People carrying groceries after the freezing February winter in Austin.
Photo credit: Montinique Monroe / Getty Images
The first construction site sign appeared in late February as many Austinites were still waiting to get their plumbing running after the storm and queuing for bottled water. Hanging under a “FOR SALE” sign was a custom printed sign from a real estate agent, in the name of the house behind it, “I ROCKED SNOWPOCALYPSE 2021!”
Our home didn’t really “shake” the big blackout in Texas last month. Neither nearly half Austin, who lost energy for several days. For us, the crisis began at 5 am on Monday, when my partner, Nina, was woken up by the baby monitor beeping “out of signal range” (the camera had lost power). It didn’t sound too worrying at first – there had been a snowstorm, and things like that are happening. I had cell service but no internet on my phone, so I heard from my neighbors and my parents that the energy company had announced “continual blackouts.” It seemed a little serious.
We stacked more and more diapers on top of the baby as the indoor thermostat slid below 60 degrees late in the morning. My parents told me that they watched a press conference and that “rolling” was starting to sound like a dishonest understatement. I finally got a cellular data signal and saw a city councilor tweeting, against official rhetoric, that the outages could go on for days without ever turning back.
When Nina went to spot the roads covered in snow, we found that vehicles in difficulty were littering the sides of the roads and that several lanes of traffic seemed impassable. I didn’t trust our ten year old Prius to get us out safely. We didn’t have any friends with electricity within walking distance, and we certainly didn’t have a generator. Then Nina’s friends Sarah and Jake reached out – they had the power (maybe because their house is near a juvenile detention center), lived a few miles away and offered to us to take us, even to pick us up in their four-wheeled vehicle. – driving vehicle. We piled into their car with the dog at our feet as Nina hugged the baby, creaked treacherous hills, and finally made it to their warm home.
We were away from home for four nights – two with Sarah and Jake, and, after losing power on Wednesday, two more with another couple. We borrowed diapers and dog food, impromptu group dinners with whatever we could find in the pantry, and worried from afar about the condition of our pipes. But we did very well. Many of our neighbors have waited single-digit nights huddled under every blanket in the house or suffered serious property damage. Dozens of people have died in the city and state, lonely deaths due to neglect from hypothermia, fires and carbon monoxide poisoning.
My family was lucky, but our luck had little to do with the location of our house. As far as I know, our biggest stroke of luck was being part of a large community that stretched across town when the power went out.
A disaster can redraw the map of the most desirable local real estate. The Texas energy fiasco revealed a secret layer of entire neighborhoods, like the Central Business District, as well as much smaller areas a few blocks here and there, which we now know to be considered “Critical load” areas by power companies. The rules for which areas are “critical” are opaque, but these areas are said to include important infrastructure like hospitals and fire stations.
It is evident from the real estate agent’s signs proclaiming victory over the snowpocalypse that some expect house prices to skyrocket in “critical load” areas. If this is what happens, it won’t surprise me. Austin is the hottest real estate market in the country, a status probably induced by the relocations of companies and remote workers at the time of the pandemic. And the new transplants have money to burn: buyers out of town have $ 200,000 more to spend than locals, and homes are sold for $ 50,000 to $ 100,000 more than asking price. Prices here will jump at the slightest provocation. At best, one would hope that there is a corollary effect that makes homes a bit more affordable in non-critical load neighborhoods like mine. But if this is the lesson we learn from the week of extreme hardship and hardship that so many people have recently endured – that those who can should move next to a hospital or fire station “to critical load ”- we’re missing a much bigger thing to take away.
Last summer, at the height of the pandemic, I participated in the rental of a house. I have spoken to several potential tenants, both virtually and in person. Most came from other places. Austin attracted them as a fun and livable city during the work-from-home era, a relatively easy place to keep and use a car, with plenty of restaurant patios and parks inside and out. proximity to the urban core. Yet how many of them had friends in Austin or would make one during the pandemic? Austin is fairly friendly with strangers during normal hours, but most of the ways a newcomer can branch out – offices, bars, social gatherings, in-person classes, gyms, and beer league sports – have been more or less less out of service for a year. I thought about these people during the blackout, wondering if any of them had found warm shelter. I was acclaimed to learn that strangers are helping each other through Buy Nothing groups, the city redditand volunteer networks like Austin Mutual Aid. Again, I was wondering, have most of the grafts been left in the cold?
When Sarah and Jake lost power on Wednesday in the second storm that passed through this week, we didn’t panic. By then, we had already surveyed our friends in the city, helping to connect those in power with those in need of a place to crash. These included high school friends, former roommates, coworkers, friends of friends, and their siblings – the range of people you get to know after living a decade or more in a city. Gene and Sara offered to host us, but Simone and Matt won because they had more baby supplies. Micah, whom we had never met before he and his family crashed with Jake and Sarah, drove us there in his four-wheel drive car – with an infant car seat this time.
Despite its growing reputation as a city full of newcomers, Austin is also full of ingrained networks like mine and Nina, large amalgamations of friends, neighbors and extended families. Such communities exist at the top and bottom of the economic ladder and across racial and ethnic clusters, and they are perhaps nowhere as strong as among the multigenerational residents of Austin. It is clear that many have been deeply threatened by rising house prices for some time, and the hot market during the pandemic-era only destabilizes them further. I’ve seen friends with more than a graduate degree out of a city once known for its affordability; for the working class, the situation is dire. It is terribly ironic to imagine local self-help networks now strained by a burning “critical load” house market.
The Friday after our evacuation, we finally returned home. On Saturday, the last snow melted. It was 76 degrees in Austin again on Sunday, as if nothing had happened – at least for those of us who weren’t having plumbing issues. We had come through this crisis of government failure and official neglect, like so many Austinites, thanks to a grounded community that supported us with whatever we needed. The question that remains is whether these communities can now withstand the heat of our scorching real estate market.