An unusually murderous year

About two years ago a reader of mine, a native Austinite in his 60’s, told me by email “that Austin is not anywhere close to as safe a city as it used to be.” Once upon a time, he related, people used to regularly go to bed with their doors unlocked and left their cars with the keys in the ignition. “I would not dream of that today,” he added.

While not challenging the wisdom of keeping one’s car keys on one’s person, I pointed out that Austin was by most metrics much safer than it had been at other points in his life. Like most other large U.S. cities, Austin’s overall crime rate was much lower in 2019 than it was 20 and 30 years before. For instance, here’s a chart from APD’s annual crime report in 2008, looking back at the prior 20 years:

And in the 2018 report, you can see that crime dropped further in the 2010’s:

So the crime rate in 2018 was about a third of what it was in 1990. An enormous drop. Violent crime didn’t actually drop much during the 90’s (for a few years it significantly rose) but it dropped significantly in the 2010’s, from around 600 per 100,000 to 400:

Finally, murders dropped dramatically in the late 90’s and early 2000’s…

And then mostly stayed flat, at about 3 to 4 murders per 100,000 residents throughout the 2010’s.

Austin was not at all unique in this regard. Below shows the national murder rate from 1986-2019, based on FBI data.

Anyway, despite all of this good news on crime over the previous 30 years, my reader’s perception that Austin was more dangerous than ever was not surprising. Americans tend to believe crime is rising even when the evidence says the opposite, although they are usually more pessimistic about the nation than their locale.

There are no doubt numerous factors feeding this misperception, but in Austin I would generally point the finger at the constant crime coverage in local media, particularly TV stations. And then in the past two years there has been an intense and largely fact-free campaign by conservatives at the state and local level to portray the city as a crime-infested hellhole in response to the decriminalization of camping and the modest reduction in police spending.

But then there’s 2021…

But in Austin and America overall, murders are way up this year. In the first six months of the year, Austin had 44 homicides, nearly matching 2020’s total of 48. If the second half of the year is as bad as the first, we’d hit a murder rate of between 8.5-9.0, which is what was normal in the bad old days of the late 80’s/early 90’s.

If we look back at the past 12 months, starting on July 19, 2020, there have 63 murders, a rate of about 6.3 per 100,000, the highest rate since 2003.

Now, the good news is that the second half of 2021 is off to a stellar start: there has not been a murder yet this month. So hopefully here and elsewhere around the country, the past year will prove to be an aberration, likely explained by the psychological and economic hardship of the pandemic.

It’s not Austin, it’s America

Even if Austin’s murder rate doubles, it will not come close to Dan Patrick’s claim that it’s one of the “most dangerous cities in America.”

And there definitely won’t be any basis for claiming that Austin’s rising murder rate was due to its “defunding” of the police department. The rise in killings is hardly confined to cities that championed progressive criminal justice policy. Cities like Houston, which boosted police spending last year, are experiencing the same thing.

Now, is a national increase in homicide a justification for investing more in police? That’s an argument that is worth having.

The “refunding” of APD

This is an excerpt from the July 12 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

So on Friday City Manager Spencer Cronk released his proposed FY 2021-22 budget. As expected, he has proposed restoring the police department’s funding to its 2019 level to avoid “catastrophic” (his words) financial penalties from the state.

The ease with which the budget is being restored illustrates how overstated the whole “defunding” thing was last summer, at least in the near-term. There was only $23.3M in immediate cuts to APD’s budget, but roughly half of that came from canceling three police academy classes, a move that was partially reversed when Council restored funding for a new cadet class that kicked off at the beginning of June.

About half ($76M) of the $150M “cut” came from moving hundreds of civilian functions out of the police department: the 911 center, the forensics lab etc. And then there were $47M worth of APD programs that were put into the “regimagine” bucket — a sort of policy purgatory where they continued to exist as before but they were put on notice that they would eventually be “reimagined” in some undefined way. If the state had not intervened so quickly, perhaps those programs would have eventually been “reimagined,’ making it harder for Cronk to put the cat back in the bag.

If you look at the chart below, you’ll see that the number of civilian employees (circled in red) is going up by 315 over last year. That’s where the big change is. And you’ll also see below, in green, that the number of “sworn” APD positions (officers), is exactly the same as last year:

Remember, the number of funded positions ≠ the number of actual cops. Many of the positions are vacant due to retirements and resignations, which, contrary to what the police lobby says over and over again, have not meaningfully accelerated in the past year.

What is true is that the city’s police force is smaller than it has been in many years. According to this fun little KUT quiz that I think everyone should take, there were 1,083 police officers as of October of last year, which was roughly the same number as in 2016. This was partially due to Council’s suspension of the cadet classes but also due to a surge in retirements that began in 2018, two years before George Floyd’s killing.

Police union prez Ken Casaday tells me the association is “cautiously optimistic” about the budget but would like to fund a third cadet class, in addition to the two included in Cronk’s proposal. Casaday also would like to see some money for capital projects, including a new APD headquarters and a new substation in northwest Austin.

This is an excerpt from the July 12 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

What happened to the new Convention Center housing the homeless?

This is an excerpt from the July 2 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Way back in 2019, City Council unanimously approved a resolution in favor of expanding the Convention Center. But the expansion, which the hotel industry has been pushing for years, was only part of what Council endorsed.

