Sunday, December 27, 2009

Apparently I'm everything that's wrong with the world

Good news: the source of everything that's wrong with the world has been located.
Bad news: it's me

For a Christmas eve activity, my neighborhood decided to have an outing in the park directly in front of my house. My contribution was a bonfire. As tends to happen at such gatherings, you meet some of your neighbors for the first time. One neighbor discovers that I'm the owner / builder of the interesting Gaudi-esque house we're standing in front of and proceeds to tell me how much he loves the house and how great it is that I tried something different, etc. After a little while the conversation changes to the historic housing tax exemptions that are common in my neighborhood (for which I, of course, am not eligible since my house is new). They were discussing how much money they would save on taxes by declaring their expensive beautiful houses to be historic. I casually pointed out that while I understoodd their desire for a tax break, and indeed would probably do the same thing if I was in their position, that surely they'd have to understand that I'd be against such tax breaks for obvious reasons. "Oh but what about the character of the neighborhood?" they replied. "Which character would that be?" I replied, "Faux American Colonial? Faux Craftsmen? Faux Gaudi? It's not that I don't like these houses, I do, that's one of the reasons I live here, but let's not pretend that they represent some great monument to human achievement. Again, that said, I totally understand why you guys would want to use the law in your interest and get a tax break. But if it came up for a vote, I'd vote against it."

This was not greeted well. An aggressive: "You don't think we should save historic things?" is quipped back. "I dunno," I mused, "Life includes a lot of change and renewal, sometimes we should embrace it."

And for this bit of shocking opinion on the meaning of life I am met with my neighbor angrily saying: "I can't talk to you anymore." and storming away. At first I thought he was joking because his reaction seems so out of proportion to the topic. Someone else quietly said that they agreed with me and this brought him back angrily shouting: "He said that he wants to destroy all historic things!" I replied calmly, "actually that's not what I said...." but before I could explain my position, he yelled at me while wagging his finger: "You're everything that's wrong with the world. Money! Money! FUCK YOU!!". As he stormed away I quietly replied: "Merry Christmas to you too."

For the record, my full position is that, of course we should save historic things -- I just think that we should do it collectively by purchasing landmarks with public funds and then leasing them out or preserving them. The current method that permits some people to receive a tax break for living in old, beautiful houses strikes me as an extremely inequitable tax reward exclusively benefiting a small cadre of rich people because "historic" homes are almost always in old, nice neighborhoods where the property values are high. Furthermore, the extremely lax standards of what makes something "historic" are capricious. For example, a house around the corner from me has been declared historic because a man who lived in it once was said to be a "prominent doctor" when they found a 1 inch newspaper column about him from the Statesman decades ago. (He's actually still alive so technically he's not quite "historic" yet). By these low standards, every house that has been occupied by a professional (i.e. practically every house in every well-off neighborhood) will become "historic" eventually.

The absurdity of this to me is that after I die my unique house will probably become "historic" and the owner after me will get a big fat tax break. But I, who actually did all the work to create this unique house, who literally hurt his back laying the bricks, who spent a great deal of money and effort to create something interesting that might be appreciated into the future, I get nothing. Meanwhile, my neighbor who hypocritically likes my new house yet has forgotten that something had to be torn down to build it will get a tax break for living in and maintaining a house that is supposedly in the "character of the neighborhood" despite the fact that his house is only one of maybe two or three adobe-style houses in this supposedly "historic" neighborhood.


flash and zak said...

Being everything that is wrong with the world is a tall order, even for you :) Merry Christmas to you and your beautiful home.

Zack Booth Simpson said...

An apropos link left on my Facebook account by Heather Kelley

M1EK said...

Zack, I live on the other side of Speedway (i.e. poor side of the 'hood) and my wife points out your house every time we go by (I think she met you once - fellow Notre Dame grad?). Our neighborhood is not known for its tolerance of dissenters from the official position, let me tell you.

Mohawk-John Woods said...

I hate when people overreact. It always makes me feel like I've done something wrong.

In any case, I agree with your stated position. Very well put.

Edward said...

Ah, the spirit of brotherly love, alive and well on Christmas Eve. It warms my heart. The irony is that I can remember just how difficult it was to build the house in any sort of responsible fashion (not just pouring concrete over the entire lot) as a consequence of the existing neighborhood protection laws. It's funny that he even liked it at all. (Well, Merry Christmas anyway, in spite of your neighbor.)

Anonymous said...


I'm not familiar with your home or your neighborhood, but I am familiar with the City's preservation policies. As is often the case, the reality is a bit more complicated.

What you describe as a fat tax break is actually fairly minimal, and it comes with strings attached. A person has to apply annually to get the break, and satisfy an inspection. Any change to the exterior (generally) needs to be reviewed and approved by the City and the notoriously fickle Historic Landmark Commission. Keep in mind that the development potetnial of a historically-zoned property is effectively nil -- meaning the owner could be penalized in terms of resale value. The City in 2004 tightened both the criteria for determining historic zoning and the tax benefits conferred. H-zoned properties are also a huge economic boon for the City -- the State has estimated that preservation generates $140M/year in economic activity in Austin alone -- that's more than SXSW.

I'm sorry your neighbor was an ass. He's certainly not a good envoy for preservation. Please keep an open mind about the merits of historic zoning and preservation for Austin.

Zack Booth Simpson said...

Anonymous, thanks for your insightful comments.

Tony Zurovec said...

As someone with a brain so large I can't make it through doorways less than three feet wide, 21" iron biceps (pre-workout) that Schwarzenegger once said gave him an inferiority complex, and a face so gorgeous I had to register as a lethal weapon 'cause so many ladies kept dropping dead when they saw me, you can believe me when I say...


Historical preservation unk unk. Unk unk unk unk, unk unk unk.

You should have told that guy to unk up or you might get all Neanderthal on his azz. Then, when he looked at you and wondered if you were actually serious, you should have motioned him forward, leaned in as if to whisper something in his ear, and blurted out at the top of your lungs:

UNK you, mother@*$%#&!

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am a poet.

- TZ

M1EK said...

You see the Chronicle finally covered the tax dodge issue? They, even though usually tilting toward the Morrison/neighborhood axis, found the tax breaks to be QUITE substantial, despite what "Anomymous" has said here.

Also, our neighborhoods are pursuing local historic districts, which are most definitely NOT voluntary - may end up affecting you (and me) whether we like it or not.

Julian said...

Just catching up on the last 6 months of your blog. Pure awesomeness, all of it.

I wonder if your neighbour's overreaction was alcohol, drug, or childhood-induced?