District 5: battle for South Austin

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The race for the South Austin district, which has been represented for eight years by Ann Kitchen, offers the second biggest opportunity, after D9, for political change on land use and housing.

For the three first candidates, I mostly focused on their views on housing, development and budgeting, since they mostly say the same things about other major issues and frankly, I’m probably already asking you to spend more time than you want reading about this race:

Ken Craig (website)

How much should we expect Ken Craig to govern like Ann Kitchen, the Council member he served for nearly eight years as a policy aide?

Craig declines to make comparisons between his views or approach to government and those of his former boss. He’s his own candidate. He similarly demurs when I ask him if he perceives differences between his views and those of his opponents in the D5 race.

And yet, whether he likes it or not, Craig is widely perceived as Kitchen’s anointed successor. Like Kitchen, he has strong ties to neighborhood associations and is viewed by growth skeptics as their most likely ally in the race, at least among the liberal candidates.

Throughout the campaign, Craig’s comments on housing have reflected Kitchen’s distinct brand on the issue.

So, first a few words on Kitchen….

In contrast to the three others who have blocked land use reform on Council, Kitchen does not live and breathe the cause of neighborhood preservation. She much more readily embraces the fact that Austin is in the midst of a housing crisis that demands an increase in housing supply. She doesn’t broadly voice distaste for growth or density or developers. In fact, she broke with the preservationists over CodeNEXT in 2018 and joined the mayor in opposing a referendum that would have required citizen approval of any code rewrite.

And yet, the following year, after the city abandoned CodeNEXT and kicked off a new process to overhaul the code, Kitchen joined the preservationists in opposing the rewrite. Since then, she’s often found excuses to oppose or water down developments or reforms, such as when she ludicrously sought to have S. Lamar and Menchaca classified as “medium corridors” (as opposed to large) in the debate over the proposed compatibility reforms. The common explanation for her approach is that she is being responsive to the concerns of a small group of neighborhood activists in South Austin. She tends to only support increased entitlements –– even something intrinsically good like reduced parking requirements –– if it’s accompanied by “community benefits” and she often makes demands that are infeasible and may ultimately prevent any new housing from being built. Her effort to impose higher affordability requirements in the VMU2 density bonus program is a good example.

Craig has voiced a similar approach to housing, stressing the importance of preserving existing affordable housing, “district planning” and incentive programs, rather than by-right increases in development entitlements.

When I spoke to him recently by phone, he said that he would like to see a wider variety of housing types, rather than just large new single-family homes, and said, “we have opportunities along the corridors to add quite a bit of housing.”

“In addition to adding housing stock, I want to preserve what we have that’s affordable,” he says.

When I asked him how the city can prevent demolitions, he concedes he doesn’t have a precise answer but suggests exploring “tax abatements and other incentives.” One specific proposal he has is extending the city’s home repair program to rental housing. That seems like a tricky proposition that risks allowing landlords to shift the burden of maintaining and repairing their properties to the city.

Asked how the city can maintain high quality services under the tax constraints imposed by the legislature, Craig says it’s just a matter of wise budgeting. When I ask if he foresees a tax rate election to go over the 3.5% limit, he says, “I don’t think I can comment on that,” suggesting the conversation is premature.

Craig entered the race late but has matched his top opponents in fundraising. As of Oct. 1 he’d raised $69k and had $57k on hand. He is also way ahead of the field in endorsements. He’s backed by the most important unions, environmental groups and Democratic clubs.

Craig is well-liked at City Hall, including by those who aren’t particularly fond of his boss. Here’s what one former aide said:

“I think he’s a consensus-builder, and I think he’s universally liked on the hallway, which is hard to accomplish when offices are fighting. I think that’s all in contrast to Kitchen, who digs in on things and then dies on that hill while trying to make it as painful as possible.”

Ryan Alter (website)

Alter has made housing policy the central focus of his campaign. He’s had a lot of experience in the domain. His father worked in affordable housing development and now he has ventured into homebuilding. He also has worked on housing policy as an aide at the state Capitol, most recently as general counsel for Sen. Juan Hinojosa and formerly for Kirk Watson.

This is the distinction he draws between himself and others in the race.

“I would say the biggest difference is the depth of understanding of the issues. I’ve had extensive experience working on housing issues, both in the public and private sectors, and have actually gotten solutions passed,” he says. He critiques Bazan, who appears to be his ideological peer, for not offering more specific policy proposals on housing.