The resolution, authored by CM Kathie Tovo, described the new Convention Center as part of a broader framework –– the Palm District Master Plan –– that would revitalize the southeastern quadrant of downtown and yield a number of community benefits. One of the big selling points: increased funding for homelessness services.

It was the culmination of a two-year campaign by Mayor Steve Adler to frame the Convention Center expansion as the key to “solving the downtown puzzle.”

The idea hinged on the creation of a Tourism Public Improvement District (TPID). The deal was supposed to be that if the city approved a hotel tax increase to fund a new Convention Center, the downtown hotels would voluntarily create a TPID that would levy an additional 1-2% tax on hotel guests. The understanding was that 40% of the revenue from the TPID would be used to fund homelessness services.

The deal that the mayor and the hotel association talked about was a 1% TPID assessment that would initially generate about $4 million a year for homelessness. After five years the plan was to increase the assessment to 2%, generating at least $8 million a year for homelessness.

(PIDs are not unusual. The Downtown Austin Alliance, which pays for downtown cleanup and other services, is funded by a PID that was created by a vote of a majority of downtown property owners)

The opportunity to generate more money for homelessness was one of the key arguments used by supporters of the Convention Center to beat back a referendum in November 2019 that would have capped the percentage of hotel tax dollars that could be used for the CC.

Originally the idea was that the TPID funds would create a dedicated funding stream that would directly support city homelessness services. Except at the same time that the Texas Hotel & Lodging Association was selling that idea to City Council, it was at the Legislature crafting a bill that would prohibit TPIDs from using money on anything except tourism marketing.

It wasn’t until months later, in October, that some City Council members discovered that the law had been changed, even though the city’s legislative staff, which is responsible for keeping Council apprised of state bills that affect the city, had been aware all along.

“As soon as I found out about it, I was extraordinarily unhappy and asked (City Manager Spencer Cronk) why we weren’t notified,” Tovo tells me. “I was told that it had been reviewed by staff and it was determined to have no impact. That was a decision made by the manager.”

When I interviewed Scott Joslove, head of the hotel association, in October of 2019, he told me that the mayor had been aware of the bill as well and had called Joslove to ask whether it would jeopardize the homelessness plan. Joslove said that he assured the mayor it wouldn’t.

The plan all along, Joslove said, was for the TPID to send the money to the Convention Center to cover tourism promotion services that are currently being covered by CC dollars. That would free up money in the CC’s budget to dedicate to homelessness services.

And yet, here we are two years later, the homelessness issue is sucking up more of the city’s money and attention than ever and yet everybody seems to have forgotten about the TPID thing. The city is dedicating $88 million in federal relief funds to homelessness and is putting pressure on the county to make a similar commitment. A recent “Homelessness Summit” organized by city and nonprofit leaders called for $240M a year investment from public and private entities but made no mention of the new Convention Center funding homelessness services.

All of this would be understandable if Council had ditched the idea of expanding the Convention Center. That would certainly seem like the prudent thing to do: the expansion that was initially envisioned won’t work due to the city’s failure to reach an agreement with neighboring property owners. Also, the convention industry was stagnant even before the pandemic and it’s not hard to imagine that some conventions will never return to their pre-pandemic levels.

What’s changed?

Council was scheduled to authorize the TPID in December but at the last minute the hotel association asked that the item be delayed, saying it needed more time to engage with member hotels on the issue. In an email, Joslove leaves the door open:

“Hotels have not petitioned to create an Austin TPID yet. With the COVID pandemic, hotels went into survival mode and are just coming out of it now. Accordingly, there is no collection of TPID funds as of yet. I do not know when efforts to initiate the TPID process will recommence.”

Tovo says it’s still a “possibility” and that there “is still interest from the hotel industry,” but that the change in state law introduced uncertainty about whether it could really be a reliable funding stream for homelessness.

In a statement, the mayor said he believes the TPID plan will go forward.

“The Tourism Public Improvement District remains a part of the City of Austin’s strategy and its dedicated source of revenue is expected to provide much-needed and ongoing funding to address homelessness over time,” he said. “The hotel industry was one of the first sectors to come forward with a proposed solution for funding to address one of our community’s biggest issues. Currently, we are working with a wide range of private businesses who also see great value in supporting the community goal of providing housing for 3,000 people experiencing homelessness over the next three years.”

That’s good to hear. But it’s still curious how conspicuously absent the subject has been from the ongoing conversations about homelessness funding.

In recent years, critics of the Convention Center have dismissed the TPID/homelessness arrangement as a slick ploy by the hotel lobby to win support for an otherwise dubious commitment of public funds. I was repeatedly assured by opponents of the expansion that the hotels and/or Convention Center staff would find a way to get out of the arrangement.

Let’s hope the critics aren’t proven right.

This is an excerpt from the July 2 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

APD’s evolving story about the 6th St shooting

This is an excerpt from the June 24 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Local authorities appear to be having a tough time getting their story straight about the 6th Street shooting. 

District Attorney Jose Garza has said that “at no time was there sufficient evidence to believe” that the two teenagers originally arrested fired any shots. In contrast, yesterday Police Chief Joseph Chacon told me that the two “did commit the criminal act they were charged with,” but today he revised his comments, saying only that there was “probable cause to believe” that they had committed the acts.  

