Ora Houston’s departure big improvement for progressives/urbanists

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The other day the Austin Monitor hosted a forum for the (sigh) seven candidates running for the spot on City Council being vacated by Ora Houston, the enigmatic East Austin activist currently holding the seat.

The one thing that is clear is that Houston’s departure is a loss for Austin conservatives. For instance, everybody in the District 1 race disagrees with Houston’s opposition to Austin’s paid sick leave ordinance. If Republican Frank Ward prevails in District 8 (a big “if”), he will undoubtedly be the only true conservative on Council, and he benefit from the occasional support that Houston lent to the likes of Ellen Troxclair and Don Zimmerman on taxes, bike lanes and the appointment of gun fanatics to city commissions.

The much bigger impact of Houston’s departure will come on housing policy, notably in the divide between urbanists and neighborhood preservationists. Houston has been a consistent opponent of increased density. Although she has framed her opposition as aimed at preventing gentrification in East Austin, she will often join West Austin colleagues in voting against developments opposed by West Austin neighborhood associations.

Considering the fact that Houston and some other anti-growth folks endorsed District 1 frontrunner Vincent Harding, it would be reasonable to expect him to be a preservationist. However, his answers thus far have been vague but have generally indicated that he is more urbanist-curious than Houston. Note the bolded part:

Harding: “It should be simpler and should not take a consultant to know how to fix up your house. If there are conflicts, we should write in which part of the code supersedes other parts of the code.” He added that he supports a fast process to moderate disputes, allowing smaller lot sizes, and creating community land trusts to preserve affordability.

Meanwhile, at least three of the other candidates –– Natasha Harper-Madison, Mariana Salazar and Reedy Spigner –– are vociferous supporters of density (both market-rate and income-restricted) as an affordability tool. For what it’s worth, write-in candidate Misael Ramos also appears to be urbanist-friendly.

Even Lewis Conway Jr., who said at the forum that they shouldn’t be talking about density without discussing the environmental implications of growth, would be an improvement over Houston from the perspective of left-wing urbanists, since the avowed socialist is a big supporter of increased public housing.

The only candidate who really seems to be pushing the anti-development line is Mitrah Avini, who the Austin Chronicle described as a “recent Oxford University graduate.”

While preservationists are pulling for Harding and urbanists are pulling for other candidates, notably Harper-Madison, my sense is that the outcome of this race will almost certainly represent a loss for preservationists and a gain for urbanists.

The same is definitely not true in neighboring District 3, where Pio Renteria and Susana Almanza represent polar opposites on development issues. District 8, the seat Troxclair is vacating, could produce three very different outcomes: Frank Ward (Republican), Bobby Levinski (preservationist-leaning progressive) or Rich DePalma (urbanist-leaning progressive).

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