Watson accuses Celia of blocking aid for rape victims

Stand Together Austin, a PAC supporting Kirk Watson, has been attacking Celia Israel over her role in defeating a bill that, among other things, would have increased funding for sexual assault victim services. It released a video and sent a text message to voters on the subject in the days before the general election. The video declares:

In 2021, the Texas House tried to pass a bill to increase funding for sexual assault crime victims. But Celia Israel wanted this bill to die.

Israel, citing her own experience with domestic violence, expressed outrage at the attack and offered this explanation at the time:

When I reached out to the Watson campaign about recent attack ads from Stand Together Austin, Watson stressed that he is not allowed to coordinate with the PAC and had nothing to do with the ads. Nevertheless, he agreed that Israel is to blame for blocking funding for sexual assault victims:

However, it appears to be the truth that my opponent used a process that allows a single House Member to kill legislation. The legislation she killed out of political spite was intended to increase funds that would have helped victims of trafficking and sexual assault for expenses such as medical and mental health care costs and costs of relocation to a safer home among other potential benefits. This was legislation supported by Democrats and Republicans, was on the Local & Consent Calendar, and had been unanimously supported until my opponent chose to kill it. No one, including advocacy groups or stakeholders, signed up in opposition to the bill during the committee hearing.

The proposed bill would have increased examination fees for the state to review the issuance of bonds, including tax-exempt bonds issued by nonprofits for projects. The revenue generated from the fees would have gone towards the Crime Victims Compensation Fund, which was traditionally funded by court fees but was running dangerously low on money due to the steep decline in court appearances during the pandemic.

If it’s true that Israel simply killed the bill “out of political spite,” then it’s curious that one of the bill’s lead sponsors, Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, is a vocal supporter of Israel’s mayoral campaign.

In a statement, Howard defended Israel:

I have worked on sexual assault policy reform for many years and agree that the Crime Victims Compensation Fund needs to be fully funded. However, after speaking with stakeholders, we were made aware that the bill would increase fees for organizations that issue bonds to support affordable housing projects. During her tenure in the Texas House, Celia was known as a strong advocate for affordable housing. In her mayoral race, she continues her fight to ensure we can all afford to call Austin home.

Although Howard is still listed as a sponsor of the bill (it is impossible to withdraw sponsorship from a bill in the Lege), her office indicated that she would not support the bill as it is currently written because of the threat it poses to affordable housing projects.

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The less liberal D9 candidates

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Yesterday I looked at the “pro-housing liberals” running in Central Austin’s District 9 to replace Kathie Tovo, who is leaving after 11 years in office. Today I focus on the three other candidates. Yes, technically there are more but I’m not wasting my time on candidates who haven’t even tried to mount a viable campaign.

Linda Guerrero (website)

For the first half of 2022, the field of candidates in the District 9 race seemed almost too good to be true for supporters of pro-housing land use. All four declared candidates –– Leffler, Spearman, Qadri, Wald –– offered a stark contrast with the doggedly preservationist incumbent, Kathie Tovo, who was departing after more than a decade in office.

And yet, everyone knew there was no way the neighborhood protectionists would simply give up District 9. In June, longtime neighborhood activist Linda Guerrero, daughter of east side activist Roy G. Guerrero, declared her candidacy, along with the support of Tovo and other leaders of Austin’s slow-growth movement (Leslie Pool, Brigid Shea, Laura Morrison etc).

In Guerrero, 67, the preservationists have what appears to be a somewhat reluctant banner carrier. In addition to entering the race late, Guerrero has maintained her full-time job as a special ed teacher at Austin High during the campaign.

However, with the full-throated support of the older generation of neighborhood activists, Guerrero has quickly raised a decent amount of money and is considered by many to be the frontrunner in the race. She has the advantage of being the only candidate in the preservationist “lane” in a very crowded field. She is also one of only two women (and the only Dem woman) in a male-dominated field.

At the beginning of October, Guerrero had raised $63k and had $50k on hand.

Guerrero’s campaign reflects a constituency that does not view Austin’s housing crisis as city government’s top priority. The first two issues on her website are “Parks & Open Spaces” and “Support for the Senior and Disabled Community.” When affordability comes up later, there’s no mention of the city’s dire housing shortage. Rather, she describes new development as causing displacement and focuses narrowly on homeownership programs:

In the absence of a bond allocating billions to help people buy, homeownership programs, such as the city’s community land trust initiative, tend to be small and largely symbolic. They do little to address the underlying cause of rising housing costs in a majority-renter city.

She also signals skepticism of changes to Austin’s ultraconservative compatibility standards, which are currently preventing the development of dense housing and retail on major corridors due to their proximity to single-family neighborhoods. Says her website: “If the height setbacks are relaxed, we need to consider the tradeoffs … the standards should come from a community-based process and not top-down (from) City Council.”

In a phone interview this week, she described herself as “all about consensus-building,” and highlighted her role in crafting the University Neighborhood Overlay that facilitated the dramatic densification of West Campus.

“It was incredible how we were able to bring this incredible model together by everyone being at the table,” she said. “As we grow we become like a very dense urban population, of course I see changes happening. It’s about process and managing that process so we get the best buy-ins” from stakeholders.

The problem, of course, is who is not at the table. Those who are not at the table are the future residents of the housing that is proposed, whether it’s a large apartment complex on a corridor or townhomes in a single-family neighborhood.

For instance, the future residents of Cady Lofts, a permanent supportive housing project proposed in the Hancock neighborhood. The developer sought a rezoning to be able to build four stories on a plot of land just west of I-35. Guerrero, chair of the Hancock Neighborhood Association’s zoning committee, sent a letter opposing the rezoning, which Council later approved.

Guerrero’s also strikes a far less ambitious tone on mobility than most of her opponents. As a member of the bond advisory committee back in 2016, she opposed including significant funds for bike infrastructure, claiming, “A lot of Mexicans aren’t going to be riding bikes.” (Julio Gonzalez Altamirano responded with census data showing that Hispanics were actually the most likely ethnic/racial group to commute by bike)

Similarly, Guerrero is cautious when describing Project Connect, expressing support but saying she is “concerned” about the “impact on local businesses” and “the environmental effect of the river crossing.”

Greg Smith (website)

Smith is new to city politics and jumped into the race largely in response to concerns about public safety.

More about any particular issue, he believes “this election is about leadership,” which he says has been sorely lacking at City Hall in recent years. He believes Council has been derelict in its duty to protect public safety and that it has mismanaged the response to homelessness.

He is skeptical, for instance, in the “housing first” approach to homelessness.