APD Chief Joseph Chacon. Photo from APD’s Twitter account.

What the original APD affidavit says

The facts of this case are confusing, so bear with me. 

The affidavit, filed by an APD officer, cited four people who say they saw 17-year-old Jeremiah Tabb pull out a gun. All four of these people knew Tabb from Killeen and say they were part of the group that got into a verbal altercation with Tabb’s group in front of the Mooseknuckle Bar on 6th Street. Three of the four are siblings. Two of the siblings were wounded in the incident; one of these two was wounded by gunfire only days before in Killeen — he believes by Tabb. 

One of the siblings told police that she saw Tabb fire shots and that a member of her group had drawn a gun and fired shots in response. 

The affidavit said that eight shell casings were found at the site of the shooting and that investigators determined that all eight were “most likely” from the same gun. 

Based on all of this evidence, the affidavit concluded that Tabb was responsible for the injuries of at least 14 people and the death of Douglas Kantor. 

The story changes

Both Chacon and Garza said at a Tuesday press conference that new evidence had led them to determine that the shooter responsible for Kantor’s death was actually De’ondre White, 19, also of Killeen. Garza announced that White would be charged with murder and that he was dismissing charges against Tabb and the unnamed juvenile. 

During the press conference, Garza repeatedly stressed that he was dropping the charges against Tabb and the unnamed juvenile because it was in the best interests of the murder prosescution against De’ondre White, the suspect who both APD and Garza now say is responsible for killing Douglas Kantor and wounding 13 others. He did not rule out bringing different charges against them. 

However, on the same day Garza released a statement saying he was dropping the charges because “there is not sufficient evidence that either gentleman fired a shot, nor is there sufficient evidence to seek an indictment.” 

In the same statement, Garza said, “At no time was there sufficient evidence to believe that either suspect was responsible for the death of Mr. Kantor.” 

What Chacon said on Tuesday

At the press conference with Garza, Chacon said that White was responsible for the death of Kantor and “most if not all” of the injuries to 13 other people. 

And yet, he still said about Tabb and the unnamed 15-year-old: “These two individuals were involved. These were not people who were innocent bystanders or somehow incorrectly identified as being involved in this case.”

What Chacon said on Wednesday

Yesterday I emailed APD to ask the chief to clarify his remark. What did he mean the two were “involved”? Was he asserting that they committed criminal acts? This was his response (emphasis mine): 

Both of the original two individuals arrested were involved, as they were part of the two groups of individuals I described during the incident. I actually explained that, saying that they were each from one of the groups.  And yes, they did commit the criminal act they were charged with, and the DA’s office made the decision not to pursue the charges. The DA would have to answer the question about why the charges have been dismissed.

How can Chacon assert that White was responsible for the death and “most if not all” of the injuries but still insist that Tabb was guilty of aggravated assault? 

What Chacon said on Thursday

I asked the chief what evidence he was basing his assertion on. A department spokesperson told me he would provide a revised statement, which I received this morning. This time, instead of saying the two teens “did commit the criminal act they were charged with,” he said that APD had “probable cause to believe” they had committed the acts. 

Both of the original two individuals arrested were involved, as they were part of the two groups of individuals I described during the incident. I actually explained that, saying that they were each from one of the groups. APD had probable cause to believe that the two individuals had committed the offenses they were charged with. The DA’s office made the decision not to pursue the charges at this time. 

What Garza is saying now

I reached out to the district attorney’s office for a response last night and still have not been provided a statement. I also reached out to Tabb’s attorney, Jon Evans, and have not heard back. 

My questions

The divergence between the DA and the police chief about the initial arrests is troubling. Also troubling is the police department’s reluctance to admit error. Chacon can still believe that Tabb committed a crime during the incident but that is a far cry from the arrest affidavit, which accused Tabb of killing Kantor and wounding 13 others.

This is an excerpt from the June 24 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe.

Austin housing advocates must stop ignoring the middle class

This is an excerpt from the April 30 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Here are some stats on the Austin real estate market I received recently from Bramlett Residential Real Estate:

Just consider how bonkers this is. The average sales price has increased 34% in a year. The median sales price has increased almost as much –– 29% –– so this isn’t just a matter of the top of the market being distorted by an influx of filthy rich Californians. The price for every type of housing in every neighborhood has increased dramatically.

Perhaps the pandemic has prompted something of a national housing bubble, but the skyrocketing prices in Austin are just an acceleration of a long-term trend. Austin’s booming tech sector and its cultural status will continue to attract wealth and home prices will respond accordingly.

This situation offers a prime opportunity to make the case for housing reform. And yet, unless housing advocates change the way they talk about the issue, nothing will change.

What they need to do is pretty simple. They need to start talking about the middle class.

The market doesn’t just hurt the poor

There’s a striking difference between how Democrats on the national stage and local progressives talk about economic challenges. On the national level, you hear a lot about the “middle class.” On the local level, you hear more about those who are “low-income” or, increasingly, “the working class.”

There are a few reasons you talk about the “middle class.” First, it’s a term that a broad swath of Americans identify with, even if in many cases they are too poor or too rich to fit the description. Far fewer people think of themselves as “low income,” and if you talk about helping the low-income, most assume that that help will come at their expense. This is probably compounded by racial resentment where whites assume that efforts to help the poor only help minorities. Ronald Reagan understood this well.

