns, there is a operation that can say no to growth and development.

Audrey McGlinchy As we heard in episode five, Austin’s growth machine got tech companies to move here starting in the 1950s. It started with Texas Instruments and IBM and then research centers like MCI and Semtech, then Google and Facebook or Meta, whatever. And at some point the machine started fueling itself.

Harvey Molotch The machine has done its job and extremely well. And then after that happens, classical economics sets in as well as in way anthropology. People come because their friends live there and everybody talks about Austin is wonderful and the music scene and all that and the university and. And more and more and more.

Audrey McGlinchy For the man who came up with the term growth machine. I had one question. Can you turn the whole thing off? Should you?

Harvey Molotch You can’t just turn the spigot off. All you can do is influence the degree of the flow. The deed is done. What do we do now?

Audrey McGlinchy What do we do now? I’m Audra McGlinchey. You’re listening to Growth Machine How Austin Engineered its housing Market. Episode seven Grow or Die. In 2021, news broke that this big international chip making company, Samsung, was looking to build another factory and it was looking in offices in Austin.

News Announcer Bloomberg reports Samsung Electronics is thinking about spending more than $10 billion to build a Chipmaking plant in the capital city.

Audrey McGlinchy The growth machine was at work, according to documents filed with the state. Samsung was hoping to get the city of Austin to agree to a deal, a deal where the company would only pay half of its city property taxes, meaning Austin would waive almost $90 million in taxes over five years.

Speaker 4 Once the maximum rebate on property taxes in exchange for creating 18-hundred six-figure jobs.

Audrey McGlinchy Austin didn’t end up winning that deal. It’s not clear why whether the city was unwilling to offer those tax rebates or whether Samsung found someone willing to offer more. We’ll get back to that at the end of this episode. But Samsung not moving to Austin made me wonder, could this be turning off the spigot? This is an idea that I’ve heard a lot of people talk about in Austin that we can lower housing costs by stopping people from moving here. People have joked about. Though I’m not sure that they were joking building a fence around the city, there used to be these T-shirts you could buy that said, Don’t move here.

Speaker 1 Don’t give any more incentives. Why would you incentivize someone to move here when we don’t? They’re all saying we have no place to put them. We have a lot of people coming.

Speaker 2 In from other states and they’re moving here to Austin. And they’re trying to push people out. And to me is not fair.

Speaker 3 This is not a supply issue. It’s a demand issue. And the libertarian tech bros who want to blame it on central city people when they are causing the problem by stampeding the city with hypergrowth and super-high paying jobs.

Jake Wegmann It’s true. If we could pull a lever and reduce demand to Austin or greater Austin, there certainly would be a calming effect on the housing market.

Audrey McGlinchy Jake Wegmann’s a professor of real estate at UT Austin. What he’s talking about is the concept of degrowth or limiting growth. It’s the idea that, hey, what if as a city, our one goal wasn’t just to grow, grow, grow. A lot of people I talked to cautioned against this idea of degrowth. They worried that the result could be cities that have seen huge economic downturns, Rust Belt cities like Detroit, where in the mid-twentieth century, companies left the city and left people without jobs.

Jake Wegmann It’s a critique of growth as this thing that must always be pursued and in a capitalist economy. And the argument would be that to achieve true ecological sustainability, we just simply have to build an economy that’s not dependent on constant growth. And so if you took that idea and applied it to a city, then, you know, then it might be more of an argument about the housing, just as much of an argument about stabilizing the housing market as it as it is about a sustainable ecology.

Audrey McGlinchy I tried to imagine what degrowth could look like in a city. Jake struggled to come up with an example, a time when a city adopted a policy to stop its population growth or slow it down. It’s not really what cities do. But then he told me about this effort in San Francisco in the mid 1980s.

Jake Wegmann At the time, San Francisco was experiencing this enormous growth in its white collar economy. The city’s economy was changing. Its traditional industrial activities were withering away and leaving the city. But the city was really growing as a sort of financial hub, you know, insurance, banking, those types of industries that want to locate in downtown office towers. And so there was a big boom in office building construction.

Audrey McGlinchy People in San Francisco decided they wanted to control this growth. In 1986, voters there approved Proposition M, a law limiting how many new office buildings could be built downtown each year.