“Somebody’s gonna have to convince me that housing first is the solution. All of the other candidates, from what I can recall, are all about housing first,” he tells me. “I know that there are experts that don’t believe that housing first is the solution. Shelter first and then you earn your way into a house.”

He also believes Council’s efforts to “reimagine public safety,” has caused serious harm by demoralizing police officers and making it difficult for the city to recruit and retain cops.

“I’ve spoken to 16 different officers who have the ability to retire between now and March and only one of them said he might stay,” he said. “They all love Austin, they love the community, but they are extremely pissed at the way the City Council has portrayed them to the public.”

Council’s budget moves in 2020, which reallocated funds from policing to other social services, have made Austin “a less safe town,” he said.

He nevertheless stresses his support for police accountability, and tells me that he was initially skeptical of the proposed police oversight ordinance that will be on the ballot in May but was convinced through a conversation with a supporter to back it.

He earned the endorsement of Save Austin Now, which he embraced while noting that he doesn’t agree with the group on everything. When I asked him if he’d supported the SAN-backed police staffing proposition last year, he sounded uncertain.

“I don’t believe I supported that,” he said.

Politically, he describes himself as moderate, saying he liked both Obama and Reagan. He believes Bill Clinton was the best president of his lifetime.

On housing and transportation, his views are more in line with urbanists. He believes the supply shortage is a major driver of housing costs and is incredulous at the way the city gets in the way of building new housing. He believes it’s inexcusable that Council hiked parkland fees on residential developments, even if the fee increase that was passed was much lower than what city staff proposed.

“We have to take full advantage of every opportunity we have to put more units on the ground, especially around the transit corridors,” he said.

He highlights the potential redevelopment of the site that is currently home to Trek Bicycles (formerly Bicycle Sport Shop) at S. Lamar and Barton Springs Blvd: “We have to have that project be as dense as possible,” he said.

He has little patience for potential objections to tall buildings in such locations: “If somebody opposes that, you know what I’d tell them, I’m sorry, too bad. You have to compromise and be compassionate about this solution.”

He sympathizes with the concerns about the rising costs of Project Connect but remains a committed supporter.

“I know it’s going to be expensive. But if we’re going to be a world class city we need world class transportation,” he said.

“I’m probably not perceived as the environmental candidate,” he adds, “but all of this is good for the environment. I don’t want more cars. I want less cars on the road. I want people to be able to get on their bikes and bike safely around town. If people want to walk and run, I want them to be able to do that.”

Smith, 57, is a native Austinite and a graduate of what is now Navarro High School in North Austin (formerly Lanier). He lives in Bouldin with his wife and is currently a VP at Greyhawk Insurance, where he’s worked for 10 years. Before that he spent 26 years working in golf, including 12 as the director of golf operations at the Barton Creek Resort.

When it comes to housing and development, there is at least one issue where he disagrees strongly with a lot of urbanists. He is staunchly opposed to Lions Municipal Golf Course becoming anything but a golf course. “That’s the hill I’ll die on,” he says.

At the beginning of October Smith had raised $92k and had $55k on hand.

Kym Olson (website)

You’d never guess from Kym Olson’s campaign website that she was once an influential political insider.

The rambling “About Me” section, where she describes herself and her views, looks and feels like an early aughts Live Journal:

She describes the status quo in apocalyptic terms and denounces unspecified “projects” and “grandiose plans” that she says the current city leadership is pursuing at the expense of basic services.

“Health and public safety are both in a state of disaster,” she writes.

In an interview, she distinguishes herself from the field by saying that she is the only one talking about reforming Austin Energy and Austin Water to ensure the reliability of water and power. Olson, who lives in Bouldin, claims that there are “blackouts in my neighborhood every couple of weeks.”

Asked why she believes the outages are occurring, she replied, “I don’t know. Density?”

At another point in the interview, however, she suggested that the utility’s generation mix may be to blame, and believes customers should be able to choose to source their power from natural gas, which she says is more reliable than intermittent renewable sources.

But AE’s energy portfolio has nothing to do with whether you can turn the lights on. The utility’s energy generation is separate from its distribution business, which receives energy from the ERCOT grid and distributes it to local customers. The utility could shut down all of its power plants and people’s lights would still turn on.

She spent many years as a lobbyist at the legislature, working with a number of high-paying clients, including the Texas Trial Lawyers Association and oil and gas companies. A few years ago she joined the Texas State Guard, where she is now a captain and serves as assistant public affairs officer.

She concedes she hasn’t raised much money or done much campaigning, and says she was surprised to discover that other candidates would devote themselves to the endeavor full-time. She is working full-time at Camp Mabry.

Although she has only raised about $5.5k, she received a $50,000 loan from her sister, leaving her with $55k on hand at the beginning of October.

She’s a monumental underdog, of course, but at least one campaign veteran I spoke with believes she could perform unexpectedly well, especially given the crowded urbanist field. The miracle scenario involves Olson garnering the support of a good chunk of conservatives as well as a large number of uninformed voters who default to one of the two female candidates. In this scenario, Olson would sneak into second place with 15% of the vote amidst an extremely fractured field of liberals.

She concludes her case on her website thus:

“Let’s not be fooled by those keeping our eyes to these bright, shiny stars in the sky of futuristic visuals of a Jetson’s family reality. Let’s put a foundation down before building up further and before the house of cards falls. Vote for me, Kym Olson, rescue, restore, rebuild our city together. Bring back the peace, love and soul to our Austin community.”

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The pro-housing liberals running in District 9

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Because there are so many candidates in D9, I’ve decided to break the coverage into two articles. This first focuses on what I refer to as the four “prohousing liberals.” They may otherwise be referred to as urbanists. You can read about the three “less liberal” candidates here.

Ben Leffler (website)

On his website, Leffler lists his many connections to District 9.

Although he mostly grew up in Crestview, which is a tad north of the district, he was born in Cherrywood, where he currently lives with his wife and young child. He also went to UT (undergrad & a grad degree from LBJ), worked for a number of years at The Tavern at Lamar & 12th, worked for former Council Member Chris Riley at City Hall, and lived for five years living in Clarksville and for one in Hancock.

Leffler, 39, frames his view of the city’s housing crisis in terms of his own life. Austin’s former affordability allowed his middle class parents to raise four children in Central Austin; their incomes wouldn’t have supported a mortgage in Crestview today.

Even as a young adult he got a taste of a much cheaper Austin. He could afford to rent in Clarksville when he was working at the Tavern in the mid to late aughts. And the building itself –– an old house divided into four units, offered old lessons on the benefits of “missing middle” housing that guides his support for reforming Austin’s land use policies.