The good news is that, because Austin is much more liberal politically than America as a while, I don’t think city leaders face the same risk of backlash in advocating for the poor as leaders at the national level (the likely passage of Prop B notwithstanding). But the poor alone do not constitute a winning political coalition. And they’re not the only ones being hurt by Austin’s reactionary housing policies.

The problem is, every discussion of housing reform ends up centering on narrowly-defined “affordable housing.” The meaning of the term varies, but usually in Austin it refers to rental housing that is restricted to those at 60% of the area median income or for-sale units restricted to those at 80% AMI.

We should all agree that we do absolutely need more housing serving those income levels. Indeed, as the homelessness crisis illustrates, we need housing serving much lower income levels. This is why the $550M of affordable housing bonds that Austin voters have approved in the past two election cycles are so important.

The problem is that we need housing to serve the huge percentage of Austin’s middle class that does not qualify for income-restricted housing but is not able to afford the skyrocketing prices that the restricted market is producing. Just check out these income levels:

Any new multifamily or missing-middle housing that does not include units restricted at 60-80% AMI is decried as “not affordable” or “luxury housing.” Nevermind that the new units are often much cheaper than the single-family houses that would be built without the new zoning. Nevermind that the proposed new units are often much cheaper than the homes owned by the Council members, Planning commissioners or neighborhood activists standing in the way.

Here’s the question that every Council member should answer: Where do you believe your staffers who are making $50-75k/yr can afford to live? Assuming you’re not going to give them giant pay raises, what can you do to help them afford a home in this city?

Assume that Council aide is lucky and has a spouse or partner that makes the same amount of money. Even if we assume they don’t have significant student debt (which many do), where in this city can they realistically aspire to buy a single-family home? I’m not even going to bother with the Central Austin neighborhoods where barely anything is listing for under $1M anymore. Let’s look at what’s available north of Rundberg:

Or University Hills and Windsor Park:

Or south of Stassney and William Cannon:

And it’s only going to get worse.

So what “character” is our current code protecting? What character is being preserved by zoning that does not allow anybody who can’t afford 5,750 square feet of land into a neighborhood? It’s not a middle class character, that’s for sure. In my own neighborhood of Southwood, just south of Ben White, bungalows are being scraped left and right to be replaced by large single-family homes or duplexes that hardly any of the longtime residents or families of the children who attend nearby schools (Joslin Elementary, Crockett High) can afford. This is the recurring scene:

As Austin grows, there are going to be more and more people who want to live in the city and are willing to buy smaller units in exchange for being in a great neighborhood, a shorter commute, walkable amenities. These people will be looking for advocates at City Hall. Now is the opportunity to show them who’s on their side.

This is an excerpt from the April 30 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Finding a camp for the homeless in Austin

This is an excerpt from the May 18 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Today the city released 45 city-owned properties under consideration for sanctioned homeless encampments. Here’s the list:

And here’s a map made by Brandon Farmahini of those locations:

When sanctioned encampments on city property were first discussed the other week, a couple people joked about Lions Municipal Golf Course, which is part of the Brackenridge Tract owned by UT but leased by the city. One Council aide told me that using part of the tract for a temporary camp was being seriously discussed. Well, I’m not surprised to not see it on the list.

But there are plenty of other sites on the list that will be plenty controversial. For instance, Duncan Park. There are already lots of homeless people who hang out in and around the park and along Shoal Creek Trail. Turning the park into a dedicated homeless encampment likely wouldn’t go over well.

Likewise, giving up existing park facilities — Givens, Parque Zaragoza, Walter Long, Onion Creek — is sure to make neighboring residents and park users unhappy.

The cost of 10 encampments

Although Council has asked staff to propose at least one site in each Council district, I wonder if Council will remain committed to the idea of setting up 10 different sites once they’ve really thought through the financial and political implications.

In a memo to City Council on Friday, Dianna Grey, the city homelessness strategy officer, offered some insights on creating sanctioned encampments for unhoused people. The big takeaway is that this isn’t going to be simple, politically, financially or logistically.

Here is city staff’s back-of-the-napkin estimate for what it would cost per year to operate a campground.

Grey says that the estimate is in line with what it costs to operate the state encampment in Montopolis. But she cautions that the estimate only reflects “known costs,” and that there will likely be unanticipated expenses that drive the total cost up.

“One-time costs to establish encampment sites may include, but are not limited to, extending access to electricity and water lines, site grading, installation of perimeter fencing, creating or improving vehicular access, and mitigation of wildfire and/or flood risk.”

Assuming the estimate is somewhat accurate, 10 separate encampments would likely cost the city over $20 million a year. Dedicating that money to these encampments leaves less money for the city to focus on the ideal solution, which is permanent housing and services.

The easiest thing to do politically would be to set up a couple of sites in isolated areas of the eastern crescent, just as Abbott did. Some of the 45 sites certainly fit that description. The political ideal is for there to be as few neighbors as possible and for whatever neighbors exist to be poor and politically disengaged.