The centerpiece of his campaign is his Home Now program, which aims to incentivize housing for middle-income renters and buyers who typically don’t qualify for income-restricted housing.

Under his plan, rental developments where at least 75% of units are affordable to those at or below the area median income would be exempt from a number of development regulations. For for-sale units, the income threshold would be higher: 120% of the median income.

The market is already producing rental units affordable for those at the median income, but Alter says his plan would make units priced at that level feasible in more parts of town and in smaller developments, rather than just in large apartment complexes.

The for-sale piece of his plan seems like a heavier lift, but he insists that it’s doable. He recently built an 18-unit townhome project in East Austin; he says he would have been able to price the units at that level if he’d gotten the exemptions his plan offers. The result definitely isn’t cheap –– a two-bedroom would be $440,000 –– but it’s still cheaper than what the market is producing.

When I ask him where he differs from his opponents –– particularly the fellow liberals –– he says that Bazan is not offering specifics and that Craig “wants to do more of the same” narrow prescriptions that Kitchen has championed.

“Ken’s language is all about preservation,” he says. “If we just preserve, then all we’re doing is preserving the status quo. We need to do more than just build an ADU and preserve things.”

How will the city continue to provide key services under such tight tax limits? He points to budget projections that has the city hitting a budget deficit by 2026-27.

“We could probably get by for a year or two beyond 2026 without cutting basic services, but I can’t imagine we’d be able to avoid cuts to these services without ordering a (Tax Rate Election) in ‘27 or ‘28,” he says. “Of course, we could help avoid this altogether by passing pro-housing policies like my Housing Now plan that would increase our tax base outside the 3.5% cap.”

As of Oct. 1 Alter had raised $70k and had $50k left.

Stephanie Bazan (website)

Bazan is one of the two candidates clearly running in the “pro-housing liberal” lane in the D5 race.

“Austin’s urban planning was deliberately founded in exclusionary zoning,” she says at the beginning of the “housing” section on her campaign website.

Raised in a blue collar family in South Austin (her father has worked at HEB since he was 16) and having worked in homelessness advocacy in the past, Bazan says her “lived experience around housing just puts a little extra fire in my belly.”

She identifies a shortage of housing as one of the main culprits of the city’s housing crisis:

“We need to streamline the permitting process to support homeowners and we need more homes – both Affordable and market-rate for renters and buyers – including equitable transit-oriented development for working people, and options for students and seniors.”

When I ask her to distinguish her views from her opponents, she describes Alter’s “Housing Now” plan as a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

“He has this very specific plan that doesn’t allow room for adjustment,” she says.

She risk, she says, is that the formula he’s proposed may not make sense economically in certain parts of town, resulting in no new units at all.

“I am talking more about making sure that we’re really calibrating bonuses correctly,” she says.

She also suggests he is naive to believe Council will adopt such a wide-ranging plan offered by a rookie: “You’re not going to come in, especially as the newbie, and put down a plan that goes through.”

As for Craig, she says his views on housing are “quite different,” and believes that his approach would largely resemble Kitchen’s.

Asked whether the city should eventually hold a tax rate election to maintain basic services, she says, “I definitely see that that’s a possibility, but I wouldn’t want it to be the first option. I think that’s always a possibility but we need to be very careful with what we ask people to pay for.”

She says local officials need to better-use their platforms to educate taxpayers about the state’s role in creating the high property tax burden.

Bazan is backed by CM Natasha Harper-Madison and former Council Member Mike Martinez. As of Oct. 1 she had raised $60k and had $43k on hand.

Aaron Webman (website)

Webman has a unique pitch. While most candidates try their darndest to stress their deep ties to Austin, the attorney and former filmmaker often leads by announcing that he’s a relative newcomer. He moved here in 2019 from California and is now trying to save Austin from falling victim to the same policies that he believes have destroyed his home state.

Webman’s stated priorities and proposals are not unfamiliar to those who follow city politics. He speaks to a constituency that is worried the city has veered too far to the left with regards to policing and homelessness and is skeptical of city spending, notably on Project Connect and the major investment in combating homelessness.

Webman does not believe in the “Housing First” approach to homelessness that the city is pursuing. The premise of Housing First focuses on getting people into stable housing before addressing any other issues, such as addiction, mental illness or employment. Proponents argue that people can’t get their lives together in the absence of the stability and security that only a home can offer.

He believes in a “shelter and treatment” model, that relies on placing people in shelters with access to treatment services.

At a recent forum, he ridiculed Alter’s talk of creating more “robust” programs to address homelessness, saying that he was following a model that only made matters worse in California.

“I want to spend less money to do more,” he told me recently. He believes the city needs to demand greater accountability from the organizations it’s contracting with.

He highlights the Salvation Army and Community First! Village as examples of two groups that he believes are addressing homelessness well. I pointed out that CFV is arguably an example of the housing first approach and that its founder, Alan Graham, had told me recently that most of its residents are unlikely to find traditional employment and cost about $22,000 a year to house. Webman replied that that is still much cheaper than what it costs the city, especially if you account for the money it spends cleaning up trash linked to encampments.

On general housing policy, Webman has been vague, saying that there should be more density in parts of the city but that the city shouldn’t overlook the concerns of homeowners who want to preserve the character of their neighborhood. Alter’s proposal, he said, “is a technocratic solution that would be shoved down the throats of neighborhoods.”

He also suggested that any plan that doesn’t have buy-in from neighborhood groups is unrealistic due to the ability of homeowners to block rezoning by valid petition.

e says he feels “duped” by Project Connect. He also believes that many of the bike lanes the city has recently set up actually make cyclists less safe. His wife, who is Dutch and “bikes everywhere,” agrees.

Webman’s rhetoric and stated policies align pretty comfortably with what you hear from the right side of the political spectrum, but he bristles at suggestions that he’s a conservative. Here’s part of his explanation for why he donated to Chip Roy:

In April, the same month he announced his candidacy, he donated $300 to Beto O’Rourke.

Webman is also clearly annoyed when asked about his cousin, Joe Lonsdale, the wealthy entrepreneur and investor who cut his teeth as a mentee of tech billionaire Peter Thiel.

“It’s like a shadow that’s cast over my attempt to do some good,” he says.

Lonsdale, like Webman, also recently relocated to Austin, citing California’s high income taxes as one of the reasons for the move. He fits firmly into the caricature of an abrasive, egomaniac tech bro. “Wow. Great for fathers to spend time w their kids and support moms, but any man in an important position who takes 6 months of leave for a newborn is a loser,” he tweeted in response to news of Pete Buttigieg taking time off to care for his baby. “In the old days men had babies and worked harder to provide for their future – that’s the correct masculine response.”

Lonsdale or his companies have contributed $115,000 to Save Austin Now –– both for the camping ban and the police staffing referendum –– and he recently gave $5,000 to the City Accountability Project, which has endorsed Webman.

Joe Lonsdale’s brother, John, is the co-founder of Ender, a real estate tech firm based in Austin that Webman works for as head of business development.

Webman says his cousin has nothing to do with his Council campaign.

“I do admire him and respect him a lot,” he says. “But it’s not like we have an ongoing partnership about government and the city election.

Webman is on the board of the Cicero Institute, however, a think tank co-founded by Lonsdale.

Webman has had no problem raising money. He had raised $122k as of Oct. 1, $50k of which he gave himself. He had $63k on hand. Moreover, two PACs, Restore Leadership ATX and the City Accountability Project, are supporting him, although it’s not clear how much they will spend on his behalf.

Bill Welch (website)

Like Webman, Welch’s candidacy is clearly a symptom of the backlash to the city’s experiment with decriminalized camping and cuts to the police budget. “ENFORCE THE CAMPING BAN” is scrawled across the top of many of his yard signs, which promise a “Return to Reason.”

But Welch, a retired brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force who has only voted in GOP primaries, does offer some surprises. His more recent yard signs include a new appeal: “SAVE LIVE MUSIC.” His plan is to offer tax credits to venues that pay musicians and to exempt musical instruments from the sales tax on April 29, Willie Nelson’s birthday.

On transportation he certainly sounds like a road warrior (“Build more roads” is the first bullet point of his transportation plan) but he also recently said that he’d changed his mind about the I-35 expansion after speaking with activists from Rethink 35, although he has not actually endorsed their vision of turning the highway into a boulevard.

On housing he is a staunch defender of the “autonomy of neighborhoods” to reject increased density, but he also believes in eliminating restrictions that are inhibiting development on the corridors. He proposes scrapping height restrictions on major corridors and says he supports reforming the permitting process.

Welch is a major underdog. Not only is he a Republican running in an overwhelmingly Democratic district, but as of Oct. 1 he had only raised $24k and had only $4.6k on hand. Meanwhile, many other conservatives and outside groups are directing their support to Webman.

If you appreciated these candidate analyses, you should sign up for the Austin Politics Newsletter. It comes four times a week and offers in-depth analysis of city politics and policy. 

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