Asked what distinguishes him from the other prohousing libs, Leffler highlights his deep roots to the city and district, his perspective as the only candidate with a young child and points out that he’s the only one with experience working in a Council office. He only worked for Riley for seven months, but it still “taught me a lot and gave me an overview of how things get done at the city level.”

Asked how he plans to address Austin’s housing crisis in the face of political opposition and structural barriers, including the “valid petition” that has halted the rewrite of the Land Development Code, Leffler says that he believes there is actually strong support for reform.

“It doesn’t matter what neighborhood I’m walking, there’s a broad consensus that the status quo isn’t working,” he says.

He acknowledges there may be some reforms that aren’t possible without nine supportive votes on the dais, but thinks that nine votes may very well be attainable for some major changes to land use policy.

“You gotta count votes,” he says. “Depending on who’s in these seats in D9 and D5 and D3, we could have the most prohousing Council ever.”

He also believes that Council should not be deterred from action by the mere threat of a lawsuit from groups opposed to reform. It’s not entirely clear what the implications of the court rulings that have blocked the LDC rewrite are for a number of other land use changes, although anti-growth activists have tried to argue that essentially any change can be subject to a valid petition that would trigger the 9-vote requirement.

Leffler also views better development policies as a way to address the challenges the city faces in funding key services, including police, fire and EMS. Increasing housing supply would not only offer some relief to the high housing costs that are hammering public employees, but new development offers an opportunity for increased tax revenue that is not subject to the state-imposed revenue limits.

The other way to increase revenue, of course, is asking voters to approve an increase above the 3.5% limit, but Leffler doesn’t view that as realistic politically.

“I just cannot imagine the public supporting it,” he says. “That’s one of the top concerns I hear at the doors is property taxes.”

Leffler entered the final stretch of the election having raised the most money overall ($119k) and with the most on hand ($84k).

Zo Qadri (website)

Qadri was the first candidate to declare for this seat on Nov. 15 of last year. Everything about his candidacy –– the suit he wore to launch his campaign, the logo that draws inspiration from Liz Warren and AOC, the progressive lingo that infuses his tweets and speeches –– feels like it comes from a national race.

It should come as no surprise. Much of his professional experience comes from working on federal political campaigns. He worked as a regional organizing director for Warren’s presidential campaign in South Carolina and has done short stints for various Democratic groups: ActBlue, DigiDems, NEWCO Strategies. According to Linkedin, the year he has spent running for City Council is the role he has been in the longest.

But Qadri bristles as the suggestion that he lacks the necessary local experience or that this race is just a stepping stone to a higher office.

“I think we’re running a hyperlocal campaign,” he tells me. “All of our folks are from Austin. We’re doing all the organizing that we’ll do on the local level. I care about the city. I feel like Austin is a city that took me on as its own. It’s a city that I deeply love. I couldn’t live anywhere else. I wouldn’t run for anything else. For me this would be a stepping stone to re-election. After that I would like to go back to nonprofit advocacy.”

The 32-year-old lived the first 12 years of his life in the New York area before his family relocated to Victoria, Tex. His family move, he says, was partly prompted by increased intolerance towards Muslims following the 9/11 attacks.

He then came to UT for college and later got masters degrees from Texas State and Rice in public administration and global affairs, respectively. In the 13 years since he started college in 2009, he has spent all but three in the Austin area.

More than anyone else in the race, Qadri has branded himself as a progressive. He embraces the positions and language of the national American left on every issue: climate, policing, transportation, housing.

Like most other millennial progressives, Qadri believes that the housing crisis afflicting many large cities is at least partially the product of inequitable zoning and other land regulations that make it harder to build multifamily housing. He also believes Austin’s car-centric land use planning is bad for the environment.

So, what distinguishes him from the other three prohousing liberals?

He argues that his campaign experience is a plus, saying that it has given him insight into how to rally grassroots support for policies as well as candidates. He also points out that his is the only unionized campaign, “because we’re true to our values.”

He has also highlighted his heritage –– his parents immigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan –– as an asset. Austin has a rapidly growing South Asian population that has yet to be represented on Council. He would also be the first Muslim elected to Council.

“If there’s anything that comes of this,” he says, “it’s that I hope more people from my community get involved in politics.”

The most obvious critique of Qadri is his lack of familiarity with city policy. When I asked him what his thoughts were about holding a Tax Rate Election to go over the 3.5% limit, he was unfamiliar with the concept and asked for time to think about it.

Although he is stridently progressive, he says that he understands what it takes to speak to people who aren’t already convinced of his position.

“Not villainizing the other side is key,” he says. “The moment you villainize the other side, they close their ears and stop listening and that’s when communication ends.”

On Oct. 1, Qadri had raised $92.7k and had $35.5k left to spend. He has spent heavily in the early stages of the campaign on staff, a deviation from conventional wisdom about how and when to spend money for a Council campaign. We’ll see if it pays off.

Joah Spearman (website)

If there’s one thing Spearman, 39, wants you to know about his candidacy and campaign, it’s that it’s different. For instance, he says things like this:

He can also be unconventionally warm to his opponents, wishing them happy birthday or encouraging his followers to check out their campaign websites. And he’ll be publicly vulnerable in a way that few political consultants would advise:

His spending decisions are also highly unusual. While he has raised a respectable $82.5k, he only reported $6k on hand at the beginning of October, a fact he attributed to being busy with canvassing, rather than fundraising, during the summer. Some of his campaign spending is hard to understand, however. His campaign finance reports have shown spending on plane tickets to New York, Washington D.C. and Atlanta, all of which were described as “fundraising trips.” There is no indication that he has generated significant money from those trips, however, and he did not respond to requests for comment about why he made those trips and whether they paid off.

He distinguishes himself between the other prohousing liberals with both his upbringing and professional experience. For starters, Spearman, who was raised in Killeen along two brothers by a single mother, has the unique perspective of having experienced poverty as a child. Being the only Black candidate also offers him a distinct point of view on a range of issues in a city where African Americans now account for less than 8% of the population.

Above all else Spearman stresses his experience as an entrepreneur and community volunteer as making him the best choice for D9. He is the founder of Localeur, a service that connect travelers with recommendations from “local tastemakers.” He serves or has served on numerous boards, including AIDS Service of Austin, Austin PBS and the Zach Theatre. He was the vice-chair of the Austin Music Commission from 2010-13.

He believes that his links to the worlds of business, culture and government make him the ideal representative for a district where all three intersect.

