Austin’s unprecedented affordable housing bond

On Tuesday voters approved $250 million to combat Austin’s housing crisis.

If that number means nothing to you, consider that in 2012 (another strong year for Democrats), voters rejected a $75 million housing bond, even though they approved all of the other bonds on the ballot for parks, transportation etc. The following year, in 2013, the city tried again and 61% approved a $65 million housing bond, the largest in the city’s history.

On Tuesday, 73% supported a bond nearly four times as large. If you’ll recall, city staff, Council members and even some housing advocates were at first very reluctant to push for such a large bond, pointing to the failure in 2012. Last year, staff originally proposed $85 million. Council Member Greg Casar said he wanted to see it “get to triple digits.” Then the bond advisory task force recommended $161 million. And then housing advocates, with Casar as the most prominent voice on Council, decided to get really ambitious. They started talking about a $300 million bond. They figured that 2018 was going to be a good year to push progressive priorities on the ballot and that anti-Trump voters flocking to the polls would make a big bond feasible politically.

Even before Council voted to put it on the ballot, a group run by John Lawler, a former Casar aide, began raising gobs of money from housing nonprofits, developers, rich people and random businesses to support the bond. It was a rare instance of elites raising money to help the little guy (at least when there’s no tax deduction available).

Perhaps most significantly, despite plenty of conservatives who were incensed by the prospect of more subsidized housing and plenty of neighborhood association leaders who were lukewarm to anything that would raise property taxes, no organized opposition to the bond emerged. No PAC. No press conferences. Nuthin.

In the end, the thing would have passed even if there hadn’t been record youth turnout. There were only a few precincts that rejected the bond (in purple). That one out East only has two voters, by the way. The brown ones had no voters.

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Here’s what we’ll get for the money (forgive the draft doc):

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It’s up to City Council to prove that voters made the right decision and invest this money as effectively as possible. I’m glad that the money focused on homeownership is only a small slice of the pie, since that’s the least effective mechanism for creating and preserving affordable housing. Really excited to see what happens with the land acquisition program.

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