SXSW Panel Finds Families Struggling to Make Ends Meet in Different Ways Across America

Oakland, Scranton, and Tulsa wouldn’t appear to have much in common. Geographic differences aside, their growth and housing trends aren’t all that alike: Oakland’s population is getting a little smaller with high housing costs, Scranton is growing some as housing costs are some of the lowest nationwide, and Tulsa is growing fast.

But in each city, residents are struggling with affordability. Mayors of the three cities sat down together Friday to map out exactly what’s going wrong for residents in each metro and to discuss the policies their cities are employing to improve quality of life.

In Oakland, housing prices are astronomical, with the typical home costing nearly $800,000. Mayor Sheng Thao, who was once couch surfing herself, said the city is in need of everything from deeply affordable homes to missing-middle housing.

Meanwhile, in the city where housing is most affordable (the typical home being around $160,000), Scranton Mayor Paige Cognetti said prices at the grocery store still aren’t much better than in Oakland. Scranton’s low-income residents also don’t benefit from California’s elevated minimum wage. While unemployment is low, Cognetti said it’s not a very helpful number in a city where underemployment is the greater problem. Financial need is obvious, she said, when she looks at the city’s food banks, which are running out of food faster and more often.

In Tulsa, housing prices are closer to Scranton’s but climbing as the city adjusts to an influx of people, some of whom were drawn by $10,000 incentives given to remote workers who chose to live in the city for at least a year. “As a mayor, you really have two options,” Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said. “Your city’s either growing or it’s dying. You can’t say, well, we just want to stay exactly the same. That’s not an option. So for us, we welcome the growth. But we are having to scramble to incentivize housing production and reduce red tape around housing production in a way that two to three years ago would have been viewed as a luxury or maybe a nice thing to do for the development community but not critical to the overall quality of life.”

While freeing up development is a top priority in Tulsa and in Scranton (the latter expects a population boom following the completion of a rail connection to New York), Oakland is focused particularly on rent control and capping the number of short-term rentals (Airbnbs) swallowing up existing housing. The city also requires all businesses to pay above California’s already heightened minimum wage. They’re also working on a bond measure to incentivize development of affordable housing.

In Scranton, the city has leveraged funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to invest in childcare centers. The high cost of childcare not only hurts families, Cognetti said, but in some cases keeps women unemployed when their potential income from full-time work would only be enough to cover the childcare necessary to do that work. “Childcare is a fundamental part of it, a huge piece of this would be universal pre-K.” Cognetti said. “We tried to get that in the Build Back Better bill and you know how that went. But that would solve a lot of issues.”

The Affordability Equation: Making It in American Cities

Government and Civic Engagement Track

Friday, March 8, 2:30pm, Hilton Austin Downtown, Salon A

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