“A lot of people come from government experience and offer solutions without fully understanding the ramifications,” he says. “Having run Localeur for nine years, having served on a bunch of nonprofit boards and city commissions, I can truly say that my understanding of Austin is largely shaped through the lens of someone who is deeply entrenched in District 9.”

Spearman also stresses District 9’s value to the city and region as a whole, not just to the increasingly fortunate few who can afford to live in Central Austin.

“As Austin grows, D9 is not going to be the place that houses everyone, but if a lot of the cultural assets are here, how do we get people in and out? Even if they live in Buda, so they can go to a restaurant, go to a show, then ideally take public transit home.”

That’s another thing: Spearman is currently living a car-free existence in Clarksville, where he lives with his wife, singer Angélica Rahe.

“If I’m elected, I’m biking and walking to work,” he says.

Spearman believes most Austinites intuitively understand the root of the housing problem: “I think the average Austinite understands that scarcity of housing drives up prices. That’s just basic economics”

He brushes away the idea that we need to achieve “consensus” on much-needed changes to land use policy.

“Consensus is not leadership. Consensus is a 3/5 compromise,” he says, invoking the notorious clause referring to slaves in the Constitution. “Leadership is people coming along and saying this is fundamentally wrong and we cannot continue a nation divided.”

Tom Wald (website)

Wald’s pitch is pretty simple: he’s the only one with the relevant experience. That’s how he explains his late entry to the D9 race this spring.

“I thought about running for City Council for a long time but I wasn’t certain about it,” he says. “Based on who’s in the race, none of them have substantial experience working on local issues.”

Wald, 47, grew up “just up I-35” in Minneapolis, but he’s been here since 1999. In addition to his work in nonprofit advocacy, he has had a number of roles in web development and sales.

At the beginning of October Wald had raised $36.5k and had $23k on hand.

Through his advocacy on mobility issues, most recently as head of the Redline Park Initiative and in the past as the executive director of Bike Austin, Wald says he has gained an understanding not only of how to get things passed on Council, but how of the myriad staff-level decisions that determine whether they are actually implemented.

“Having the community come out with different demographics and experience, helps to ensure that staff will move it along and also provides cover (to Council members),” he says, when describing how to push for progressive housing and transportation policy.”

Moreover, unlike many urbanist types, Wald actually has spent a lot of time active in his neighborhood association in Cherrywood. That experience has helped teach him how to build trust with residents with a variety of political views.

“People want to be heard,” he says.

Wald also points out that City Council itself isn’t the only important institution where Council members can an important voice. The Cap Metro Board and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) play a tremendous role in shaping the future of the city, and Wald has experience working with both.

As head of Bike Austin, he led a coalition that pushed for the inclusion of bike and pedestrian infrastructure on SH 71 between U.S. 183 ad SH 130. It was the kind of project where the highway-building establishment would rarely consider making meaningful space for walkers and bikers, but under pressure from activists, “CAMPO amended the project to include shared use paths.”

Indeed, it is at CAMPO that the city could most effectively influence the future of I-35.

“There is almost certainly going to be a vote (on I-35) at CAMPO in 2023 because the project is almost certainly going over-budget,” he says.

The city’s representatives on the CAMPO board and other city leaders need to put pressure on CAMPO and TxDOT to seriously evaluate alternatives, he says, including the most radical one: converting the highway to a boulevard through Central Austin.

“This is something I learned with my transportation advocacy – if you have a reasonable position on the table that won’t be accepted, you should still state it,” he says.

On taxing and spending, Wald is adamant that city employees need to be “paid what they’re worth,” which in many instances is much more than they’re currently getting paid.

When asked to balance the need to fund services with pressure to relieve taxpayers, he points out that the high property tax burden is a function of the state of Texas’ policy choices, including the absence of an income tax and a school finance system that has Austinites sending most of their school tax dollars out-of-district.

Nevertheless, there are likely opportunities for efficiency, he says. Programs should be periodically reviewed and “city government has a role in communicating the tradeoffs” of taxes and spending, he says. For instance, “What does it mean if we spend 1% more on city parks?”

And of course, it all comes back to land use: “Servicing sprawl is more expensive than servicing infill.”

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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.

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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.

Austin’s anti-abortion rule you’ve never heard of

This is a free sample of the Austin Politics Newsletter from Aug. 15, 2022. To get DAILY insights on city politics, click here to subscribe to the newsletter.

UPDATE: I need to address a couple errors in my article from yesterday.

In yesterday’s article on animal abortions at the Austin Animal Center, I mistakenly attributed a quote to Commissioner Beatriz Dulzaides:

“I don’t think there’s any more need for discussion. This is a longstanding policy, it’s worked and it’s fundamental to Austin being the largest safe city for animals in the country,” she said. “This is the heart of ‘No Kill.’”

The person who actually made the remarks was Commissioner Kristen Hassen.

Also, Commissioner Ryan Clinton pointed out on Twitter, there is not a blanket prohibition on animal abortions at the Animal Center, but rather the shelter is not allowed to spay animals showing visible signs of pregnancy without first trying to find an individual or rescue organization willing to shelter the pregnant animal and its future litter. I sincerely regret these errors.

The policy is still absurd. It equates animal abortion with animal euthanasia, and it still leads to an increase in the city’s population of orphaned animals.

For instance, Commissioner Paige Nilson, who is seeking to change the ordinance, recalled a recent instance of a parent and a child who look after a colony of cats near their home. They brought in three of them to be spayed but two of them showed signs of pregnancy and one was lactating, so the shelter told the people that they either had to take the cats back to the colony to have their kittens or they would be transferred to Austin Pets Alive to give birth.

Cats, by the way, are typically pregnant for about nine weeks but begin to show signs of pregnancy after about three weeks.

If we have a major surplus of dogs and cats at our shelter, and we have all accepted the premise that spaying and neutering animals to reduce the orphaned animal population is a good thing, then why should the city hesitate to terminate the pregnancies of stray animals?

Last week activists and medical professionals raised concerns about an uncompromising anti-abortion policy that has been in city code for over a decade. Their pleas to reverse the policy fell largely on deaf ears and even drew condemnation from members of the city commission they were addressing. The commission in question, whose members are appointed by Council members, voted decisively to keep the policy in place.

I’m talking of course about the Animal Advisory Commission’s debate over Section 3-1-26 (D) of the city code, which prohibits the Austin Animal Center from spaying a pregnant animal. Spaying a pregnant animal terminates the pregnancy.