And that’s probably exactly what Council would do if we still had an at-large system where every member was elected in citywide spring contests dominated by West Austin voters. But now we have four Council members who represent eastern districts; they are unlikely to accept that it’s up to their districts to host all of the people criminalized by West Austin voters (without whom Prop B wouldn’t have even gotten on the ballot, let alone passed).

This debate highlights the pros and cons of the district-based representation put in place six years ago. On one hand, it reduces the implicit bias that the former system had for the wealthier and whiter parts of town. On the other hand, it makes it harder to reach a compromise because each member is advocating for a different constituency.

This is an excerpt from the May 18 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Prop B passes. Strong mayor crushed. What does this mean?

Everyone I was talking to expected Prop B to pass. The 57-43 result ended up being closer than I expected.

Austin’s political establishment, including most members of City Council, had essentially conceded this race before voters cast their ballots. Sure, Casar and Harper-Madison vocally opposed it and the mayor made a few statements against, but everyone else mostly kept their heads down. The only anti-B group barely raised any money; none of the usual suspects who give to liberal causes opened up their wallets. They all expected it to pass and many supported its passage.

The comments from former Democratic Party Chair Harold Cook reflect what I’ve heard from a lot of others in the Democratic tent, including activists, politicos and regular voters.

And yet…the only strong mandate comes from West Austin…

And yet, one should be wary of reading too much into the results of a low-turnout spring election. For a May referendum, 25% turnout is not bad, but those voting are not at all reflective of the city as a whole. I do not yet have a thorough breakdown of the precinct-level numbers yet, but what the data will invariably show is that those who voted were much whiter, much older, much wealthier and much more concentrated in West Austin than the general population.

Just look at this map:

Map by Eli H. Spencer Heyman. Twitter: @elium2

In fact, east of Mopac, Prop B narrowly failed! It likely also failed in five of the 10 Council districts, but the much heavier turnout in the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city sealed the deal for Prop B.

So while the backlash to the camping situation is definitely a meaningful political force that has activated Austin’s conservative minority and even pissed off a lot of Dems, it’s very likely that Prop B would have failed in a November election.

So…what actually happens now?

I really have no idea. Again, a lot of the camping that has angered people the most is illegal under current rules. They are more a result of the city’s decision, in accordance with CDC guidelines, to not try to move homelessness camps during the pandemic.

It really depends how the city in general, and APD specifically, decide to enforce the rules. Remember, there were homeless people sleeping on the streets before Council lifted the camping ban. What you didn’t see were large encampments with tents.

But in all seriousness, now it’s time to focus on what is actually important: getting people connected with housing. And it’s time for Council to turn up the pressure on City Manager Spencer Cronk and city staff to get the job done. More on that in the coming days…

Strong mayor gets crushed. And some other interesting stuff…

Wow. I knew strong mayor was going down, but not that bad. 86-14. That is brutal. It was going down no matter what, but the biased language Council used to word the initiative helped make it particularly lopsided. Well, that idea is dead for a generation or two.

Mayoral elections go presidential

Woah! I wouldn’t have guessed that Prop D –– moving mayoral elections to presidential election years –– would pass so easily (67-33). In fact, if you had told me that only two of the APR props would pass, I wouldn’t have guessed this one. But nobody spent any time or money opposing it.

The previously scheduled mayoral election in 2022 will go ahead. But whoever wins that will have to stand for election again in 2024 to win a full four-year term.

Aligning mayoral elections with presidential years will likely further marginalize conservatives –– both Republican-style conservatives and land use conservatives who identify as liberals. For the same reason that conservatives enjoy an advantage in low turnout spring elections, progressives benefit from high turnout elections where the electorate is younger, poorer and more racially diverse.

Let me be very clear: I am NOT saying that a preservationist/anti-growth mayoral candidate can’t win in a presidential election year. Most people who vote in a presidential election year do not have a strong position on land use or growth management policies. A well-funded candidate who says all of the right things that most liberals agree with can prevail no matter what their views on land use are.

What I’m saying is that the larger the electorate, the less salient the “defend our neighborhoods” message becomes. This was illustrated in 2018: amidst record-breaking midterm turnout, Laura Morrison got 18% of the vote after running exactly the same type of campaign that had twice won her citywide Council races in May elections.

But again, the mayor still isn’t that important of a figure. He or she is just a Council member with a slightly bigger bully pulpit. So this isn’t necessarily a major change to city politics.

Ranked Choice Voting passes … but it may be a while before it’s a reality

RCV passes 58-42! This is good news and it might eventually become great news. We don’t quite know what the legality of RCV is in Texas. Skeptics point to an opinion issued years ago by then-Secretary of State Henry Cuellar that RCV was not legal under state law. His view was that state law requires runoffs when no candidate wins a majority in the general election and that an “instant runoff” via ranked choice voting does not count.

Some disagree with Cuellar’s interpretation but let’s assume that the courts agree that RCV is not legal unless the legislature amends state law to allow it. Many assume the only way the law changes is if Democrats take over the Lege in the future. That assumption is probably correct, but it’s worth at least seeing whether there is some appetite among Republicans to support ranked choice voting. Runoff elections are just about the worst way to select local leaders and they also cost local governments a lot of money to administer. Beyond a knee-jerk opposition to anything that liberals in Austin propose, it’s not clear that Republicans should be against RCV.

