What are D1 candidates saying (and not saying) about housing?

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Let’s take a look at what candidates in District 1 are saying about housing on their campaign websites. This post will focus solely on what they say on their websites. Doing so provides insight not just into what the candidate believes (indeed, sometimes it provides very little insight on that) but what the candidate is choosing to communicate to the masses.

Although it is now plurality Latino, D1 has by far the largest black population of any district and many both in the black community and the wider progressive political sphere feel strongly that the district offers an important opportunity to have a black Council member.

The incumbent, Ora Houston, is something of a political enigma. It’s hard to know where she’ll come down on an issue, except she’s a pretty reliable neighborhood preservationist who is convinced that adding more housing to the east side will lead to gentrification and displacement. She is retiring, which makes the D1 seat important in determining the Council balance on housing issues.

Vincent Harding, the frontrunner in terms of money and big-name (all things being relative) endorsements:

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That tells you almost nothing about how he’ll vote on key housing matters. What kind of affordable housing options? Public housing? Density bonuses? What about the effects of zoning on affordability?

Second in fundraising is Natasha Harper-Madison, the candidate of choice for Austin urbanists.

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While she doesn’t go into many details at least Harper-Madison is displaying her belief that increasing and diversifying housing options is a key part of the equation. She also emphasizes the role of affordable public transit in lowering the cost of living.

Next we have Mariana Salazar, who presumably works closely on housing-related issues in her role at the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO).

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This doesn’t really tell us much about how she will vote on controversial housing issues. Again, what does “create affordable housing” refer to? What “options” are we offering to seniors to stay in their homes? The signals she is sending, however, align more closely with urbanist thinking than neighborhood preservationism, particularly when she talks about the different types of families/people who need housing, including seniors, students and, most importantly, “new arrivals.” There’s no talk about prioritizing the “people who already live here,” ala Laura Morrison.

Then there’s Lewis Conway Jr., a criminal justice reform advocate and self-described socialist. He has been endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America.

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Alright, that’s pretty explicit. He supports spending a lot of money to acquire land and provide long-term income-restricted housing. Pretty much what you’d expect from a socialist. I’d be curious to know what role he believes market-rate housing can play in the situation. There is quite a division among DSA folks on that matter.

Finally, there’s Reedy Spigner, who has had a long career in state government and got into a battle with the incumbent when he tried to demolish his house.

 

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That’s about as close to a ringing endorsement of urbanist planning principles as you can get, particularly when you consider Spigner’s subsequent discussion of transportation, where he emphasizes “transit, not road expansion.” While Spigner doesn’t explicitly say we need to increase supply, he does talk about the importance of mixed-use communities and multi-family housing, leaving little doubt that if elected he will be pushing for land use reform along with Renteria/Garza/Casar/Flannigan.

 

Old library repairs cost $15.8 million

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The other day, I reported that the Parks and Recreation Department estimated the cost of making the Montopolis Negro School museum-ready would cost $5.7 million. From my admittedly non-expert perspective, that number seems ludicrous on its face. How could it cost that much to make some repairs to a one-room building? According to PARD, this is how:

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I don’t understand what half of this stuff means. What the hell is “comprehensive design” and why does it cost $450,000? I have no idea. And that’s a big problem in reporting on these matters. People throw numbers around and you have no frame of reference for what a reasonable cost is.

Similarly, I reported recently on a $1.3 million roof replacement for the old Faulk Library. That’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to library renovations. From city staff (item 6):

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Is this money well-spent? I have no idea. I simply have to place my faith in city staff.

Could scooters save public transit in Austin?

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While scooter-haters are armed with an abundance of anecdotes describing dangerous behavior by scooterists, the empirical evidence suggests that scootering is resulting in very few injuries. From my reporting in the Monitor this morning:

Despite the frequent anecdotes about reckless scooterists, so far there have been very few injuries attributed to scooters. Between May 7 and Sept. 6, Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services only reported 28 injuries involving scooters and no fatalities.