CM Chito Vela’s appointee to the commission, Paige Nilson, a veterinarian, opened the conversation with photos of some of the 115 puppies and 158 kittens (under 6 months) currently at the shelter. There are an additional 41 puppies and 191 kittens in foster care.

She recounted instances of people who look after “community cats” being rebuffed by the shelter when they bring the cats in to be spayed. Instead of quickly spaying the cat and returning it to its habitat, the shelter holds on to the pregnant feline until it gives birth to a litter of kittens that now must be cared for.

Two cats up for adoption at the Austin Animal Shelter.

“I full support saving the lives of puppies and kittens,” Nilson said, “but saving the lives of puppies and kittens is different from being forced to allow pregnancies to proceed through labor and birth without being able to apply individual discretion to each scenario.”

She couldn’t find any other example of a shelter with such a policy.

Nilson’s comments were followed by those of two volunteers –– including one self-described “crazy cat lady” –– who look after colonies of feral cats. Both urged the city to allow abortions for pregnant cats.

Luis Herrera, a professional dog trainer appointed to the commission by Mackenzie Kelly, also endorsed abortions, saying that puppies born into stressful circumstances at the shelter often have serious behavioral problems.

None of this appeared to sway the majority of the commission and a couple members were offended by the very notion of allowing animal abortions.

Commissioner Ryan Clinton, a county appointee to the panel, called for the protection of “the animals in utero” and suggested that allowing abortions would actually aggravate the animal center’s space crisis. Currently, he said, a pregnant stray animal can be sent to Austin Pets Alive, which “supports saving the lives of those in utero puppies and kittens.” The nonprofit would not accept a spayed adult animal, he said, forcing the city shelter to lodge it.

“Repealing this ordinance is flying in the face of ‘No Kill’,” said Nancy Nemer, an appointee of the county commissioners court. “I can’t help but feel this is a knee-jerk reaction from the parties, including the Austin Animal Center, to try and reduce their responsibility in this whole overcrowding situation.”

Nemer added that the center is less crowded than it has been in the past.

Commissioner Kristen Hassen seemed similarly frustrated that the topic was even being broached.

“I don’t think there’s any more need for discussion. This is a longstanding policy, it’s worked and it’s fundamental to Austin being the largest safe city for animals in the country,” she said. “This is the heart of ‘No Kill.’”

The motion to recommend repealing the abortion prohibition failed, 4-7.

Are these pro-lifers vegetarians?

I’m sympathetic to the cause of animal welfare. I was a vegetarian for much of my childhood and for the past couple years I’ve been a pescatarian; I think the horrific conditions animals are subjected to in factory farming are indefensible.

And yet, it’s obvious to me that providing indefinite shelter to stray dogs and cats is not even close to the top priority of city government, especially when there are so many human beings without shelter.

What’s so odd about the politics of animal rights in Austin (and most of America, frankly) is that many of the same people who could never fathom giving up food that is the product of torture also believe that we should spare no expense to keep every stray cat or dog alive.

But while Austin’s no-kill policy probably isn’t grounded in a particularly coherent ethical framework, it probably reflects public sentiment. People aren’t willing to pull the plug on cats and dogs.

I can’t imagine, however, that most voters are against dog and cat abortions. I can’t believe I even have to say it, but City Council should repeal this prohibition. It’s bad on every level. It burdens city taxpayers with even more animals to care for and it ultimately undermines animal welfare by leading to overcrowding at the shelter. This is an embarrassment.

This is a free sample of the Austin Politics Newsletter from Aug. 15, 2022. To get DAILY insights on city politics, click here to subscribe to the newsletter.

Kirk Watson’s housing plan

This is a free sample of the Austin Politics Newsletter from July 21, 2022. To get DAILY insights on city politics, click here to subscribe to the newsletter.

Last week Kirk Watson unveiled his plan on housing. Let’s start with the good part:

A recent report revealed that  the City of Austin charges the highest development fees among all large Texas cities, by a significant margin. For example, for infill development, the City’s estimated fee is around $41,300 per unit, while the average estimated fee among other big cities is around $14,400. While Austin is facing a housing emergency, I believe we should designate projects under City review that will fill critical needs and temporarily cut development fees for those projects by at least 50%. If necessary to  prevent any negative impact on the development review process, we could utilize the City’s Stabilization Fund to fill any budget gap created by fee cuts.

Yes, Austin’s development review process is a disaster and the city imposes far higher fees on development than any other in the state. However, reform is much easier said than done. Many of these fees have environmental justifications and constituencies, such as the newly-implemented transportation impact fee and the parkland dedication fee. They absolutely should be reduced, but there will be resistance from the city bureaucracy, other members of Council and influential advocacy groups.

Credit: Wiki Commons.

Here are some other ideas that generally fall into “the right direction” basket:

  • Creating designated hubs of density – especially along transit corridors – where the City requires minimum development as opposed to setting limits
  • Proactively identifying greenfield and large underutilized commercial areas and facilitating the development of new housing, including by utilizing incentives
  • Reducing compatibility and reducing or eliminating parking requirements in targeted areas
  • Changing vertical mixed-use zoning to allow more height in exchange for more affordable housing units 
  • Streamlining the process of subdividing and developing or redeveloping larger single-family lots 
  • Changing City development rules to encourage construction of appropriate duplexes and Accessory Dwelling Units rather than McMansions on single-family lots
  • Creating incentives to convert office buildings into residential buildings, add housing to existing parking lots, and encourage employers to participate in building workforce housing
  • Creating a new City site plan process for simple projects that need less oversight

I’d like to see more details about reducing compatibility and parking. City Council already approved a modest reduction in compatibility on major corridors –– how much farther is Watson proposing we go? Same question on parking.

It’s hard to imagine he is actually going to propose further changes to VMU beyond what Council already established with its recent approval of VMU2. The best way to increase the use of VMU is to further ease compatibility standards.

Now for the really bad part

I have a hard time taking this seriously:

Comprehensive reform of our land development code has eluded Austin for more than a decade. In my view, the failure lies primarily with a “one size fits all” approach, which I see as a relic of our previous at-large system of  governance. When Austinites voted ten years ago to adopt a system of district representation, I  believe they were expressing a desire to localize decision-making, including decisions about development and housing policy. I propose that the best way to make progress is to stop trying to  force every Austin district to adopt the same type of code reforms, and instead allow each Council  member to bring forward a set of district-specific reforms:

Watson claims that efforts to comprehensively overhaul the city’s land development code is a “relic” of our at-large system.

