Proposed bond proposal severely neglects bike infrastructure

Two weeks ago City Council, after being lobbied intensely by active transportation activists, asked city staff to come up with a bond to fund pedestrian and bike infrastructure. The advocates had asked for $750 million, but everyone assumed that city staff and Council would settle for a smaller package. 

The $250 million presented on Thursday by Gina Fiandaca, the assistant city manager who oversees mobility, is a major disappointment. I’m less concerned about the total figure than I am about the woeful neglect of bike infrastructure, the investment with the greatest potential to produce mode shift.

As you can see above, there’s only $18M for “bikeways.” The $23M for urban trails certainly counts as bike infrastructure, but even if we consider this $41M for bike infrastructure, it’s still not nearly enough to create the “All Ages & Abilities Bike Network” that was envisioned in the 2014 Bicycle Master Plan. (The idea of the AAA system is creating enough protected bike lanes and urban trails that people of any age and skill level would feel comfortable biking around town)  

In her memo, Fiandaca says the proposed bike investment will get the city to 62% buildout of the AAA network by 2025. Boo! The 2014 plan called for 80% buildout by 2025. 

The city should at the very least be meeting the modest goals that were set during a much more conservative era of city politics. The Bicycle Master Plan was adopted during the last year of the at-large City Council, whose members were elected in very low turnout May elections dominated by older voters.

The moral imperative
City Council is making the right bet on Project Connect, recognizing that 2020 likely offers the best opportunity to get a generational investment in public transit approved due to the anticipated high turnout from liberal voters seeking to oust Trump. This is despite the fact that many voters will likely be wary of approving a tax increase during a recession. 

But it will take years before Project Connect bears fruit. It will be at least eight years before we get the light rail and likely several years before we get some of the smaller improvements, such as new MetroRapid bus lines. 

In the meantime, we can still make big progress on offering people affordable, safe transportation. The way to do that is through bike infrastructure! It’s extraordinarily cheap and can be done extremely fast. The cost of building a world-class bike network in Austin would barely register on the average homeowner’s tax bill.

There’s simply no excuse for a “progressive” city to not make space on its major roads for bikers. In fact, there’s no excuse for any city, regardless of its politics, to forgo such a practical investment.

For the millionth time, this is not about supporting the lycra-clad cycling hobbyists who own $10,000 bikes. This is about opening up our infrastructure to those who can’t or don’t want to spend thousands of dollars a year on a car. According to AAA, the average true cost of a new car is nearly $9,300 a year. According to Edmund’s, even a six-year-old Carolla will cost you $5,000 a year. In contrast, you can get a bike for practically free. Indeed, bikes are a common sight at homeless encampments.

The pandemic, which has forced people to spend more time outside, is a great opportunity to accelerate bike infrastructure. We’re also in the midst of a major economic downturn, during which a modest investment that will provide a tremendous good to those with the least should be a no-brainer. The construction projects, which can kick off immediately, will also create jobs. 

The activists who pushed for the $750M bond requested $47 million for on-street bike facilities and $123 million for urban trails. Together, these funds should be enough to realize the AAA bike network.  

What about capacity? 
Fiandaca is clearly not super-stoked about a big active transportation bond and is trying to keep it as small as possible. There are a couple potential reasons.

First, Fiandaca has noted that the city has a stated financial policy not to seek approval for new bonds while there is still a certain amount of funding from past funds that is unspent. Indeed, virtually none of the transportation bond funding that was approved in 2018 has yet been spent. This is linked to a lack of necessary staff as well as a tight market for contractors. Projects are struggling to attract bids. 

This is not an insurmountable challenge. First, the labor market over the past two years has likely been tighter than it will be in the next couple years. Second, Council can help out by adding some transportation staff. Indeed, boosting transportation staff to help oversee the deployment of infrastructure, much of which is aimed at reducing roadway fatalities, is a legit way to use “public safety” funds freed up by APD cuts.