During that same period there were 1,945 people injured and eight people killed in cars, while 91 pedestrians were injured and 12 killed by cars. JonMichael still stressed that the department is taking scooter safety seriously, and is planning to deploy an army of city staffers to the streets to educate riders on proper scooter etiquette.

Something that I forgot to mention in the article: Transportation staff says that scooters are frequently being dropped off at bus stops, suggesting that a lot of people are using the scooters as a first-mile solution to connect with public transit, which is exactly what we should hope for.

This leads to another question…could scooters have something to do with the boost in Cap Metro ridership?

It definitely makes sense for me. I had a doctor’s appointment at St. David’s hospital the other day at Red River & E. 30th. I had to get there from my place (south of Oltorf and east of S. Lamar). I took the 803 to Dean Keaton knowing that I would bump into a scooter within seconds of disembarking  and then scootered 0.8 miles to the doctor. That scooter ride took less than four minutes, much faster than my other options: walking or transferring to the 20 bus downtown.

Austin’s transit woes on national display

The 2017 American Community Survey data from the Census Bureau came out las week. One should be cautious when considering data from these annual mini-censuses, especially when it relates to a relatively small subset of the population, including a city or a subgroup within that city. The sample size is often extremely small. (The ACS five-year estimates are usually more reliable, at least for things that you wouldn’t expect to change significantly from one year to the next.)

Nationally, however, the ACS one-year estimates are pretty good. For instance, the national estimate for 2017 is that the percentage of U.S. residents commuting to work via public transit increased by 0.06%, while the percentage driving alone to worked dropped 0.17%. Progress comes slowly.

Across the country, most big cities saw a decline in the percentage of people driving alone to work. But there were a few notable exceptions. Can you spot them?

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Only LA saw a larger increase in solo drivers than Austin. Other cities that have seen increases include Fort Worth, Houston, Philly and San Diego. San Antonio basically was flat.

While I am wary of what are likely very high margins of error in this data set, all of these cities have struggled with declining transit ridership in the past couple years, and these numbers appear to reflect that.

For your general edification, here are the ACS 2012-16 five year estimates of commuting behavior in Austin and the Austin Metro Area. Note that the population size reflects adult workers, not the overall population.

Mode of commute:

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Length of commute:

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Can a museum in Montopolis work?

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Montopolis Negro School. Credit: Austin Monitor

There’s a lot of interesting things going on in this story about the Montopolis Negro School that I wrote in today’s Monitor.

But right now I’d like to put aside questions over the use of eminent domain and focus on a simple question: Does it make sense for Austin to establish a museum in such a lightly-trafficked part of town?

As much as I appreciate the idea of stashing cultural gems throughout the city, when we invest $5.7 million in a museum, we have to consider the return on investment. I’m not talking about how many paying customers the museum attracts, although that’s also certainly something worth considering. I’m talking about the museum’s educational and cultural impact. A big part of evaluating that impact is the number of people who visit the museum.

In projecting how many people will visit a site, it’s critical to consider whether it’s near other things that they are likely to visit. Montopolis is a predominantly residential area. The relatively few retail/entertainment/food options in the neighborhood are spread out. Thus, you are expecting the vast majority of visitors to drive far away from all of the other major tourist sites and commerce in Austin to spend what would likely be a very short amount of time in a one-room museum.

If you want people to visit a museum, put it where all of the other museums are. Consider the George Washington Carver Center. It’s near a ton of stuff that visitors and Austinites alike are likely to check out, including a plethora of bars and restaurants and other major tourist sites, all of which have become even more amusingly accessible due to electric scooters.

It’s important to note that I would say the same thing for a museum proposed in any overwhelmingly residential area that is far away from downtown. I don’t think that a museum in Tarrytown would be particularly compelling either.

When I visit other cities, I enjoy going to various neighborhoods that are off the beaten path and walking around. If there’s an obscure museum, I’ll check it out. But most people aren’t like me.

CM Ora Houston has hinted that she has come to the same conclusion:

Council Member Ora Houston, who grew up attending segregated schools in East Austin, has been a vocal proponent of preserving the Montopolis building. In an email to the Austin Monitor, she said that she was open to Stowell’s proposal to preserve the building. She acknowledged that there might not be the funding or demand necessary to support a full-time public museum.

