Liz Mueller


As Interviewed by Jake R. Paterson, March 21, 2012

Dr. Elizabeth Mueller: In Her Own Words

Can you tell me a little about your background and interest in Affordable Housing?

Iím from southern California originally. My college education started at Georgetown University where I got my undergraduate degree, then I went back to California, where I received my masters and Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkley. I have lived in Austin since 1998. I teach at the University of Texas at Austin. I teach classes about the history of city planning, affordable housing, access to affordable housing and community development, and urban politics. My interest in affordable housing and social justice, I think, was more influenced by experience than by movies and books. But there have been some movies that influenced me I suppose. I saw a movie about a group in Boston that I thought was really interesting, because it told this story of a community that was really poor and how the city was about to come in to do a big redevelopment of their neighborhood without actually asking anyone about it. And I think learning about the Civil Rights Movement and learning about examples where communities have been able to organize themselves and do something to improve their situation influenced my thinking and activism in this field. I teach two classes every semester, and right now Iím teaching a class about affordable housing and a class about community developments.

At the University of Texas there are several people across campus who study affordable housing issues and work on that, so I work with all them. We recently did form a small organization called the opportunity forum. We collaborate by hosting mini-conferences and work on projects together so I would say I am one of the leaders.

Sometimes I feel very frustrated about affordable housing because itís so difficult to make a meaningful change. Sometimes I feel good about it when I feel like Iíve made some kind of progress or Iíve made people more aware about of an issue, or I help people realize how it connects to their own work or their own interests.

During both my masterís and my doctoral program, I often worked with community groups on different projects. I really didnít start working on affordable housing until I moved to Austin. Before that I had mostly worked on economic development and employment issues. But when I moved here, I started working with the local organization that advocated for the needs of low income families and people in Texas. And when I first came here, I was asked to work on a project here in the city of Austin with others, to write a report about affordable needs in Austin. And I really didnít know that much about Austin or about affordable housing at that point. But I knew how to do research so I did a lot of interviews and talked to a lot of people here in Austin and I learned a lot more about what the problems were here and how they were different from New York, where I had been living before.

Also, when I first moved here, I was hired to go do a study in El Paso about local community development groups there that did mostly affordable housing building. So I went to El Paso to interview all these little groups, and it was just really different than the New York area and programs. It was really very different than anywhere else I had been before, but it helped me understand how important housing was for these people, because so many people, especially in El Paso, had houses that didnít even have plumbing. They didnít have running water. They live in an area where there was no municipal government that was required to remove their trash or make sure they have water or electricity.

Their conditions were so harsh, so different from anything I had seen before, I thought, ďWow, thatís horrible,Ē So then I was a lot more interested in how did that happen? Why are those people having to live that way? Who sold them that land? Why didnít they have to provide them with plumbing? You know, why donít they have those kind of things that we just assume everybodyís house should have?

Here in Austin I became really interested in why a lot of the solutions I learned about in other cities when I would bring them up here in Texas, they would tell me, ďOh, you canít do that here.Ē So I am interested in solutions for those poor housing conditions and making decent housing affordable to all.

I often get involved in issues at the city level, where the city of Austin is proposing to make some sort of change and I try to bring to their attention how it will affect low income people who live in the area. I want to get them talking about it. So Iím a member of whatís called the Community Development Commission. Itís this commission that the city of Austin has thatís supposed to review how the city is using certain federal funds to try to address the needs of low-income communities. So Iím one of the members and there are representatives of low-income communities there too.

A good example of an affordable housing problem here in Austin is at the place where Riverside Drive crosses I-35. It goes into a neighborhood that has lots and lots of apartments that were all built around the same time, and those apartments there are getting pretty old. Those apartments used to be mostly student apartment buildings, but now a lot of immigrant families live in them who have very little income, and the rents there are really low. There wouldnít be somewhere else for them to move if we lose those apartments. We just donít have enough cheap housing around. And the city is proposing to make a new plan for that street because they would like to have a train come from downtown and go out to the airport, which would be pretty cool, but their plan was not really taking into consideration who lives there now and what kind of problems that the neighborhood has.

A lot of times the work I do is research, so itís more about policy solutions or reviewing different kinds of statistics or data about problems. I taught at a school in New York City called the New School for Social Research, so I taught an urban policy program for four years until I moved down here.

I think that everyone should have a decent place to live. I donít think in a country as wealthy as ours, that itís okay for people to live in a place that doesnít have heat or air conditioning. Or in a house that has really poor conditions or that forces a family to pay more than half their income for the rent.