Staff used this “capacity” argument in 2016 as well. Council responded by telling them to add staff as necessary. This cannot be an ongoing excuse. We’re a major city trying to build basic infrastructure –– we need to do what it takes. 

You can’t wait till 2022 
2020 is the best opportunity for a game-changing investment in ALL alternatives to cars. Simply put, whether or not Trump goes down nationally, we can count on a huge liberal-leaning turnout in Travis County this November.

It’s much harder to predict what the electorate will look like in 2022 or 2024. If Trump pulls off another miracle victory then perhaps 2022 will be another Democratic wave election, like 2018. Likewise, if Biden wins, then 2022 may be GOP-friendly, since midterms tend to favor the party out of power and Dems will be asleep at the wheel again. 

This is the best shot. Council should approve at least another $100 million for bike infrastructure, focusing on bikeways and urban trails.

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A look at potential APD cuts

Council members have been floating APD budget cuts. In some cases, it’s hard to know what the actual savings will be from a specific cut. But here’s what city budget staff said yesterday in a meeting with the Council Public Safety Committee. 

  • Cancelling all three FY21 police academy classes: $5.1 million in one-time savings    

(Each class produces an average of 65 new officers and costs about $2.3 million, mostly to pay the officers-in-training. Some of the savings would come in FY22, however, since the class is 7 months long) 

  • Eliminating 80 vacant positions: $10 million in permanent savings

The city manager’s proposed budget would eliminate about 80 positions, but if these are the savings we’d get if we eliminate the rest of them. 

  • Overtime budget: $12.9 million

This is the total amount budgeted for FY21. About half, $6.3 million, is for patrol officers. Some of that is for cops who are dealing with a call that goes past the end of their shift or are called to testify in court. It’s hard to eliminate that, explained Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo. But most of it ($5.1 million on avg) is for “patrol backfill,” in which officers are working extra shifts due to department vacancies. 

Wait, so APD is relying on overtime because it doesn’t have enough cops? That’s certainly what the department would say. And they would point to the staffing plans endorsed by past Councils, based on at least two different consultant reports, as evidence that they don’t have enough cops. Activists, and at least some Council members, are challenging those assumptions and arguing that we simply don’t need as many cops per shift. Hence, we don’t need to fill the vacancies or spend so much on overtime.    

Another $2.6 million is reimbursed overtime when outside contractors or agencies will pay APD to provide security. The city does not save any $ by eliminating this. Then there’s $2 million of overtime for special events, $1.5 million of which is for SXSW. And there’s $1.3 million for civilian employees dealing with forensics or emergency communications. 

This graphic, put together by Van Eenoo, shows the number of projected department vacancies over the next year in the city manager’s budget (blue) compared to the number if Council eliminates all current vacancies and all three cadet classes. You can see that under Cronk’s plan, the number would drop in May, when the November cadet class would graduate.

But focusing on vacancies can be misleading. What really matters is the overall number of cops. This graphic shows the difference between the two scenarios.

Pretty straightforward. By September of next year we’ll have 70 fewer cops. What this graphic doesn’t show, however, is the difference between the two scenarios a few months later, when the planned March and June 2021 classes would be expected to graduate. If the city cancels those two, the police force would likely include 200 fewer cops than under the city manager’s proposal.    

APD functions that could potentially move to other departments in medium-term: $68.7 million
After highlighting a number of relatively small APD duties that could be eliminated relatively quickly, Van Eenoo focused on some bigger functions that some have argued should be moved out of APD. 

Strategic Support: $18.4 million
Communications: $17.7 million
Support Services: $14.1 million
Forensics: $12.8 million
Victim Services: $3.2 million
Community Partnerships: $2.5 million

He noted, however, that it’s not clear where this stuff should go. Should it be part of a new standalone department? Or should some of them be moved into existing departments? At the very least, he hinted, it’s not something that could be done in the next few months. 