No, absolutely not. It’s a recognition that the housing crisis is a citywide problem that every part of the city has a role in addressing. The problem with the at-large system was that every member was attuned to the grievances of wealthy and powerful West and Central Austin neighborhoods that wanted to wall themselves off from new housing. The promise of 10-1 was that it would finally deliver a Council that truly represents the whole city and is willing to respond to the needs of the many, not the few.

Now Watson is proposing allowing Council members to exclude their districts from accommodating growth. That is a recipe for more economic and racial segregation and more sprawl.

Under this proposal, CM Alison Alter, who is already hostile to reform, just gets to say that her uber-wealthy West Austin district doesn’t actually need to allow more multi-family or missing middle housing? We just accept that large swaths of town will become enclaves of the wealthy few who can afford multi-million dollar single-family homes?

State law already establishes a formidable NIMBY filibuster that allows just three members of City Council to block rezonings. Why is Watson proposing to lower the threshold further, allowing just one member of Council to obstruct housing.

Watson offers the NIMBYs a carrot

Now, the next part of his plan proposes to “incentivize” districts to do the right thing:

Those districts that adopt pro-housing code reforms should benefit directly from the new revenue  those reforms will generate in the form of an Affordability Annuity – a dedicated, ongoing funding stream that neighbors could choose to devote to local parks, pools, libraries, displacement prevention, rental assistance, or other initiatives. This is also a way to help ensure equity for those areas that provide more of the city’s needed housing stock than others.

OK. So let’s imagine that every district does the right thing and increases housing options.

But a new development in Central or West Austin is much more valuable and yields much more new tax revenue than a new development in Southeast Austin. So this threatens to balkanize infrastructure spending to the advantage of the areas of town that need it least.

I’m glad to see a mayoral candidate talk about the important role that new development plays in supporting public services. But Council needs to be able to use every penny of new revenue to address the city’s most pressing budget priorities, notably the staffing crisis it’s facing because the wages for public employees are not close to keeping pace with inflation + housing.

So how might district-based zoning be OK…?

It might be OK if we elect pro-housing Council members. For instance, at least four of the candidates running in Central Austin’s District 9 recognize the need for serious reform in the district. But at least one of them does not.

So on the whole I’m pretty pessimistic about district-based code reform.

It’s much easier for a middle-of-the-road Council member to endorse bold reforms on a citywide basis. If we reduce it to a district decision, it all of a sudden becomes a “planning by town hall” situation most likely driven by the same small group of incumbent homeowners responsible for the terrible neighborhood plans that got us into the mess we’re in now.

Walter Long? How about Muny?

Watson imagines a future Mueller on the city-owned land around Walter E. Long Lake, arguing that plans for it to be dedicated entirely to parkland are infeasible:

While the City completed a park Master Plan in 2019, the estimated cost of executing that plan was $800 million – not only an entirely unachievable budget but, I would argue, also now entirely the wrong plan. Given the housing emergency facing Austin today,  I believe we should change course at Lake Walter E. Long and instead pursue a vibrant, mixed-use, transit-oriented development that could help reshape our city’s housing future – and still create at least the second-largest park in Travis County.

I have a better idea. Instead of subsidizing sprawl east of US-183, how about developing Lions Municipal Golf Course? That land is much more likely to be truly “vibrant” and “transit-oriented,” since it is already served by bus service and within walking distance of existing businesses and amenities, including Austin’s highest-performing public schools.

I wish Watson would strongly consider that. I know that he sponsored legislation that allows voters in the area to approve a special utility fee that will pay to keep Muny either a golf course or public parkland, but “given the housing emergency facing Austin today,” I hope he recognizes that our priorities must change.

Watson responds to my concerns

I asked Watson by text to address my concern about neighborhoods blocking change. He responded:

One of my favorite Beatles song is “Something.” After years of accomplishing nothing on LDC reform, I’m offering some ideas to accomplish something and recognizing that we need to do these things in the context of our current form of governance. This doesn’t wall off any any area and, in fact, attempts to incentivize not doing so.

100% of those ideas will have obstacles to overcome and details to work out, including likely figuring out guard rails or ways to avoid/prevent unintended and unwanted consequences. But it’s time to have the discussion, and I look forward to it. I want to hear ideas for improvement that help make more progress than we’ve had.

I just don’t see this district-based approach as necessary at all. It overestimates the strength of the anti-growth coalition and presumes that we can’t get anything done without unanimous consent.

It’s true that there’s a lot we can do without overhauling the whole LDC, and much of that can be accomplished on 6-5, 7-4 or 8-3 votes, especially if there is a mayor who effectively uses the bully pulpit to push a pro-housing narrative.

It’s hard to know if district-based code reform is a serious proposal or if it’s just a campaign tactic aimed to appeal to growth-hesitant voters. Either way, it’s concerning that new housing in our best neighborhoods is being framed as an option instead of as a need.

This is a free sample of the Austin Politics Newsletter from July 21, 2022. To get DAILY insights on city politics, click here to subscribe to the newsletter.

Making office buildings pay for parks

This is a free sample of the Austin Politics Newsletter from July 13, 2022. To get DAILY insights on city politics, click here to subscribe to the newsletter.

In the past two years, parkland dedication fees on residential developments have doubled –– twice. An apartment developer who would have paid $1,538 per unit in 2020 now owes the city a whopping $6,428 per unit they build in a city that is desperate for housing.

City Council believes this is a problem, but not for the obvious reason. The problem, according to a resolution it approved in April and which the Parks Department is now developing into a new ordinance, is that the city isn’t squeezing enough out of developers.

Yesterday the Parks Department presented a proposed ordinance to the Planning Commission that would extend parkland dedication fees to commercial developments.

Traditionally, the rationale for requiring housing projects to dedicate parkland (either through land donations or fees-in-lieu) is that they are helping to mitigate the new demand on the parks system created by their residents. The city, according to Texas Supreme Court precedent, must establish an “essential nexus” between the impact of the project and the fee being charged.

In imposing similar requirements on commercial projects, the city is arguing there is an essential nexus between employees and demand on the park system. For instance, those who commute downtown for work are more likely to use parks downtown –– on lunch breaks, after work etc. Likewise, hotel guests are likely to use parks during their stays.

If the idea is that imposing these fees on commercial developments would allow the city to reduce fees on residential projects, that would be great. But that’s not what the Parks Department is proposing. Nor was there any talk of that in the resolution authored by Alison Alter that prompted the ordinance. None of the 33 whereas clauses in the resolution mentioned housing or affordability.

