Celia’s ‘fact check’ on Watson: Right direction, wrong facts

This is a free sample of the Austin Politics Newsletter from Oct. 7, 2022. To get DAILY insights on city politics, click here to subscribe to the newsletter.

Last week Celia Israel tweeted out a series of rebuttals to claims made in Kirk Watson’s first TV ad:

So, as someone else pointed out, the “study” she’s referencing is an error-riddled article written by a master’s candidate for a student journal. If there’s such a thing as authoritative social science research, this ain’t it.

(This isn’t to say that there isn’t also plenty of crap research published by PhDs in actual academic journals)

For starters, there was never a “Watson administration.” Under our Council-Manager system, it’s the city manager who oversees the city administration, not the mayor. And beyond his own decision to run for election, the mayor doesn’t have any control over the racial composition of City Council, as this excerpt suggests. Israel of course knows both of these things.

I’ll address the housing/gentrification claims below, since the next tweet makes similar assertions.

There’s a common misperception, that both this tweet and the previous one play on, that the city designated East Austin as the “desired development zone.” Actually, pretty much everything east of Mopac falls into that category. The whole point was to protect the Edwards Aquifer. The Save Our Springs ordinance and other regulations aimed at protecting the aquifer have certainly stymied housing development in many of the wealthiest parts of the city, but the DDZ also includes plenty of bougie areas.

Robin Rather’s culpability in displacement and sprawl does not spring from her and other environmentalists’ support for policies that encouraged development in Central and East Austin. Their fault lies in their opposition to policies aimed at producing even more housing in all neighborhoods, including Central and East Austin! Rather and longtime Save Our Springs head Bill Bunch have both been active in NIMBY campaigns to limit dense housing development in central neighborhoods, including by fighting the overhaul of the land development code. Indeed, the Zilker Neighborhood Association, which Bunch chairs and which Rather is an active member, is currently engaged in trying to limit housing in what has become one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the city (and is very much in the DDZ).

If anything, the failure of Watson and many others from that generation is that they were not actually committed to Smart Growth outside of downtown. They supported a planning process that resulted in neighborhood plans that sharply limited multifamily housing and mixed-use development in many desirable neighborhoods. They failed to reform Austin’s worst-in-the-nation permitting process. They kept in place compatibility rules that prevented the development of tall buildings, including apartments, on many of the city’s transit corridors. They began the implementation of the Hyde Park Conservation Combining District, which downzoned much of the neighborhood from multifamily to single-family and put in place a mountain of dumb design standards. It was a giant step backwards for a neighborhood that was naturally one of the most walkable and transit-oriented in the city. It was dumb preservation, not smart growth.

This is mostly fair.

Watson has sent mixed signals on housing. Although he has acknowledged that the housing shortage is a major issue and has said he wants to increase housing on corridors and make it easier to build new housing, he has also clearly been making appeals to the NIMBY crowd, both by proposing to allow Council districts to set their own rules and with his yard sign opposing the land development code. And it was deeply hypocritical of him to call for districts to determine their own development destiny while calling for a major new development at Walter Long Lake without bothering to ask the Council member for that district what she thought about it.

Also fair. I expect this will become a central line of attack against Watson in the closing weeks of the campaign.

An incoherent critique

Israel has certainly framed herself as the pro-housing, urbanist candidate. But her critiques of Watson and her own record reveal a certain incoherence in her approach to these issues.

These attacks appear to partially embrace the premise pushed by anti-growth activists that new development causes displacement, rather than a lack of housing options.

While I agree that Watson appears to be catering to West Austin isolationists with his “zoning by district” proposal, Israel hasn’t always done the right thing on housing either. Most notably, in 2016 she played a role in blocking an affordable housing project in northwest Austin by declining to endorse its application for 9% tax credits. At the time she justified her opposition by saying that it lacked public transit access, but that wasn’t an excuse that anybody close to the project bought, especially given the intense opposition from neighbors. Greg Casar certainly didn’t seem to buy it:

“It’s frustrating to see this project hit roadblocks because of organized opposition against affordable housing,” he told the Austin Monitor at the time.

Plus, killing the project was hardly a win for transit: the tax credits allocated for the Austin area ended up going to projects in Georgetown that year as a result.

Ultimately, many pro-housing Israel supporters say that that is in the past and she has learned from the mistake. Hopefully!

Meanwhile, what I keep hearing from Watson supporters is that, sure, he’s throwing some bones to the NIMBYs now but he’ll end up accomplishing just as much or more on housing because he knows how to make deals.

Whatever we get in terms of policy, we certainly deserve a better debate.

This is a free sample of the Austin Politics Newsletter from Oct. 7, 2022. To get DAILY insights on city politics, click here to subscribe to the newsletter.

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