Whether Republicans are willing to allow RCV likely has a lot to do with how they believe it might affect GOP primary elections. Do they believe eliminating runoffs will help the establishment or the MAGA types?

No new Council district

There won’t be a new Council district after Prop G failed 43-57. You’ll recall that Prop G was originally supposed to be part of the strong mayor initiative. The idea was that the strong mayor would not be on Council, and the new Council district would keep an odd number (11) of Council members to avoid the risk of tie votes. However, when the two proposals were split, it seemed likely that strong mayor would fail but the new council district would pass, so that Council would become a 12-member body.

It’s interesting that this one failed. I don’t know if that’s because many voters were sophisticated enough to understand the negative implications of deadlock or because they just didn’t like the idea of adding a new Council member.

The only good thing about 12 members would have been that it would have become easier to get to a ¾ majority to override valid petitions aimed at blocking development (or the land development code). Currently a ¾ majority is 9/11, whereas with 12 it would still be 9/12.

Democracy dollars fails??

I didn’t see this coming. It’s pretty embarrassing how few local leaders stepped up to support a program that aligns with everything they say they support. I think this reflects a pettiness on the part of Council members who didn’t want to support anything associated with APR due to the strong mayor initiative.

Andrew Alison, the wealthy entrepreneur who was the principal donor to APR, said that democracy dollars could be adopted via ordinance by Council. OK, but that would be a bad look coming right off a thumping at the polls. But what a future Council should do is put the measure on the ballot in 2024 when there is a larger electorate that comes much closer to reflecting the city. If there is a decent campaign behind it, it will pass easily. Just like Project Connect passed easily after two failed rail referenda.

Will May elections be a conservative weapon?

The biggest lasting impact of this election may be that it will inspire conservatives to make a habit of using May referenda to annul Council policy, including policy that is much more popular than camping decriminalization. This is definitely something Council should keep in mind when drafting policy. Just consider Prop J –– the attempt by Fred Lewis and other anti-growth activists to require a citywide vote on any new land development code. It got whupped in November of 2018, but it would almost certainly pass in a low turnout May election.

A better way for I-35

This is an excerpt from the April 22 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

A mixture of apathy and ignorance among Austin’s political and civic leaders is putting at risk billions of dollars of downtown property and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue.

I’m talking, of course, about TxDOT’s planned expansion of I-35. It is a disgrace and it needs to be stopped. Everyone, car-haters and road warriors alike, should understand that there is a much better way to do this project.

The better way: Reconnect

The practical alternative is the vision laid out by Reconnect Austin, which proposes burying I-35 from Lady Bird Lake to Airport Blvd and building an urban boulevard on top. According to Sinclair Black, the legendary local urban designer and planner who helped craft the vision, the boulevard would include three vehicle lanes in each direction while the highway underneath the cap would include five lanes in each direction, for a total of 16 vehicle lanes on the corridor.

Here’s a rendering of the reimagined corridor:

Countless benefits

I will devote but one paragraph to listing the lofty goals this vision advances before moving on to the central argument.

So, the new boulevard would reconnect the urban street grid, allowing for easier east-west travel by all modes, including foot and bike. Burying the highway will reduce air pollution and the consequent health effects that disproportionately hurt the poor people most likely to live near highways. The new boulevard will include a 70-ft median that will create another opportunity for dedicated transit lanes. The project will do away with an ugly symbol of segregation.

But the most important benefit…

Now, on to the biggest and best argument: money. Right now the space taken up by I-35 and its frontage roads has a tax value of $0. The Reconnect concept would do away with the frontage roads, thus freeing up 74 acres of the most valuable land in Central Texas to be developed.

Wait, how can you just get rid of frontage roads? Easy, the boulevard makes the frontage roads superfluous. The only reason frontage roads exist is to provide access to properties along the highway, particularly when the highway being built is replacing an existing road, as was the case with I-35. Now, instead of accessing the frontage road, neighboring businesses could access the boulevard, just like any other major corridor in town.

The Reconnect team has estimated that the new land would yield more than $6 billion in taxable value. I haven’t analyzed their methodology yet but you don’t have to be an expert in real estate economics to know that 74 acres of property in and around downtown is worth billions. In one of the few publicly-disclosed real estate deals, the Railyard Condos sold in 2019 for $1,471 per square foot. That cost applied to 74 acres = $4.8 billion.

Now, the Railyard is in an extremely valuable part of downtown, whereas other parts of the I-35 corridor are significantly less valuable. On the other hand, the price of land in Austin continues to soar and the value of property abutting I-35 should only increase when the current corridor’s major downsides (pollution, noise, ugliness) are buried and replaced with a thing that people actually want to be on and look at. So $6 billion doesn’t sound crazy; nor would an even higher figure.

In the long-term, this new land value can deliver desperately-needed tax revenue for the school district and city and county government. In the shorter-term, however, the tax generated by the new property can be used to pay for the project itself via tax increment financing (TIF).

Basically, city government sets up a Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) that encompasses all of the new developable land (and possibly some neighboring properties that can reasonably be expected to increase in value due to the project). Any new property revenue derived from that zone is dedicated to paying off the project. After the project is paid off, the properties return to the general tax rolls.