“Throughout the discussion of the property, I pointed out that the Parks and Recreation Department has difficulty funding the maintenance and operation of the current parks and historic structures in their portfolio,” she noted.

City Council’s first look at gentrification study

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A group of UT researchers finally came out with a much-awaited study on gentrification in Austin. The great majority of the 200-page report seems to focus on defining and identifying gentrification and displacement in Austin, with maps showing areas that are gentrifying or vulnerable to gentrification and discussion of the factors that lead to displacement.

As for solutions, the only high-impact ideas that stick out to me is acquiring and setting aside land for affordable housing before property values get too high.

The other potential policies that were highlighted did not strike me as likely to make a major difference. Portland’s “right of first return” program aimed at helping people buy homes in areas they otherwise couldn’t afford does not seem likely to help a lot of people. The necessary subsidies are way too high. Similarly, organizing tenants to exercise their rights is also a great goal. In the case of the Cactus Rose mobile home park, it led to the displaced residents negotiating critical relocation assistance. But I don’t see it as preventing rents from going up or redevelopment from occurring.

One factor that was conspicuously absent from the report (at least from what I’ve read and heard): the amount of market-rate housing citywide. Nor did the report seem to address the question of whether boosting housing supply throughout the city might ease some of the cost pressures that cause gentrification.

However, Jacob Wegmann, one of the researchers, noted that allowing people to build small accessory dwelling units (granny flats) on their properties struck the team as a “relatively painless” way to increase housing stock. CM Jimmy Flannigan made sure to repeat that for everyone: “Relatively painless. Did everyone hear that?”

Flannigan also took a jab at the recently-approved North Shoal Creek Neighborhood Plan, suggesting that if the city’s priority is preventing displacement in vulnerable communities, maybe housing staff shouldn’t be spending time crafting neighborhood plans in well-to-do parts of town.

CM Ora Houston noted that the city did a gentrification study 18 years ago and asked the researchers why the city has since done “nothing” to stop displacement. CM Delia Garza pushed back, saying that the city has done things but that city leaders have a hard time agreeing on what needs to be done: “There are some of us who believe the supply side of our housing crisis is something we desperately need to address, and then there are some of us who say supply and demand doesn’t matter.” CM Pio Renteria also said that the city has done good work but not nearly enough; he bemoaned the lost opportunities to buy land and provide affordable housing back when it would have been cheap.

The mayor’s two takeaways from the study were that “we have to be really deliberate about using the right strategy in the right place” and “there’s not a lot of experience to draw from. As for the question of what works, it appears that’s a hard question to answer.”

The old library needs a new roof

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On Thursday City Council will likely approve putting out a solicitation for the “removal and replacement of approximately 29,000 square feet of roofing material” on the old Faulk Library at 800 Guadalupe.

The plan is for Faulk to help out of its next-door neighbor, the Austin History Center, with document storage. The library explains (emphasis theirs):

The Austin History Center currently has over 50,000 square feet of archival collections packed into the 33,000-square foot building. Now that we have opened the Central Library, the History Center is planning to use a portion of the former John Henry Faulk Library so it can continue to expand its collection and further its mission to preserve Austin’s history. The building will retain its name, so the John Henry Faulk Library will become the John Henry Faulk Building.

Apparently the old building needs a new roof. The city is prepared to spend up to $1.3 million. City staff has recommended soliciting a contractor for the job via a “Competitive Sealed Proposal” rather than the traditional “competitive bidding” process. According to city staff, the only difference between the two is that CSP prioritizes “safety record and safety practices, comparable relevant project experience, sustainability practices, local business presence, financial stability and price,” while traditional bidding “focuses primarily on price and bidder responsibility.”

Here’s staff’s justification for the process:

The Competitive Sealed Proposal methodology is recommended as the best value to the City due to the complexity of the roofing system, proximity to a high-traffic area with limited space for staging, and to preserve historical documents kept in the building.

Staff is hoping construction on the new roof will begin in the spring.