Land use reform gets another day in court

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

Eighteen months after Travis County District Judge Jan Soifer essentially blocked City Council from moving forward on a new land development code, the city of Austin will get a chance to appeal.

Texas’s Fourteenth Court of Appeals in Houston will hear oral arguments on the case, Acuna v. City of Austin, on Nov. 17 via Zoom.

The three judge panel that will hear the case include Republicans Tracy Christopher and Randy Wilson and Democrat Jerry Zimmerer. I know next to nothing about the judges’ politics besides their partisan affiliations. And frankly, whatever I could learn about the judges may not give me much insight into how they will rule on this case, where traditional ideological divisions are not particularly useful: there are liberals and conservatives on both sides.

Again, it’s hardly clear that City Council will be able to push through a comprehensive LDC rewrite even if it gets a favorable court ruling. The clear majority in favor of reform that existed last year evaporated with the defeat of Jimmy Flannigan and the departure of Delia Garza, both of whom were firmly pro-reform. Their successors, Mackenzie Kelly and Vanessa Fuentes, respectively, have more ambiguous stances on the issue.

But regardless of what is immediately possible on Council, a favorable ruling for the city would bode very well for the ability of Austin and other Texas cities to address the housing, transportation and environmental challenges created by 75 years of sprawl-oriented planning.

It would be fitting if a court in Houston, which has no zoning and consequently is home to a much greater diversity of low-cost housing, is what allows Austin to finally address its housing crisis.

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

TxDOT’s perverse idea of progress

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

I-35 has long been decried as a physical and psychological barrier in Austin.

The psychological aspect comes from the fact that the highway for decades separated white Austin from black and brown Austin. When built in 1962, the highway replaced East Ave, which the city had since 1928 enforced as an explicit boundary, west of which black and brown people were generally not welcome. The new highway was a convenient excuse to reinforce the boundary just as the civil rights movement was starting to chip away at Jim Crow.

I-35 remained an important racial divider for long after de jure segregation ended in the 60’s, but in the past decade its relevance in this regard has shrunk due to gentrification on the east side. Austin is still a profoundly segregated city, but I-35 is no longer the key dividing line.

What’s not really debatable is that I-35 very much remains a major physical barrier. East-west streets are halted by I-35.

And it need not be. We can have a major road, or even a highway, that doesn’t turn a major part of downtown into a hellscape. Indeed, imagine if those scores of acres that are currently dedicated to concrete could instead be home to things that actually enhance downtown: businesses, entertainment, apartments, green space? What if all of that land actually generated billions of dollars in economic activity and property tax revenue? This is the possibility that the Reconnect proposal offers by burying the downtown portion of I-35 and building a good old fashioned urban boulevard on top, thus restoring the street grid and opening up numerous acres of land for development and green space.


If you hear TxDOT officials describe their two (very similar) proposed alternatives for expanding I-35, you may come away with the impression that their plan will make it much easier for people to get across the highway. This slide from the agency’s presentation to City Council on Tuesday, for instance, might make you think that providing east-west connections is one of their top priorities:

More than 15 widened east-west crossings! Plus three new ones!

The fact is that what they’re proposing does not differ substantially from what exists now. They are not making a meaningful attempt to restore the city’s street grid.

In the graphic below, the red dots indicate street crossings under the highway and yellow dots indicate crossing above the highway. The top line is the status quo and the two bottom lines are TxDOT’s two proposed alternatives.

If you count all the dots, you’ll see there will only be one more all-use street crossing (at 5th St). There will still be long stretches of highway that cannot be crossed, particularly on the northern and southern ends. I-35 will continue to be a major east-west barrier to pedestrians, bicyclists, wheelchair users and, frankly, drivers.

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

The high cost of the cop prop

This is an excerpt from the Aug. 11 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Yesterday city budget officials released an estimate for what it will cost to pay for the police staffing mandate in the Save Austin Now proposition. It’s not pretty.

Remember, the SAN petition, which will be on the ballot in November, would require the city to employ two sworn police officers (civilian police employees don’t count) per 1,000 residents. It would also require the police department to maintain an average of 35% “community engagement” time for patrol officers. It would also require an additional 40 hours of annual in-house training and require the city to set up a program that offers additional financial incentives (of unspecified value) for officers who learn a second language, mentor cadets or who are awarded honorable conduct citations.

There is reason to believe that even if the referendum is approved, it will not be enforceable due to a provision of the city charter that forbids the use of referendums in “appropriating money or authorizing the levy of taxes.” But that’s a separate discussion…

The budget office’s analysis includes a low estimate and a high estimate, based on population growth and wage growth. Because obviously the cost of employing that many officers depends on how much we decide to pay them and how high we set the financial incentives. (Indeed, if this mandate is approved, I imagine the police union will have a much harder time negotiating pay increases)

The low estimate assumes over the next five years:

  • 1% population growth
  • 1% wage growth
  • One new police substation for the increased patrol staff
  • $50 increase in the existing monthly language stipend
  • $175 per month mentorship stipend
  • $500 stipend for honorable conduct citations
  • Purchase or lease of new training facility
  • 12 new training employees
  • To meet the 35% community engagement time, APD moves officers out of specialized units and into patrol

It also assumes that in order to have 2 officers per 1,000k residents employed at all times, the city would actually have to budget for 2.3/1000k. Why? Simply budgeting for the minimum required number of police officers would leave the city vulnerable to falling below the level as officers retire.

Total cost : $54.3M a year or $271.5M over five years.

The high estimate assumes:

  • 2% population growth
  • 2% wage growth
  • 3 new police substations
  • $175 increase in language stipend
  • $350/month membership stipend
  • $1,000 stipend for honorable citation
  • Purchase or lease of new training facility
  • 12 new training employees
  • To meet the community engagement target without reducing specialized unit staffing, APD hires even more officers: at a rate of 2.35/1,000k
  • To meet the 2.35/1,000k rate, APD budgets for 2.5/1,000k

Total cost: $119.8M per year or $598.8M over five years


How seriously should we take this estimate?

I’m glad that the city is laying out all of the assumptions included in these estimates. As you can see, a lot of the assumptions are based on guessing what a future City Council might do: how high it will set wages and incentives and how many new facilities it deems necessary to accommodate the increased staff. My assumption is that if this referendum passes and is enforceable, Council will use whatever flexibility it has takes to reduce the cost, such as by making the incentives as low as possible or not authorizing new substations.

The population growth range is in line with what the city demographer has projected. Although the city population grew by more than 2% per year over the past decade, it has begun to slow down in recent years as more growth occurs outside of the city limits. Here is data from the past decade and the future projection:

Another area of flexibility is in wages. The cops are entering the final year of their five-year union contract, which gave them a 1% wage hike in the first year and 2% hikes in the last four. The city could certainly choose to take a less generous line in next year’s negotiations. But the cost of living is also steadily increasing, which will make it harder to recruit and retain new officers without offering pay raises.

The bottom line

The bottom line: the city is already facing a structural deficit due to the 3.5% tax limit put in place by the legislature two years ago. This new mandate will turn a manageable structural deficit into a full-blown fiscal crisis requiring the city to make big cuts to other services — fire, EMS, parks — and/or ask voters to approve significant tax increases above the 3.5% rate:

Measuring “community engagement” time

Another thing that’s up in the air is how to define and measure “community engagement” time. Is SAN simply referring to “uncommitted” time when patrol officers aren’t responding to a call? APD does try to measure that, but as I’ve noted before, their efforts have produced some dubious data, with wild swings in reported “uncommitted time” from year to year. For instance, this was the data APD reported in 2015, which showed uncommitted time plummeting from 27% to 14% in just two years, before rising again:

I asked APD if there were any requirements for how officers use uncommitted time, whether the department has in place any metrics for how they use it and if there is any explanation for the dramatic variations in reported spare time.

In a statement, I was told that uncommitted time is “simply time not on a call for service.” Furthermore:

This differs from community engagement time in that not all uncommitted time is used to engage the community. We do not have a process for actually measuring community engagement time at this point (in development).

Even measuring uncommitted time is not always simple, they conceded:

We calculate uncommitted time using an adopted formula which should be used the same way at all times. Having said that, it is not the same formula recommended by (the Matrix Report) which is why our target uncommitted time is lower than their recommendation. As well, there are issues with the process related to things like backup where time on call is often not recorded or not recorded well.

OK, so “community engagement” is not currently being measured but if and when it is measured, it will logically be a smaller subset of “uncommitted time.”

Well, the city manager clearly didn’t get this memo, since in his proposed budget this year, APD reported 31% “community engagement” time last year and is projecting the same level of community engagement for this year. This is despite what police leaders have repeatedly described as a severe staffing shortage:

Again, the point of showing you all of these conflicting numbers is just to demonstrate how subjective this metric is. It’s hard to say what effect the 35% “community engagement time” will be because there’s no universally accepted definition of community engagement time, let alone a universally accepted method of measuring it.

SAN responds

In a statement, Save Austin Now ridiculed the idea that the city couldn’t afford its proposed staffing mandate, saying that it was “on track to achieve” that level “just two years ago.”

Well, something big changed in the last two years. The state legislature dramatically restricted the city’s ability to raise revenue. The city was ramping up APD staffing back when it was regularly raising taxes by more than the current 3.5% cap. Now the city needs voter approval to go above that.

Second, whether or not this was intentional, there’s a difference between budgeting for a certain number of officers and a mandate that that number be on the payroll at all times.

It makes no sense that our elected officials have chosen to allocate $515M to homelessness over the next three years and raise taxes again this year, while simultaneously arguing that returning to an adequate police staffing level is financially impossible in the face of rising crime. In a rapidly growing city with a $4.2 billion budget, we can afford public safety.

This statement has a number of sleights of hand that will unfortunately fool most media covering this issue. First, the $515M refers to a goal for the total amount spent from a variety of sources in the community: the city, the county, nonprofits, private philanthropy. Second, City Council is quite likely to approve a budget that does not result in a tax increase for the average homeowner, although it will on commercial property owners. Third, the city’s budget is technically $4.2 billion but most of that is tied up in enterprise departments funded by user fees, notably the city-owned electric and water utilities. The only source of potential funding for cops is the $1.2 billion general fund.

This is not Prop B

In contrast to Prop B, which many elected liberals remained silent on, I expect this petition to be universally opposed by the local Democratic/liberal establishment.

This puts at risk the public services that liberals cherish: parks, libraries, social programs. And it’s accompanied by a hefty price tag that will put pressure on them to raise taxes — something that nobody wants. What will be interesting to see is if there are some right-of-center voices that emerge in opposition.

This is an excerpt from the Aug. 11 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

An idea almost as good as a vaccine mandate

This is an excerpt from the Aug. 10 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Based on how much they decide to do with property tax rate, City Council will have between $14.4- $23.3M to use for one-time expenses in the coming fiscal year. One potential use: stipends or bonuses for city employees. The city manager’s proposed budget included a 2% raise for all civilian employees plus a one-time $500 stipend. (“Sworn” police, fire and EMS are all receiving annual pay increases negotiated in their union contracts)

Now, an amendment by Casar (with Alter, Renteria, Kitchen) would increase the stipend to $1,000 and extend it to all full-time employees making under $80,000, including cops, firefighters and medics. Civilian employees who make more would still get $500.

A vaccine incentive

Mayor Steve Adler has suggested creating an additional $100 for employees who get vaccinated. Any employee who has been vaccinated or gets vaccinated (within a given timeframe, I presume) would be eligible.


What Council should obviously do is simply make the entire $500 or $1,000 stipend contingent on vaccination. That’s a huge chunk of change to turn down just to avoid two pricks of a needle.

It may not be enough to convince those who sincerely believe the vaccine will render them infertile or implant them with a Bill Gates microchip, but it will certainly be a meaningful nudge for the many who simply haven’t bothered to get the shot. I rarely used to get the flu shot — I certainly would have for $1,000 though. There are still tons of people, particularly young people, who aren’t against vaccines but simply haven’t taken the time to get the shot because they’re just not that worried about the virus. Just the other day I convinced a young family member to get the shot.

Another important change I’d recommend is making sworn employees who make over $80,000 eligible for the $500 stipend. That would then include all cops, who have been particularly resistant to getting vaccinated.

If this prompts people to get vaccinated (it most certainly will), good! If it saves taxpayers some money for the employees who still refuse to get jabbed, that’s a nice consolation prize in an era of tight budgets.

Council sources tell me that tying the larger incentive to vaccination is being considered, but one potential complication is that it may not be easy for the city to immediately disburse that much money. Workers may have to wait until January to get paid, which may make the incentive a little less enticing.

Another potential complication are legal limits on the city investigating whether a worker is vaccinated. Again, it seems like there could be a way around this if it’s a voluntary program … if a worker presents proof of vaccination, they get a bonus. Just like non-smokers are rewarded with lower insurance premiums.

In an ideal world, the city could simply mandate vaccines. And perhaps in a court battle with Abbott it could prevail, but that will take time and success is far from assured. In the meantime, offering money is the best way to get shots in arms when we need it most: now.

This is an excerpt from the Aug. 10 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

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. 

Tax to the max

Cronk’s proposed budget would raise taxes by the maximum allowed under state law: 3.5%. Now, as some in media have pointed out, the state is allowing municipalities to go up to the old 8% limit (that was in place prior to 2019) due to the Winter Storm Uri disaster declaration. But the city would not be allowed to use any revenue generated above the 3.5% limit to calculate its taxes the following year.

For instance, imagine that the city collected $100 worth of taxes last year. If it increased taxes by 3.5%, it would collect $103.50 this year. Then in 2022 it could increase taxes by 3.5% again, collecting $107.12.

If the city instead decided to increase taxes by 8% this year, it would collect $108. But next year, it wouldn’t be able to increase taxes by 3.5% over $108, it would be limited to increasing them by 3.5% over $103.50, which would yield $107.12 of revenue in 2022.

So if Council chooses to go above the 3.5% limit this year, it should only do so to pay for onetime expenses.

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.