Or at least that’s how TIF works for a straightforward city project. Of course, the I-35 project is planned to be funded with state and federal dollars. Obviously the city doesn’t want that to change, but if TxDOT refuses to pay for the costs of burying I-35 and building the boulevard, then the city can volunteer to take on those costs via TIF while TxDOT commits to building the highway itself, as planned.

The cap-and-stitch bait and switch

In what was likely an attempt to distract from Reconnect, TxDOT has said it will consider a “cap-and-stitch” alternative that partially reconnects the urban grid by depressing parts of the highway. The Urban Land Institute studied a version of that idea that would create 11 acres of capped segments, projecting capital costs of $260M and 30/yr maintenance costs of $53M. ULI then evaluated a potential TIRZ that would surround I-35 to pay for it and projected that the new tax revenue would fall short of covering the costs.

But the project ULI reviewed does not remove the frontage roads and doesn’t create a boulevard. It simply accepts the nonsensical premise that the frontage roads must remain, perhaps because TxDOT has insisted that they must remain.

Again, there’s no reason the frontage roads must remain. TxDOT itself has questioned the utility of frontage roads in the past, even in scenarios that do not offer a boulevard that solves the access issue. Here’s a 200-page analysis of the costs and benefits of frontage roads in Texas from 2001, if you’re interested.

Local leaders need to step up

Right now Reconnect is not getting the attention it deserves from local leaders, who appear resigned to trying to negotiate over crumbs with TxDOT. Yes, City Council passed a vague resolution describing its hope that TxDOT will consider ways to make the I-35 plan better, including by considering proposals such as Reconnect, but nothing will come of it unless local leaders and the community unite behind a viable alternative to TxDOT’s 50’s-era proposal.

I think part of the problem is that too many local leaders don’t fully understand Reconnect. They are mistakenly trusting that TxDOT has a reason for paving over more of downtown besides a stubborn refusal to consider alternatives. Until recently, my own flawed impression of Reconnect, based on what some of its advocates had said, was that it proposed some pie-in-the-sky plan to build a park on top of the highway. That’s definitely not it –– even if there will hopefully be some delightful green space included at various points in the median.

(I would be remiss to neglect an even more radical plan that has been proposed by a group of urbanists: ReThink35. That plan proposes simply replacing the highway with a boulevard. I’m going to catch some flak for saying it, but that’s not realistic politically. Whether or not they say it publicly, many of Austin’s leaders believe that an expansion is necessary.)

As TxDOT barrels ahead with this project, Austin’s leaders should look to their counterparts in Houston, who convinced Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to halt a similarly misguided highway expansion project. The same can happen here, but it will likely take more than just the usual gang of highway critics. It requires our political leaders, including those who are friendly to expanding I-35, to unite behind an alternative. That alternative is Reconnect Austin.

You can read their full proposal here.

This is an excerpt from the April 22 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

A humbling hearing at the Capitol for housing supporters

Yesterday’s meeting of the House Committee on Land & Resource Management seemed to go pretty well for those who oppose more housing in Austin. Most of the members of the committee, Republican and Democrat, either misunderstood what HB 2989 does or couldn’t make sense of the debate over it.

I am far from an expert on the Lege, but it appeared clear that most members of the committee are far from convinced that the bill, which would specify that comprehensive rewrites of city zoning codes cannot be subjected to the same housing filibuster that is used to thwart individual zoning cases, deserves their support.

For some reason the screen shot of the committee hearing is showing up very small.

The hearing kicked off with a handful of opponents testifying against the bill –- all familiar faces in Austin anti-development politics. Fred Lewis alleged that city planners, inspired by the “latest fad of New Urbanism” aimed to eliminate “single-family neighborhoods” –– “they say it’s bad for the environment and needs to be eliminated.”

For the record, the vast majority of single-family zoned lots in Austin would have remained so under every code revision presented by city staff in recent years.

Former Travis County Auditor Susan Spataro rambled incoherently about the wonders of single-family housing and the horrors of apartment living, suggesting that the purpose of the bill was to condemn all of Austin to the latter.

“It is destroying the way humans are allowed to live when you get rid of single-family homes,” she said.

Funny. Houston doesn’t have zoning and yet it has lots of single-family homes. How does that work?

Later on, she contrasted the good old days with the dystopian future planned by New Urbanists:

“You had a backyard and you know and maybe a rabbit in it or a dog or something like that. These big high rise units, these small apartments are not that. They will impact families and how people are raised.”

So just how bad does Spataro believe multifamily housing is? Should parents even be allowed to raise children in apartments?

The hallucinations and histrionics were received quite positively by committee members, who later grilled Dan Keshet, the head of Texans for Housing, on both the perception that the bill would deprive property owners of proper notice and that it would destroy neighborhoods.

Rep. Kyle Biederman, a Fredericksburg Republican who attended the infamous Jan. 6 rally at the Capitol and has proposed a referendum on Texas seceding from the union, repeatedly asked Keshet to explain why so many people were opposing the bill and asked him what was going to happen to the properties in “their area.” Keshet had to explain that he didn’t know where the individual opponents lived and how the properties in their neighborhoods were being rezoned, if at all.

“I believe if these people felt like it was going to be zoned single family, they wouldn’t be so concerned, wouldn’t you?”

It’s about the feelings man!