Here’s what they’re proposing to charge for commercial developments:

The fee-in-lieu is supposed to be used for acquiring new parkland within 2 miles of the project, while the development fee can be used to improve infrastructure in existing parks.

Commissioner Claire Hempel noted that a disproportionate of new commercial development is downtown –– does the city really expect to use all of the dedication fees to acquire new land in an area of town where there is very little vacant land and the land is obscenely expensive?

Alas, Parks staff explained that if they can’t identify an appropriate parcel within a year of collecting the fees, they can instead use the money to make improvements to existing parks in the area. Maybe repairing the slope failure on the Shoal Creek Trail, for instance?

Zilker Park. Credit: City of Austin

A couple commissioners voiced varying levels of skepticism about the formula, most notably Greg Anderson, who described the proposal as “borrowing a lot from the very broken residential formula.”

“I don’t believe the formula is broken,” responded Parks Planner Randy Scott. “I believe it is now beginning to reflect the actual cost that it costs the Parks and Recreation Department to provide land and park facilities for new residents that are coming to Austin.”

Scott argued that fees on new development only pay for about half of the cost of new parks. The rest, he said, is “subsidized by existing residents” through voter-approved bonds.

Hmm. Except the “new residents” (if we accept the false premise that all residents of new developments are newcomers) are also taxpayers who will be paying for the cost of those bonds.

In its analysis justifying the new commercial fee, the Parks Dept estimated that 58% of Austin’s workforce commutes from outside the city. But Commissioner Jeffrey Thompson noted that his wife, for instance, is an Austin resident who works for the Bastrop School District. The same is true of many of her colleagues. Did the formula account for people like her? No, said staff.

This is an important point that could undermine the city’s “essential nexus” argument. City data from 2017 indicates that 34% of Austin residents work outside the city.

Anderson warned that the city was on shaky legal ground and suggested it would prompt the state to take away its parkland dedication powers entirely.

“We know this is going to happen if we go down this route of not thinking this through well enough and coming up with this half-baked formula that’s already broken on one side,” he said. “We’re so good at adding fees, we’re still really bad at making responsible development easy to achieve in this city.”

Commissioner Grayson Cox, Alter’s appointee, was unsympathetic, saying he was concerned “that we’re underfunding our parks.”

“I think that the quickest way to make Austin cheaper to live is by dramatically reducing our quality of life, so that nobody wants to live here. So similar to our street network, our transit network, everything else is struggling to catch up to the growth that we’ve seen.”

Well, yeah. That’s a point I often make when people oppose investments –– private or public –– that they say will prompt gentrification. But the counter in this case is pretty simple: there’s a limit to how much we should make people pay for amenities if we’re charging so much for them that they can’t afford to use them.

Unwilling to act on the proposal yet, the Planning Commission ultimately voted to postpone until their Aug. 9 meeting. That may complicate things a bit for Council; according to Parks staff Council had wanted to have a recommendation by the time it starts taking up the annual budget on July 28.

The bottom line is that we need to consider the unintended consequences of these fees, whether they’re applied to commercial or residential developments. Driving up the cost of housing is obviously bad, but so is any fee or regulation that may encourage developers to build outside of the city, thus depriving us of desperately-needed new tax revenue and facilitating sprawl.

This is a free sample of the Austin Politics Newsletter from July 13, 2022. To get DAILY insights on city politics, click here to subscribe to the newsletter.

Why Austin’s density bonuses fail

This is a free sample of the Austin Politics Newsletter from June 6, 2022. To get DAILY insights on city politics, click here to subscribe to the newsletter.

Last week during a meeting of the Council Housing Committee, Council Member Ann Kitchen thrice made a point of declaring Austin’s 12-year-old Vertical Mixed Use density bonus program a success.

Let’s examine that claim.

The program was started in 2010 as a way to incentivize things that everybody says they want: affordable housing and walkable retail. The deal was that if a developer provided this stuff, the city would offer them an unlimited floor-to-area ratio and a big reduction in required parking, among other things.

The program was then offered to neighborhood associations as something they could choose to allow on their corridors. Some did, some didn’t. Properties that received VMU zoning retained their previous “base” zoning as well. So if the owner wants to redevelop the property, they can either take the VMU deal –– get the relaxed regs in exchange for the affordable housing –– or develop under the rules set by the base zoning.

According to a recent presentation by the Housing Department, there are 818 properties in the city with VMU zoning.

The figure that got a lot of attention last week was “34%.” As city planner Sam Tedford explained during the housing committee meeting, of the properties with VMU zoning that have redeveloped, only 34% of them actually took part in program. The other two-thirds just developed under their base zoning. At best that means that we got an apartment building without any affordable housing. But in many instances it means we got a gas station or a storage facility.

But that figure actually understates VMU’s failure. The number we should be talking about is 3.5%. That’s the percentage of VMU-zoned properties that have actually developed into VMU projects in the past 12 years:

These figures support what people in real estate have been saying for years: VMU is rarely a good enough deal to incentivize redevelopment because most corridor properties are sharply constrained by compatibility standards that limit building height.

So, back to the original question: Has VMU been a success? It depends what your priorities are.

For those of us who believe that Austin is in the midst of a housing crisis that demands urgent action, VMU has been an abject failure. For those of us who believe that building up is better than building out, VMU has been an abject failure. For those of us who believe in encouraging alternatives to driving, VMU has been an abject failure. For those of us who would prefer our corridors to be lively, walkable commercial hubs, VMU has been an abject failure.

But there are plenty of people in Austin, including at least four on City Council, who either do not believe any of those things or believe they are less important than maintaining a certain character or sense of stability in nearby single-family neighborhoods.

For those who feel this way, VMU is a success. It represents the “balance” they believe the city must strike between growth and preservation. They are not against new housing. They just don’t want too much too quickly.

You have to keep this definition of success in mind when evaluating Kitchen’s proposal for a new tier of the VMU program, VMU2, which would offer developers an additional 30 feet of height in exchange for more affordable housing. Based on a cursory review of market conditions, housing staff recommended requiring a certain percentage of income-restricted units. But Kitchen, based on nothing besides a belief that “it’s important for us to get affordable housing,” has proposed increasing the affordability requirement.

The outcome is predictable and reflects what happened with most of the city’s density bonus programs. Council approves a new program, touts its strong affordability requirements and then no projects participate in it and we get no affordable housing. But at least we stood up to those greedy developers!

This is a free sample of the Austin Politics Newsletter from June 6, 2022. To get DAILY insights on city politics, click here to subscribe to the newsletter.

Some new housing, maybe.

This is a free sample of the Austin Politics Newsletter from May 18, 2022. To get DAILY insights on city politics, click here to subscribe to the newsletter.

Yesterday Mayor Steve Adler and four Council members unveiled a proposed reform to compatibility regulations and parking requirements for projects located on “major” and “medium” transit corridors.

That the co-sponsors include two reliable members of the preservation bloc, Leslie Pool and Alison Alter, suggests that it could be approved with unanimous or near-unanimous support. Adler believes that it could be a rare example of the ever-elusive “consensus” that he has spent five years seeking on land use.

The problem, of course, is that this is barely reform. And there are definitely some pissed off members of Council who may refuse to support it because it does so little.

So let’s look at what’s proposed.

Which corridors?

The proposal targets two categories of corridors. The “major corridors” includes corridors that will be home to future Project Connect light rail routes or new MetroRapid bus routes as well as any highway. So it definitely includes N. Lamar, Guadalupe, S. Congress, E. Riverside, Burnet, S. Lamar, Menchaca. It probably also includes much of Airport Blvd; Pleasant Valley south of Webberville Rd; and some other parts of corridors, such as Manor and Springdale.

The “medium corridors” include any identified in the 2012 Imagine Austin comprehensive plan: S. 1st, William Cannon, Slaughter, MLK, Braker, Parmer, E. Cesar Chavez, Anderson Ln, Jollyville, Springdale, Cameron. I’m sure I’m missing some.

Compatibility

Currently height restrictions can be triggered if there is a property that is zoned for single-family within 540 feet. It can also be triggered if there happens to be a single-family home on a property that is not zoned single-family (that happens sometimes).

The proposal would reduce the maximum distance that can trigger compatibility to 300 feet.

For properties within 300 feet of a triggering property, the new rules would automatically offer 5 additional feet of height “by right” beyond what is currently allowed, whether it’s on a large or medium corridor.

Here’s how they explain it:

In the graphic below, the light green represents the existing height limit and the dark green represents the increase in “by right” height if the proposed new ordinance is approved.

The yellow in both graphics represents the additional height that will be allowed if the project is participating in an affordable housing bonus program.

This whole compatibility conversation was prompted by a proposal, floated by Ann Kitchen, to create a second tier of the existing Vertical Mixed Use (VMU) density bonus program. Under her proposal, dubbed VMU2, developers would get an additional 30 feet of height in exchange for offering even more income-restricted units than required by VMU. Critics immediately pointed out that few developers would take advantage of that program because they would not actually be able to get the additional 30 feet as long as compatibility regs were in place.

In theory, this proposal could offer a lot more housing if the bonus programs are calibrated (don’t require too much affordable housing) in a way that makes them attractive to developers.

The problem is that on large corridors you still need to be at least 100 feet away from a triggering property to be able to build five stories. On a medium corridor you need to be 150 feet away. To get to six stories you need to be 200 feet away on a large corridor and 250 feet away on a medium corridor.

The issue is not simply how close a single-family home is to the corridor property, but the depth of the corridor property. If you have a deep lot (like 300-400 feet), then you may have enough space to construct a building that is at least 100 feet away from the house that triggers compatibility. Lots this deep are rare though, and in most cases if you try to build the U-shaped apartment (with a courtyard/pool in the middle) that is considered the most economically efficient, the back of the building will be less than 100 feet away from the property that triggers compatibility.

This means that most corridor properties will not be able to get the height they need to make a mixed-use redevelopment economical, especially if a portion of the units must be offered at below-market rates.

Thus, the single-story uses that we should all agree do not represent the highest and best use of a corridor property –– auto shops, car washes, gas stations, a standalone fast food joint –– are unlikely to be redeveloped into housing anytime soon.

“If they’re trying to do something that truly unlocks density on the corridors, this isn’t it,” said one builder.

At some point, said the builder, those sites will redevelop, but probably not in the next decade and when they do, they’ll likely be two or three stories of extraordinarily expensive condos, rather than the large apartment complexes that we need to have an effect on the middle-class rental market.

Chris Randazzo, chair of the Real Estate Council of Austin, said this:

“While we appreciate that Council is finally taking up changes to compatibility and parking, we are far too deep in a housing and affordability crisis to take half-measures when it comes to increasing housing supply. Compatibility will still affect almost every property in the very places Council has said they want new development—in high-opportunity areas and on transit corridors. The best time for bold housing policy was 5 years ago; the second-best time is now.”

From worst to worst

The document that outlines the proposal includes a helpful graphic that illustrates just how extreme Austin’s compatibility regs are compared to other large cities:

But under the proposed new rules, Austin would still be the most restrictive in terms of “by right” height. For projects that take part in the affordable housing bonus, Austin would remain more restrictive than every other city on this list except Las Vegas. Here’s a graphic someone on Twitter put together:

The nine vote obsession

Discussing the proposal at Council work session yesterday, the mayor acknowledged that it didn’t go nearly as far as some would like but suggested it was the best outcome possible right now.

“This exercise is about trying to get as much done as we can get done –– to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” he said.

He later added, “It doesn’t have us in court for two years. People can start applying it.”

Adler is suggesting that whatever passes must pass with nine votes to protect against a valid petition.

I don’t think that’s accurate, but I can understand why Council members who are traumatized by Fred Lewis’s successful obstruction of the land development code might believe it.

The problem with the LDC rewrite was that the city did not notify property owners. The courts also ruled that owners have the right to protest (via a “valid petition”) the rezoning of their properties.

What is not clear from the rulings is if and how those petitions would trigger a requirement that Council approve the new code with a 9-vote supermajority. In a typical rezoning, the super-majority requirement is triggered if the rezoning is opposed by either the owner of the targeted property or those who own 20% of the land within 200 feet of it.

In this case, the owners of the corridor properties are very unlikely to be opposed to being able to build higher on their land. So they’re not going to be a problem.

So what would be necessary to trigger the super-majority requirement? The city attorneys’ current view is that you’d need signatures from those who own at least 20% of the land within 200 feet of all of the affected properties, which likely number in the thousands.

If Lewis et al want to spend the time and money trying to get all of those signatures, then Council should let them try.

Or let’s say that the city attorneys are wrong, and a court would in fact decide that if if there is 20% opposition for even one of the affected properties, then that property must be voted on separately. Fine. Lift compatibility for all of the others.

This is simply excessive risk aversion. The mayor should stop obsessing about the possibility of losing a legal battle and instead think critically about the probability of losing a legal battle.

This is a free sample of the Austin Politics Newsletter from May 18, 2022. To get DAILY insights on city politics, click here to subscribe to the newsletter.