Jake Wegmann The bugaboo at the time was so-called Manhattan optimization. People were worried that the essential character of the city as a small scale, human scaled city would be eroded by these big towers, you know, sort of taking over, encroaching on residential neighborhoods.

Audrey McGlinchy In one article I read, supporters of Proposition M argue that limiting new offices would give the city time to focus on building more housing, housing for all the people moving to San Francisco. But that didn’t really happen, at least not at the scale it needed to. Decades later, the city has some of the most expensive housing in the country. I keep coming up against something Harvey said.

Harvey Molotch You can’t just turn the spigot off.

Audrey McGlinchy Austin’s growth machine was so good at what it did. We don’t really need to market this place anymore.

Jake Wegmann I always like to point out that in the United States of America, you can move anywhere you want. And second, companies can add jobs as they please, and people can sell their houses to whomever they want. So as long as those three things are true. A city is just like awesome is just really limited in what it can do on its own to destroy demand for housing.

Audrey McGlinchy Austin used to have to beg companies to move here. Remember Vic Mathias weaving a bedsheet across a vacant piece of land? And in the 1980s, when Lady Bird Johnson served quail for breakfast and Ross Perot offered up his jet to get M.C. to move here.

Jake Wegmann We’re long past the time when the city of Austin has to worry about trying to attract new businesses here.

Audrey McGlinchy According to the city’s own data, the last time it gave incentives to a company was in 2020. The city gave an electronics company $25,000 in exchange for providing 65 jobs. Mayor Kirk Watson wasn’t in office when that happened. But I did want to talk to him about growth. Do we just grow or die? Are those the only options? His office said he wasn’t available for an interview. Instead, they sent me a four paragraph response. In it, the mayor wrote that city incentives are important, but it’s about what kinds of companies and jobs we bring to Austin. I want to note that when Watson was first mayor in the late nineties, he brought a lot of tech companies here. But he said now he’s quote unquote, relentlessly focused on making sure any new jobs get filled by people already living here regardless. Almost 50,000 people moved to the Austin area last year. How we respond to this population growth is the other part of the equation, because how we respond determines who can afford to live here. We can’t put the growth machine back in the box. Maybe we can slow it down, but we can’t turn it off. So what do we do? As much as I hear people talk about limiting demand, how can we get people to stop moving here? I also hear people question supply question the idea that building more homes will do anything or much to make housing more affordable.

Speaker 4 You keep saying that simply building more creates affordability. But you never give us the numbers to prove it. If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. That saying that has been floating around was coined by Joseph Goebbels.

Speaker 5 I don’t think it’s my responsibility to find people moving into the city from California by breaking up my lot and putting a to use on my light too. That is not my responsibility. And I didn’t work 31 years for what I’ve got today to let that happen.

Daryl Slusher Okay. My name’s Daryl Slusher. I moved to Austin in 1976 from Houston, a native of Roanoke, Virginia.

Audrey McGlinchy Daryl worked as a journalist and then later won a seat on the Austin City Council in the 1990s. He actually served with Kirk Watson during his first term as mayor. Daryl is one of many people in the city who say increasing supply or building more housing won’t do much to bring down the price of housing.

Daryl Slusher I’d say there needs to be a little skepticism to that and there seems to be a lot of people just follow this narrative, but don’t answer those questions like that for me to provide any examples of where this strategy has actually worked to bring affordability.

Audrey McGlinchy Daryl says he’s skeptical because he just hasn’t seen it happen in Austin.

Daryl Slusher We were leading the nation in apartment building there. Why did that bring affordability?

Audrey McGlinchy Daryl’s right. Developers are building a ton of apartments in the Austin area, in the city and the surrounding suburbs. One firm estimates there are about 44,000 new apartments being built right now, according to people who analyze these numbers. This is the most we’ve ever built at once. But here’s the thing. Rent is going down at least a little bit.

News Announcer Okay. Good news. If you rent in Austin, Price is starting to cool off a little slowly, but it’s happening.

Audrey McGlinchy The average price of rent dropped nearly 4% this summer. Put another way, rents are about $50 a month cheaper than this time last year. But the skepticism about housing supply remains.

Daryl Slusher It seems to be just that an ideology or a theory. But nobody can tell me where this work.

Daryl Slusher Before I a rate I’m certain of some market could.

Daryl Slusher Show that turnover so far really haven’t seen any examples.

Stan Oklobdzija So what we find is that an overwhelming number of Americans don’t think that an increase to the region’s housing supply will have any effect on housing prices.

Audrey McGlinchy Stan Oklobdzija is a professor of public policy in New Orleans. Last year, he and researchers in California wanted to figure out if something he had noticed was true, that Americans believe supply and demand when it comes to really any commodity, anything you can buy. But don’t believe it when it comes to housing.

Stan Oklobdzija Yeah, So we were we’re curious about that as well. So we thought maybe people just aren’t really good about reasoning about markets. So we decided to ask a bunch of other questions in the survey about how they believe markets for.

Audrey McGlinchy Stan and his colleagues surveyed a bunch of people asking them about various scenarios where supply and demand might affect the price of something.

Stan Oklobdzija So we asked questions that people are pretty familiar with.

Audrey McGlinchy Consider something that happened at the beginning of the pandemic. Remember when supply chains got all messed up and people who make new cars couldn’t get parts? Suddenly used cars got really expensive.

Stan Oklobdzija Good morning, Tom. COVID 19 is driving the prices of used cars up, and that means your used car is rising in value instead of the other way around. People correctly reasoned that a halt in the production of new cars would cause used car prices to increase.

Audrey McGlinchy Okay, what else?

Stan Oklobdzija So we ask questions about a new fertilizer increasing grain production yields rate, and what effect that would have on food prices.

Audrey McGlinchy Grain prices go down, people said it’s basic economics. When more people want something, the price of that thing goes up unless someone makes more of that thing.

Stan Oklobdzija We ask about a program of job training for plumbers, for high school students, right? That’s going to increase the number of plumbers. And what that will do to the average wage of a plumber.

Audrey McGlinchy More plumbers, less pay.

Stan Oklobdzija But then when they get to housing, some sort of mental switch flips and all of a sudden housing supply has no effect on housing price. People just don’t think housing is a market like other commodity markets. Right. So somehow housing is different. The laws of supply and demand don’t apply to housing and housing. Price inflation is either the result of. Various actors off in the market or some sort of government interference or something to that effect.

Audrey McGlinchy Stan and his fellow researchers weren’t able to figure out why people don’t think supply and demand pertains to housing. But he said it might be because of how we see housing prices go up in our own neighborhoods.

Stan Oklobdzija They see new condo going up. They see prices on Zillow also going up. And they pair the two together. Right. It’s like people thinking that an evacuation causes hurricanes because they see people packing up their cars and heading for higher ground and then a hurricane comes. Right. So sort of one causes the other.

Audrey McGlinchy Lots of studies have shown that a greater supply of housing either slows the rise of housing prices or brings them down. I’ll take one example. In 2021, a researcher looked at housing in San Francisco. She found that when new apartments were built in a neighborhood, the monthly rent on nearby apartments went down anywhere from 1 to 2%, 1 to 2%. Look, that’s not a lot. If you pay 1600 dollars a month in rent, which is the average in Austin, that’s a drop of about $32 a month, which is significant when we consider that just last year, rents in Austin went up nearly 25%. But yeah, $30 a month, not great. Which brings me to this last point. That building and building and building will likely only get us so far. Here’s Jake Wegman again.

Stan Oklobdzija The unsatisfying point is that, Mark reconstruction is probably a lot better at reducing the rate of growth than it is and actually bringing prices down, because if you bring prices down, then you take away the incentive for people to to build things.

Audrey McGlinchy Most of the housing in Austin and across the country is private. It’s built for profit. You’re living in it and someone is making money off of it. Maybe that’s a landlord, a bank. You the homeowner. Capitalism, baby. And so if housing gets too cheap, there’s less profit to make and less incentive to build more of it. So what do we do? More after the break.

Audrey McGlinchy Late last year, I went to this gathering in East Austin. It was outdoors. There were tents, a stage, bunch of politicians, coffee pastries, breakfast tacos. Kind of your typical bureaucratic press conference.

Audrey McGlinchy (on tape) So tell me where we are right now and why we’re here today.

Speaker 5 So today we are at the Pathways at Rosewood Courts, at Chicon and Cornell Streets in East Austin. And we are here celebrating the long anticipated, long awaited groundbreaking for the Pathways of Rosewood Courts Project.

Audrey McGlinchy Rosewood Courts is one of the oldest public housing complexes, not just in Austin, but in the country. And on this day in December, a bunch of politicians had gathered to make a big announcement. Here’s former Mayor Steve Adler.

Steve Adler Let me let me first begin by thanking the residents of Rosewood courts for inviting the community to your home today to be part of this celebration.

Audrey McGlinchy Just beyond the tent where the politicians were speaking were these barrack style brick homes built just before World War Two. At the time, this housing was segregated. Black people lived here at Rosewood Courts, Hispanic and white people in other public housing in other parts of Austin. But these crumbling brick buildings were set to be torn down and replaced. That’s what everyone was there to celebrate.

Speaker 6 On the outside, the facades will be returned to how they looked in the late 1930s the flat roofs, the restored windows, the original brick restored to recapture, to really recapture the beautiful, the beauty of house architecture.

Audrey McGlinchy Then the politicians and bureaucrats, that thing they do where they take these fancy shovels and they pretend to shovel dirt to kick off the building of something new.

Speaker 6 We’ll do the ceremonial shoveling of the first group of dirt.

Audrey McGlinchy Public housing is subsidized housing. The government in this case, typically the federal government pays or waives part of someone’s rent. Now, not everyone can get public housing. You have to earn a pretty low income. But whatever income you do make, you pay about a third of it towards your rent. So if you earn $3,000 a month, 900 of that goes to housing. Like I said at this press conference, there were local politicians, people who work for the housing authority. And then there was Lucy Baines Johnson, the daughter of former President Lyndon Johnson.

Luci Baines Johnson I remember those wonderful words of hope that came from Martin Luther King when he said, I have a dream.

Audrey McGlinchy Before he was vice president and before he was president, LBJ represented Austin in Congress. He worked to get money for public housing and he brought that money to Austin.

Luci Baines Johnson Well, after Lyndon Johnson walked these grounds some nearly 80 years ago as a young congressman, he had a dream. He had a purpose. And all I can tell you is when the roll is called up yonder over on the other shore, I hope you remember how much he cared, how hard he tried.

Audrey McGlinchy The government began funding public housing in the 1930s because there was a shortage of housing for families who didn’t earn a ton of money. More and more, they couldn’t afford private housing. The origins of public housing are complex. Again, it was originally segregated. And oftentimes governments would bulldoze the homes of low income people in order to build this government housing. But public housing has persisted as one of the largest and most stable kinds of housing for people who otherwise could not afford to rent an apartment. The model of public housing isn’t for profit. It’s to house people, which is one tenet of this concept of de-growth or post growth that I didn’t mention earlier. Instead of focusing on growing our cities, population and economy, bringing jobs and growing people’s wealth, what have we focused on? A culture of care, of taking care of people? This isn’t a new idea. Plenty of cultures prioritize people over profits. But cities in the U.S. don’t. People who run them don’t. Growth machines don’t. Which brings me back to East Austin, a mile from Rosewood Courts and that press conference last year over here.

Steve Quiroz Over on my left, Jessie. He’s a neighbor. He grew up and he said also down the street over here.

Audrey McGlinchy This is Steve Quiroz. He had just gotten off of his work shift. He works for the Texas Facilities Commission doing maintenance on state owned buildings.

Steve Quiroz And then over there, where the yellow door is, that was my cousin’s daughter.

Audrey McGlinchy As we stood in his driveway around 6 p.m., sweating our faces off, he pointed at each house on the block, drawing me a map of his street.

Steve Quiroz And then the yellow house. There’s another cousin’s daughter, you know. And then I got another cousin that lives, like, not in a corner, but three houses from the corner.

Audrey McGlinchy Steve lives in East Austin’s Holly neighborhood, just a couple of blocks from where he grew up in the 1960s.

Steve Quiroz I lived with my grandparents at their house. That’s where I was raised.

Audrey McGlinchy Steve lived in his grandparents house until about ten years ago, when the rest of the family decided to sell it. Steve and his wife later got lucky and found a house to rent owned by a local nonprofit. And then one day, that same nonprofit asked him if he wanted to buy a house.

Steve Quiroz Me and my wife, we’ve been together for over 30 years and, you know, and we never really dreamed of owning our own home. But but in reality, now we know that it is our home.

Audrey McGlinchy Working a government job. Steve never thought he’d make enough money to buy a house in Austin, and he wasn’t wrong on the private market. Steve probably never could have afforded a house in Austin. But this nonprofit, it’s called Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation, has this housing model that makes it a lot easier to buy a house and to stay in that house. It’s a thing called a community land trust. Mark Rogers runs the nonprofit.

Mark Rogers A simple way to describe it in the traditional sense of community land trust. The land gets held by a nonprofit or public entity, and it’s leased usually long term. Typically 99 years to a home buyer.

Audrey McGlinchy In Austin, land is so expensive, a piece of land in the central city with nothing on it. So no house just vacant will sell for $200,000 at least. That’s because there’s so much demand for land. So when you buy a house now, you’re mostly paying for the land with the community land trust. The land under the house is owned by the government or nonprofit. It’s taken off the market. The home buyer buys the house and rents the land. Mark stands on the corner and starts listing the price of homes on this street.

Mark Rogers We were able to sell these for a hundred thousand, a hundred thousand, a hundred thousand and 125.

Audrey McGlinchy $100,000. You cannot buy a house for that in Austin. These homes are set aside for people earning low incomes and who have ties to this part of East Austin. And going back to this idea of post growth of no longer using a city as a tool for population growth and wealth. These homes don’t function like so many homes do in America. The price of these homes won’t go up as much over time. You can’t buy at one year, turn around a decade later and sell it to get rich.

Mark Rogers So it’s not a wealth building tool. If that’s the goal, then that’s this is not really the way to go. But if you want to stay, you know, in central east Austin, you know, close to jobs opportunities, close to friends, relatives, family, church, all those things, there’s a great opportunity. So that’s and that’s what people see, basically, you know, it’s why these folks are here.

Audrey McGlinchy Back in his living room, sitting on his couch, Steve says it’s the only reason he can be here.

Steve Quiroz I don’t think I would be in Austin because it’s so expensive. I hear people that they paid so much a month on an apartment, a one bedroom apartment, and I thought, Wow, you know, and here I’m blessed with this home that I pay maybe twice less than what they pay for an apartment.

Audrey McGlinchy So even his wife had to spend a couple of years improving their credit scores. But in 2018, they moved into a three bedroom, two bathroom house with a small backyard. They paid just under $800 a month. That’s mortgage taxes and insurance. Zillow reports that the average mortgage payment in the Austin area is more than two times that.

Steve Quiroz The thing is that I never really owned a home and this was my first home that I owned. And I this really mine. And, you know, and then things go through my head and maybe they’ll tell me, no, you’re not qualified or whatever. But, you know, it was already said and done. And we had signed the papers and we knew it was ours already.

Audrey McGlinchy Steve’s house is lofted so you can stand on the second floor and look down into the living room and the kitchen.

Steve Quiroz At first we couldn’t believe it. I would go upstairs and look down and say, Man, is this really ours? And we got used to it. And like I said, we love it.

Audrey McGlinchy Community land trusts are just one way to house people outside of a for profit market, and they’re not perfect for one. In most cases, people still have to qualify for a traditional mortgage, which is really hard if you don’t earn a big income. But Steve says it’s the reason he can afford to stay in Austin.

Steve Quiroz We grew up here and you know, our heart is here.

Audrey McGlinchy Public housing, Community Land trust. These are all parts of a solution to our housing affordability problem. But these are things that in our current system only help a few people. Right now, about 6% of homes in Austin are subsidized. We can change that by funding more government or nonprofit housing. But the current reality is that most of us, the vast majority of us, live in private housing. Maybe there’s little we can do now about all the people moving here. But studies show that building more housing will keep prices from going up and up and up like they’ve been doing. For better or for worse. Austin’s growth machine did its job. Ignoring the results doesn’t seem like it’s worked very well. Throughout the series, I kept wondering what if Austin could go back and do it all over again? Is there a middle ground, a space between growing like crazy and dying as a city? And can some other place figure that out? Drive 30 minutes north of Austin and you’ll find yourself in a cornfield. Soon you’ll see something rising in the distance.

Brandt Rydell You can see the sea of cranes out to the southwest.

Audrey McGlinchy At least two dozen yellow building cranes tower over this flat land. If you build it, will they come?

Audrey McGlinchy (on tape) What are the — what’s that being built out there?

Brandt Rydell That is Samsung. All Samsung.

Audrey McGlinchy This is Brandt Rydell. You see, when the big chipmaking company, Samsung, chose not to expand its campus in Austin, it chose to open a factory just outside the city of Taylor. And this place is huge. Or it will be when they finish building it in a year. Next to the construction site is a parking lot fit for an airport full of trailers For all the contractors working to build millions and millions of square feet of factory.

Brandt Rydell Keep in mind, there is over 1200 acres here that Samsung owns. This development is less than 20% of the overall acreage. And so what Samsung has filed with the state that potentially. There would be five of these buildings here, not just one 10 million square foot building, but five of them.

Audrey McGlinchy (on tape) So, 50 million square feet.

Brandt Rydell And then ten, potentially, ten semi-conductor fabs.

Audrey McGlinchy (on tape) I undersold Brandt a bit earlier. He’s actually the mayor of Taylor. And a development this big is kind of wild in the town he oversees. It’s small. About 18,000 people live in Taylor. The population here has doubled since 1950. Over 70 years ago, Austin’s population doubles about every 20 years. Brandt grew up in Taylor. He went to Arkansas for college and then Austin for law school, and he never imagined he’d come back to his hometown.

Brandt Rydell There were limited opportunities to come back to Taylor and to build a life and raise a family. And like many small towns, we saw leakage. We lose these kids never to return.

Audrey McGlinchy (on tape) But Brandt came back to Taylor in the early 2000s. He actually works for ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. The people we were all mad at during the 2021 freeze. Anyway, when Brandt came back to Taylor, he didn’t like what he saw.

Brandt Rydell It was very much the town that I’d left in 1989. Not a lot had changed, but the more I reflected on it, that wasn’t necessarily a good thing, because so much had changed in central Texas. And Taylor really seemed to have been stuck in time. And I see that as one way of being preserved in amber. A lot of things were protected and saved, but then there were certain things that had not progressed that I thought needed to happen in Taylor. And it was a little disquieting that Taylor didn’t seem to be taking steps forward.

Audrey McGlinchy Brandt says this idea of keeping Taylor the way it’s always been goes back more than half a century.

Brandt Rydell Go back to the old story about I-35 being planned to potentially come to the west side of Taylor between Taylor and Hutto and everything that that would bring during that time period. And, you know, if the stories are to be believed, the leadership at the time didn’t want that disruption, one, to keep things the way they were in. TAYLOR And so push that off to Round Rock and Georgetown and let us kind of do what we do here in Taylor and just maintain status quo. So that’s always been part of Taylor’s psychology. Let’s just keep things the way they are.

Audrey McGlinchy And if Brandt’s to be believed, this is not a good thing.

Brandt Rydell I know some people like that notion, but it’s not realistic. Things are always going to be changing. And so as a leader in Taylor, I have to look, I’m not worried about it today or next week or even next year. I have to look out for the best interests of the community and, you know, in terms of decades of generations.

Audrey McGlinchy And so when Brandt got a call in early 2021, he thought, “here’s Taylor’s future.” The call was coming from the judge who oversees Williamson County, the county that Taylor’s in.

Brandt Rydell I was already on my second bourbon of the night by the time he called me and he said, Mayor, I don’t know if you’ve heard that there’s this economic development project that is looking for a site. And your economic development director has proposed Taylor as a potential site.

Audrey McGlinchy He didn’t know it at the time, but the project was Samsung’s next big chip making factory again. Chips are the things you need for computers to run. It’s not a tech podcast.

Brandt Rydell It’s 2,000 jobs and it’s $17 billion of investment. And like I said, I was on my second whiskey of the night and I thought, I know I didn’t hear this right because he said 2,000 jobs, which is for Taylor, that would be easily double the largest employer in town.

Audrey McGlinchy I think we can all agree that Brandt is part of Taylor’s growth machine, and the machine thinks what a great opportunity to bring all these jobs to Taylor. We can really juice up the town’s economy. So Brandt starts pitching Taylor. “Pick us, pick us.” Kind of like that MCC thing in Austin. Quail. The private jet. Though Brandt’s pitch is a little more modest.

Brandt Rydell Taylor, we’re really kind of a blue collar, working class community, historically speaking. You know, a city of — you know, it was founded by, you know, the railroad. But we’re really built by, you know, immigrants. And and, you know, we were a town of of of industry, you know, with the rail here. And one time we were characterized as the largest inland cotton market in the world, had the largest bedding manufacturer in the world here just right down the street, that that was part of our history. And I think I did touch on the fact that, you know, Taylor had this glorious past. It’s been in a hit, a point of stasis now for for a time. But, you know, it was ready to kind of step forward again and kind of be a leader in terms of with the semiconductor industry if if Samsung would come here.

Audrey McGlinchy This was his bed sheet moment.

Gov. Greg Abbott Well, thank you, everybody, for being here. I’m proud to welcome Dr. Kim to the Texas governor’s mansion.

Audrey McGlinchy And two days before Thanksgiving, it was official.

Gov. Greg Abbott After a thorough and comprehensive search, Samsung has chosen Taylor, Texas, as the site of its new state of the art semiconductor chip fabrication plant.

Audrey McGlinchy The city of Taylor offered Samsung some big tax breaks. The company will pay just 7% of their city taxes for the first decade, which on a multibillion dollar project could mean a lot of money for Taylor, even if it’s just a fraction of what the company would normally pay.

Brandt Rydell Overall, the community is very excited about the prospects for Taylor with something like this project here, but that is also tempered with, you know, the understandable fears and concerns about, okay, what is this mean? I mean, this is a big change.

Audrey McGlinchy When I talk to people in Taylor, the reaction was mixed. Some were excited that bringing more jobs could mean more shops, more people, more things to do in this small town. Others worried what a big international company would mean for their everyday lives for the cost of housing. But housing was getting more expensive in Taylor before Samsung prices started going up in 2020, as they did across the country. And now homes sell for 50% more than they did just three years earlier. Why? A lot of people moving to Williamson County are coming from Austin. Historically, they haven’t really gone to Taylor. They’ve gone to Round Rock and Georgetown. Brandt says that’s changing.

Brandt Rydell Even without Samsung, we figured the population of the town is going to double by 2040, maybe earlier than that now.

Audrey McGlinchy The week before Samsung was announced, Brandt and his colleagues approved a new vision plan for Taylor. Basically, how should the city change to accommodate all the people they expect to move here? You’ll remember Austin did the same thing in 2012. Anyway, Taylor’s plan calls for building inward, not outward, so not sprawling and building homes closer together. More duplexes, small apartment buildings among the single family homes.

Brandt Rydell Taylor not growing, was never going to be an option. Taylor was going to grow. How was it going to grow?

Audrey McGlinchy Why was it never an option?

Brandt Rydell Why was not growing? Well, I think Austin just being the dynamic force, it is that and the magnet that it’s become that Taylor was going to grow. This is it at central Texas is an attractive area for people to want to be. So Taylor was going to grow.

Audrey McGlinchy And as it grows, Brandt says, the city, the residents can have more of a say in how it changes.

Brandt Rydell Samsung provides some amount of leverage for Taylor because before a presence like Samsung in Taylor, when I would talk to developers and we’d say, “Hey, look, here’s our expectation of what you what you would bring to Taylor”. The reaction would be like, “You’re just Taylor. Who are you to tell us what you want? You’re lucky to have anything coming to Taylor.” So this is what we’re telling you we were going to do. And you should be happy that we’re even doing this.

Audrey McGlinchy Brandt emailed me weeks ago to say he like the podcast. Guys: He’s a machinehead. Anyway, I realized I really wanted to talk to him about Taylor, about how he’s considering this really pivotal moment in the town’s story and how people are reacting to his vision of Taylor.

Brandt Rydell A lot of my detractors and people aren’t fans of mine. They say, Don’t Austin my Taylor and I think a lot of the things I’m doing, not the least of which is being instrumental in helping bring Samsung to Taylor is Austin izing Taylor. But what I think of Don’t ask me Taylor I think look, we’re adopting this covers of plan and we’re looking forward for the growth and development of how we’re going to shepherd those forces and mold things where to the best of our ability, we’re able to retain the sense of community. It’s not going to be the same community, but that feel that we all appreciate about Taylor.

Audrey McGlinchy (on tape) Is there anything that that you’ve learned from Austin?

Brandt Rydell I look back and I know that what’s almost a stereotypical Austin mind says, “Hey, hey, wait, you should have been here ten years ago. And, you know, about 20 years ago. I was really great then.” And, “hey, we just don’t want you to change. We want to keep Austin as it is.” And I mean, and I think of Taylor. There’s that same mindset we would want to keep Taylor as it is. Well, there are going to be forces at work that are going to just run over that that mindset. And you can try to resist it and build walls and try to prevent it as much as you can. At some point those are going to be breached and you’re going be overrun and you have spent so much time focusing on stopping those forces that you haven’t thought about how can I manage those and shape them and route those in a certain way that is going to change the town, but it will benefit us long term where we don’t just get stuck in our ways and say absolutely not perfect, going to fight this fight is going to fight this, and then you lose that fight you.

Audrey McGlinchy It’s easy for Brandt to criticize Austin, to say Taylor will do better. Taylor will figure out some middle road. It’ll figure out how to bring more jobs, more people build his economy, and also make sure it stays a place where anyone who wants to can afford to live. Maybe our two options were never grow, grow, grow or die. Maybe there was a third option we failed to see grow in a way that was good for everyone or good for most people. A way that means necessary change. Maybe that even means your own neighborhood changes, but it’s a change that prioritizes people. Austin has a culture of nostalgia. You know that whole thing. Austin was better right before you got here. The bumper stickers that say, Don’t California, my Austin, don’t move here. At some point, the ethos of Austin became resisting change. And yet the change came anyway. And lots of it. And now we have a new bumper sticker. Don’t Austin My Taylor.

Audrey McGlinchy This has been Growth Machine: How Austin Engineered its Housing Market. Growth Machine is a production of KUT and KUTX Studios in Austin. It’s produced by me, Jimmy Maas, Mose Buchele, Marisa Charpentier, Nathan Bernier and Matt Largey. Production help from Heather Stewart. Technical help from Jake Perlman and Rene Chavez. Stephanie Federico is our digital editor. Special thanks to Susan Paulson, Carmen Llanes Pulido and Edgar Handle. There’s more at KUT dot org slash Growth Machine. I’m Audrey McGlinchy. Thank you so much for listening. That’s all for now.

This transcript was transcribed by AI, and lightly edited by a human. Accuracy may vary. This text may be revised in the future.


August 18, 2023

Grow or Die

(Episode 7) Now that the machine has done its job, what now? We explore some of the existential questions that Austin’s housing market has wrought.


August 10, 2023

Pigs in a Parlor

(BONUS — Deleted scene!) We go back 100 years to tell the origin story of modern zoning.


August 4, 2023

There Go The Neighborhoods

(Episode 6) Austin last re-wrote its land development code in 1984. Sounds boring, right? Well, that rewrite made it harder to build denser forms of housing. We explore the history of zoning in Austin and the opposition to changing the rules today, which could make the biggest difference in fixing Austin’s affordability crisis.


July 27, 2023

Welcome to Silicon Gulch

(Episode 5) Not that long ago, Austin’s economy was sleepy, to put it mildly. People came here for UT, to work for the state or for the military. A little more than 50 years ago, a bedsheet changed everything — including the housing market.


July 20, 2023

Fertility Drugs for Cars

(BONUS) We talked in episode 2 about cars and roads — and how they affect where we live. We didn’t talk about one other way that cars affect housing: making places to put all the cars.


July 13, 2023

Smart Growth or Dumb Growth?

(Episode 4) When a new mayor came to power, he found what he thought would be a compromise — a way to bring new businesses and build housing for all the people coming to Austin without threatening the city’s ecological gems. It turned out to be more complicated than that.


July 6, 2023

Listen to This Podcast or We’ll Poison Barton Springs

(Episode 3) In the 1990s, Austin voters passed landmark protections for parts of southwest Austin that sit on top of the aquifer that feeds Barton Springs. That set off a chain of events that had a profound effect on how the city would grow in the coming decades.


June 29, 2023

Roads to Everywhere

(Episode 2) I-35 is more than a road. It’s been sculpting Austin’s housing scene for more than 60 years, encouraging endless sprawl and making gridlock a lifestyle. Take a drive with us through the highway’s history.