Later, in response to Austin home builder Scott Turner’s testimony in favor of the bill, Biederman conceded that “cities need to grow … but they don’t have to grow over the top of people and roll them over.”

The constraints that the city of Austin is putting on housing is not such a big deal, reasoned Biederman, because “home builders can build homes wherever you want, wherever you got land.”

“Regulation outside of the city is much less,” he said. “Outside the city of Austin it’s a lot easier. There’s a lot of open space around. And it just doesn’t seem fair to individuals that they have to change their lifestyle, their community because homebuilders need to be able to build homes because Texas really needs them.”

This ringing endorsement of sprawl given by Biederman is the logical conclusion of the positions taken by many of Austin’s “progressive” anti-development folk.

And yes, it’s obviously deeply ironic that a politician whose identity is based on nostalgia for the rugged individualism of the Texas frontier is so willing to sacrifice individual property rights.

The conflation of property rights with protest rights was a recurring source of confusion for members of the committee. In general it is the opponents of the bill who seek to restrict property rights by keeping zoning as restrictive as possible (single-family zoning). And yet somehow they appeared able to convince members of the committee that it is their “property right” to increase the voting threshold by which City Council rezones other people’s properties.

Most of the committee members were clearly unfamiliar with the debate around the issue and had a hard time making sense of the fact that both sides were claiming the mantle of affordability.

“Somewhere there’s some disconnect because you and the opposition have the same goals, it seems to me,” said Committee Chair Joe Deshotel, a Beaumont Democrat.

This might take a while.

Biden vs. Austin NIMBYs

This is an excerpt from the April 5 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

There’s a lot to love about the American Jobs Act, Biden’s sprawling $2 trillion infrastructure package. It represents the type of massive investment in America’s physical and human infrastructure that hasn’t occurred since the 1960’s. It’s the Green New Deal in all but name. The only thing missing, as far as I’m concerned, is a dedicated fund for pedestrian and bike infrastructure, but I hope that changes.

In addition to combating climate change, stimulating the economy and making America more globally competitive, Biden has framed the package as a generational opportunity to reduce racial and economic inequality. Some of that comes courtesy of investments that disproportionately benefit the poor: public transit ($82B), affordable housing ($263B), home health care ($400B).

But Biden is also proposing programs specifically aimed at redressing past injustice, such as highway projects that demolished minority neighborhoods (I-35, Mopac) and/or separated them from opportunity (I-35).

Here are a few words of which Austin’s leaders may take particular note:

So apparently the White Knight we thought was saving our democracy from the Orange Menace was just a developer shill all along.

(Take a moment to consider the irony: it was actually Trump, the real estate developer, who embraced the defense of single-family zoning as a campaign issue)

Liberal defenders of exclusionary zoning in Austin may be inclined to dismiss this as an unfortunate vestige of Biden’s centrist tendencies. After all, the guy went along with much of the Clintonite neoliberal agenda of the 90’s (NAFTA, financial deregulation, welfare reform) and stood apart from the other Democratic frontrunners in 2020 by avoiding attacks on big business and the 1%.

Alas, Austin NIMBYs won’t get much comfort if they look further to the left. Biden’s plan mirrors a bill proposed by Elizabeth Warren in 2018, which if passed would set up a $10 billion competitive grant fund aimed at encouraging cities to reduce barriers to housing production, such as:

  • “revising or eliminating off-street parking requirements”
  • “revising minimum lot size requirements and bans or limits on multifamily construction to allow for denser and more affordable development,”
  • “instituting incentives to promote dense development, such as density bonuses”
  • “allowing accessory dwelling units”
  • “streamlining regulatory requirements and shortening processes, reforming zoning codes, or other initiatives that reduce barriers to housing supply elasticity and affordability”

In both Biden’s proposal and Warren’s bill, there’s a lot of room for interpretation. Austin’s zoning code is certainly restrictive, but it’s certainly less restrictive than, say, Woodbridge, Conn., a suburb of New Haven, where the minimum single-family lot is 1.5 acres.

But the message from the national Democratic Party is unequivocal: exclusionary zoning is a barrier to equality. It’s not something that any elected Democrat should support, let alone devote their political career to saving.

The growing chorus on behalf of housing justice in liberal/Democratic circles bodes well for supporters of reform in Austin. No, it’s not going to change Kathie Tovo, Alison Alter and Leslie Pool’s minds about the land development code (although I could see it affecting Ann Kitchen). But if their message is fundamentally at odds with that coming from liberal media outlets and national liberal leaders, it will make it harder for them to recruit a new generation of anti-density leaders.

If supporters of reform in Austin want to finally move the ball, they should jump all over this. The old adage that “all politics is local” has in recent years been flipped on its head: all politics is national. Most people consume more national political news than local news and they feel a stronger association with national political leaders than with local elected officials. Therefore, the best way to convince a liberal voter who only casually pays attention to City Hall that NIMBYism is not the right position is to point them to national figures they trust. This should have been apparent five years ago when the Obama administration began urging cities to reduce zoning barriers to housing, but it has become even clearer in the past year, during which a detested Republican president waged a dog whistle-infused campaign in defense of single-family zoning.

So here’s a question for City Council members: Whose position on exclusionary zoning do you support? Trump’s or Biden’s?

This is an excerpt from the April 5 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe.