What kind of rescue are we getting?

This afternoon City Council will debate how to spend $143.6M of federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The feds have given the city $188.4M in undesignated “local fiscal assistance” that it can basically use on whatever, but it has already committed $45M to pandemic-related spending. The mayor released a proposed framework on … Continue reading What kind of rescue are we getting?

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Austin housing advocates must stop ignoring the middle class

This is an excerpt from the April 30 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Here are some stats on the Austin real estate market I received recently from Bramlett Residential Real Estate:

Just consider how bonkers this is. The average sales price has increased 34% in a year. The median sales price has increased almost as much –– 29% –– so this isn’t just a matter of the top of the market being distorted by an influx of filthy rich Californians. The price for every type of housing in every neighborhood has increased dramatically.

Perhaps the pandemic has prompted something of a national housing bubble, but the skyrocketing prices in Austin are just an acceleration of a long-term trend. Austin’s booming tech sector and its cultural status will continue to attract wealth and home prices will respond accordingly.

This situation offers a prime opportunity to make the case for housing reform. And yet, unless housing advocates change the way they talk about the issue, nothing will change.

What they need to do is pretty simple. They need to start talking about the middle class.

The market doesn’t just hurt the poor

There’s a striking difference between how Democrats on the national stage and local progressives talk about economic challenges. On the national level, you hear a lot about the “middle class.” On the local level, you hear more about those who are “low-income” or, increasingly, “the working class.”

There are a few reasons you talk about the “middle class.” First, it’s a term that a broad swath of Americans identify with, even if in many cases they are too poor or too rich to fit the description. Far fewer people think of themselves as “low income,” and if you talk about helping the low-income, most assume that that help will come at their expense. This is probably compounded by racial resentment where whites assume that efforts to help the poor only help minorities. Ronald Reagan understood this well.

The good news is that, because Austin is much more liberal politically than America as a while, I don’t think city leaders face the same risk of backlash in advocating for the poor as leaders at the national level (the likely passage of Prop B notwithstanding). But the poor alone do not constitute a winning political coalition. And they’re not the only ones being hurt by Austin’s reactionary housing policies.

The problem is, every discussion of housing reform ends up centering on narrowly-defined “affordable housing.” The meaning of the term varies, but usually in Austin it refers to rental housing that is restricted to those at 60% of the area median income or for-sale units restricted to those at 80% AMI.

We should all agree that we do absolutely need more housing serving those income levels. Indeed, as the homelessness crisis illustrates, we need housing serving much lower income levels. This is why the $550M of affordable housing bonds that Austin voters have approved in the past two election cycles are so important.

The problem is that we need housing to serve the huge percentage of Austin’s middle class that does not qualify for income-restricted housing but is not able to afford the skyrocketing prices that the restricted market is producing. Just check out these income levels:

Any new multifamily or missing-middle housing that does not include units restricted at 60-80% AMI is decried as “not affordable” or “luxury housing.” Nevermind that the new units are often much cheaper than the single-family houses that would be built without the new zoning. Nevermind that the proposed new units are often much cheaper than the homes owned by the Council members, Planning commissioners or neighborhood activists standing in the way.

Here’s the question that every Council member should answer: Where do you believe your staffers who are making $50-75k/yr can afford to live? Assuming you’re not going to give them giant pay raises, what can you do to help them afford a home in this city?

Assume that Council aide is lucky and has a spouse or partner that makes the same amount of money. Even if we assume they don’t have significant student debt (which many do), where in this city can they realistically aspire to buy a single-family home? I’m not even going to bother with the Central Austin neighborhoods where barely anything is listing for under $1M anymore. Let’s look at what’s available north of Rundberg:

Or University Hills and Windsor Park:

Or south of Stassney and William Cannon:

And it’s only going to get worse.

So what “character” is our current code protecting? What character is being preserved by zoning that does not allow anybody who can’t afford 5,750 square feet of land into a neighborhood? It’s not a middle class character, that’s for sure. In my own neighborhood of Southwood, just south of Ben White, bungalows are being scraped left and right to be replaced by large single-family homes or duplexes that hardly any of the longtime residents or families of the children who attend nearby schools (Joslin Elementary, Crockett High) can afford. This is the recurring scene:

As Austin grows, there are going to be more and more people who want to live in the city and are willing to buy smaller units in exchange for being in a great neighborhood, a shorter commute, walkable amenities. These people will be looking for advocates at City Hall. Now is the opportunity to show them who’s on their side.

This is an excerpt from the April 30 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

City unveils potential camping sites

Today the city released 45 city-owned properties under consideration for sanctioned homeless encampments. Here’s the list: When sanctioned encampments on city property were first discussed the other week, a couple people joked about Lions Municipal Golf Course, which is part of the Brackenridge Tract owned by UT but leased by the city. One Council aide told … Continue reading City unveils potential camping sites

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Finding a camp for the homeless in Austin

This is an excerpt from the May 18 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Today the city released 45 city-owned properties under consideration for sanctioned homeless encampments. Here’s the list:

And here’s a map made by Brandon Farmahini of those locations:

When sanctioned encampments on city property were first discussed the other week, a couple people joked about Lions Municipal Golf Course, which is part of the Brackenridge Tract owned by UT but leased by the city. One Council aide told me that using part of the tract for a temporary camp was being seriously discussed. Well, I’m not surprised to not see it on the list.

But there are plenty of other sites on the list that will be plenty controversial. For instance, Duncan Park. There are already lots of homeless people who hang out in and around the park and along Shoal Creek Trail. Turning the park into a dedicated homeless encampment likely wouldn’t go over well.

Likewise, giving up existing park facilities — Givens, Parque Zaragoza, Walter Long, Onion Creek — is sure to make neighboring residents and park users unhappy.

The cost of 10 encampments

Although Council has asked staff to propose at least one site in each Council district, I wonder if Council will remain committed to the idea of setting up 10 different sites once they’ve really thought through the financial and political implications.

In a memo to City Council on Friday, Dianna Grey, the city homelessness strategy officer, offered some insights on creating sanctioned encampments for unhoused people. The big takeaway is that this isn’t going to be simple, politically, financially or logistically.

Here is city staff’s back-of-the-napkin estimate for what it would cost per year to operate a campground.

Grey says that the estimate is in line with what it costs to operate the state encampment in Montopolis. But she cautions that the estimate only reflects “known costs,” and that there will likely be unanticipated expenses that drive the total cost up.

“One-time costs to establish encampment sites may include, but are not limited to, extending access to electricity and water lines, site grading, installation of perimeter fencing, creating or improving vehicular access, and mitigation of wildfire and/or flood risk.”

Assuming the estimate is somewhat accurate, 10 separate encampments would likely cost the city over $20 million a year. Dedicating that money to these encampments leaves less money for the city to focus on the ideal solution, which is permanent housing and services.

The easiest thing to do politically would be to set up a couple of sites in isolated areas of the eastern crescent, just as Abbott did. Some of the 45 sites certainly fit that description. The political ideal is for there to be as few neighbors as possible and for whatever neighbors exist to be poor and politically disengaged.

And that’s probably exactly what Council would do if we still had an at-large system where every member was elected in citywide spring contests dominated by West Austin voters. But now we have four Council members who represent eastern districts; they are unlikely to accept that it’s up to their districts to host all of the people criminalized by West Austin voters (without whom Prop B wouldn’t have even gotten on the ballot, let alone passed).

This debate highlights the pros and cons of the district-based representation put in place six years ago. On one hand, it reduces the implicit bias that the former system had for the wealthier and whiter parts of town. On the other hand, it makes it harder to reach a compromise because each member is advocating for a different constituency.

This is an excerpt from the May 18 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

A better strong mayor

A strong mayor without a veto That’s another way to go. I like the idea of electing an “administration” along with a mayor, but I don’t see a compelling reason for the mayor to have a veto. The campaign for a strong mayor (Prop F) was spectacularly crushed (87-13). Prop F proposed replacing the city … Continue reading A better strong mayor

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Cronk should have been on ballot & APD dirty laundry

Spencer Cronk should have been on the ballot In the moments after Prop F –– the strong mayor initiative –– received an epic shellacking at the polls (87-13!!), Austin for all People, the group that the International City/County Management Association funded to defeat the measure, released a victory statement celebrating the voters’ wise decision to … Continue reading Cronk should have been on ballot & APD dirty laundry

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Would Prop B have passed in November?

Would Prop B have failed in November? You may recall that Save Austin Now, the group that led the Prop B campaign, tried to get an initiative to reinstate the camping ban on the ballot last year. In August the group submitted over 24,000 signatures to get the measure on the November ballot but the … Continue reading Would Prop B have passed in November?

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Prop B passes. Strong mayor crushed. What does this mean?

Everyone I was talking to expected Prop B to pass. The 57-43 result ended up being closer than I expected.

Austin’s political establishment, including most members of City Council, had essentially conceded this race before voters cast their ballots. Sure, Casar and Harper-Madison vocally opposed it and the mayor made a few statements against, but everyone else mostly kept their heads down. The only anti-B group barely raised any money; none of the usual suspects who give to liberal causes opened up their wallets. They all expected it to pass and many supported its passage.

The comments from former Democratic Party Chair Harold Cook reflect what I’ve heard from a lot of others in the Democratic tent, including activists, politicos and regular voters.

And yet…the only strong mandate comes from West Austin…

And yet, one should be wary of reading too much into the results of a low-turnout spring election. For a May referendum, 25% turnout is not bad, but those voting are not at all reflective of the city as a whole. I do not yet have a thorough breakdown of the precinct-level numbers yet, but what the data will invariably show is that those who voted were much whiter, much older, much wealthier and much more concentrated in West Austin than the general population.

Just look at this map:

Map by Eli H. Spencer Heyman. Twitter: @elium2

In fact, east of Mopac, Prop B narrowly failed! It likely also failed in five of the 10 Council districts, but the much heavier turnout in the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city sealed the deal for Prop B.

So while the backlash to the camping situation is definitely a meaningful political force that has activated Austin’s conservative minority and even pissed off a lot of Dems, it’s very likely that Prop B would have failed in a November election.

So…what actually happens now?

I really have no idea. Again, a lot of the camping that has angered people the most is illegal under current rules. They are more a result of the city’s decision, in accordance with CDC guidelines, to not try to move homelessness camps during the pandemic.

It really depends how the city in general, and APD specifically, decide to enforce the rules. Remember, there were homeless people sleeping on the streets before Council lifted the camping ban. What you didn’t see were large encampments with tents.

But in all seriousness, now it’s time to focus on what is actually important: getting people connected with housing. And it’s time for Council to turn up the pressure on City Manager Spencer Cronk and city staff to get the job done. More on that in the coming days…

Strong mayor gets crushed. And some other interesting stuff…

Wow. I knew strong mayor was going down, but not that bad. 86-14. That is brutal. It was going down no matter what, but the biased language Council used to word the initiative helped make it particularly lopsided. Well, that idea is dead for a generation or two.

Mayoral elections go presidential

Woah! I wouldn’t have guessed that Prop D –– moving mayoral elections to presidential election years –– would pass so easily (67-33). In fact, if you had told me that only two of the APR props would pass, I wouldn’t have guessed this one. But nobody spent any time or money opposing it.

The previously scheduled mayoral election in 2022 will go ahead. But whoever wins that will have to stand for election again in 2024 to win a full four-year term.

Aligning mayoral elections with presidential years will likely further marginalize conservatives –– both Republican-style conservatives and land use conservatives who identify as liberals. For the same reason that conservatives enjoy an advantage in low turnout spring elections, progressives benefit from high turnout elections where the electorate is younger, poorer and more racially diverse.

Let me be very clear: I am NOT saying that a preservationist/anti-growth mayoral candidate can’t win in a presidential election year. Most people who vote in a presidential election year do not have a strong position on land use or growth management policies. A well-funded candidate who says all of the right things that most liberals agree with can prevail no matter what their views on land use are.

What I’m saying is that the larger the electorate, the less salient the “defend our neighborhoods” message becomes. This was illustrated in 2018: amidst record-breaking midterm turnout, Laura Morrison got 18% of the vote after running exactly the same type of campaign that had twice won her citywide Council races in May elections.

But again, the mayor still isn’t that important of a figure. He or she is just a Council member with a slightly bigger bully pulpit. So this isn’t necessarily a major change to city politics.

Ranked Choice Voting passes … but it may be a while before it’s a reality

RCV passes 58-42! This is good news and it might eventually become great news. We don’t quite know what the legality of RCV is in Texas. Skeptics point to an opinion issued years ago by then-Secretary of State Henry Cuellar that RCV was not legal under state law. His view was that state law requires runoffs when no candidate wins a majority in the general election and that an “instant runoff” via ranked choice voting does not count.

Some disagree with Cuellar’s interpretation but let’s assume that the courts agree that RCV is not legal unless the legislature amends state law to allow it. Many assume the only way the law changes is if Democrats take over the Lege in the future. That assumption is probably correct, but it’s worth at least seeing whether there is some appetite among Republicans to support ranked choice voting. Runoff elections are just about the worst way to select local leaders and they also cost local governments a lot of money to administer. Beyond a knee-jerk opposition to anything that liberals in Austin propose, it’s not clear that Republicans should be against RCV.

Whether Republicans are willing to allow RCV likely has a lot to do with how they believe it might affect GOP primary elections. Do they believe eliminating runoffs will help the establishment or the MAGA types?

No new Council district

There won’t be a new Council district after Prop G failed 43-57. You’ll recall that Prop G was originally supposed to be part of the strong mayor initiative. The idea was that the strong mayor would not be on Council, and the new Council district would keep an odd number (11) of Council members to avoid the risk of tie votes. However, when the two proposals were split, it seemed likely that strong mayor would fail but the new council district would pass, so that Council would become a 12-member body.

It’s interesting that this one failed. I don’t know if that’s because many voters were sophisticated enough to understand the negative implications of deadlock or because they just didn’t like the idea of adding a new Council member.

The only good thing about 12 members would have been that it would have become easier to get to a ¾ majority to override valid petitions aimed at blocking development (or the land development code). Currently a ¾ majority is 9/11, whereas with 12 it would still be 9/12.

Democracy dollars fails??

I didn’t see this coming. It’s pretty embarrassing how few local leaders stepped up to support a program that aligns with everything they say they support. I think this reflects a pettiness on the part of Council members who didn’t want to support anything associated with APR due to the strong mayor initiative.

Andrew Alison, the wealthy entrepreneur who was the principal donor to APR, said that democracy dollars could be adopted via ordinance by Council. OK, but that would be a bad look coming right off a thumping at the polls. But what a future Council should do is put the measure on the ballot in 2024 when there is a larger electorate that comes much closer to reflecting the city. If there is a decent campaign behind it, it will pass easily. Just like Project Connect passed easily after two failed rail referenda.

Will May elections be a conservative weapon?

The biggest lasting impact of this election may be that it will inspire conservatives to make a habit of using May referenda to annul Council policy, including policy that is much more popular than camping decriminalization. This is definitely something Council should keep in mind when drafting policy. Just consider Prop J –– the attempt by Fred Lewis and other anti-growth activists to require a citywide vote on any new land development code. It got whupped in November of 2018, but it would almost certainly pass in a low turnout May election.