Even longer-term transitions out of APD: $51.7 million
Unlike many of the medium-term changes listed above, many of these functions are currently performed by police officers. Figuring out who will do traffic enforcement seems like a much heavier lift than, say, transferring a counselor who works with sex crimes victims out of APD and into a new department. 

Traffic Enforcement $17.8 million
APD Training $10.7 million
Parks Police $5.9 million
Internal Affairs $4.5 million
Special Events $4.5 million
Recruiting $3.6 million

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The NIMBY-in-Chief

It’s been surreal to see single-family zoning become one of the president’s favorite subjects. It still ranks well below FAKE NEWS, confederate monuments and mail-in voting on his Twitter feed, but he’s given it a fair bit of attention in recent weeks. The WaPo reports: 

The next night, in a “tele-town hall” aimed at Wisconsin voters, Trump went further, saying that Democrats could “eliminate single-family zoning, bringing who knowsinto your suburbs, so your communities will be unsafe and your housing values will go down.”

Then there was this:

And this:

Trump’s histrionics have been warmly embraced by other conservatives at Breitbart, the National Review, the New York Post and Fox News. And no, the fact that self-proclaimed champions of the free market would support severely restricting property rights is not the least bit surprising; the principal political debate in this country has rarely been about whether you’re for or against big government, but rather which constituencies you want big government to serve. Many people, consciously or not, believe that keeping undesirables out of your neighborhood, whether that’s minorities, the poor, college students, or children, is a proper preoccupation of government. 

Not all of those people are conservatives, of course. In Austin and many other big cities, most of them identify as progressives. It’s not unusual to see a home with two yard signs standing side-by-side: one proclaiming that Black Lives Matter and another imploring city government to prevent the construction of housing that people of lesser means depend on. 

In 2015 the Obama administration implemented a new rule to the Fair Housing Act that required local governments that receive HUD funding to document and report on any barriers to housing that may exist in the community (i.e. zoning). The administration also published a “housing toolkit” for local governments. It stressed the importance of eliminating or reducing zoning regulations that discourage more affordable forms of housing. It specifically called out minimum lot regulations, a sacred cow in Austin. 

A number of times I asked liberal neighborhood association leaders, Planning Commission members and City Council members how they squared their support for the zoning restrictions that their beloved president said was a segregationist scourge. I think it was relatively easy for them to bat the question away. After all, just because they supported Obama doesn’t mean they have to agree with him on everything. Plus, if you are someone who believed that Obama got rolled by big banks and other industry interests, it wouldn’t be that hard to believe that his housing policy had been similarly poisoned by real estate developers. Above all else, it wasn’t something that Obama talked about that much. 

In the years since, however, housing policy, which has long been largely absent from national political discourse, has started to get more attention. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, hardly anyone’s idea of industry stooges, unveiled housing platforms that identified exclusionary zoning as an enemy of equality. Here’s what Joe Biden’s platform says: 

Exclusionary zoning has for decades been strategically used to keep people of color and low-income families out of certain communities. As President, Biden will enact legislation requiring any state receiving federal dollars through the Community Development Block Grants or Surface Transportation Block Grants to develop a strategy for inclusionary zoning, as proposed in the HOME Act of 2019 by Majority Whip Clyburn and Senator Cory Booker. Biden will also invest $300 million in Local Housing Policy Grants to give states and localities the technical assistance and planning support they need to eliminate exclusionary zoning policies and other local regulations that contribute to sprawl. 

Of course, none of this puts nearly as much of a spotlight on the issue as Trump. There’s nothing worse than sharing a position with Trump, particularly when he’s characterized the position in nakedly racist terms. 

This could be a major opportunity for pro-housing activists and politicians. For years they have struggled to convince people that the seemingly populist fight against “developers” is in many instances actually elitist and regressive. Now, however, the evil developer in the White House is the one supporting single-family zoning while national progressive icons like Warren and Sanders oppose it. And then there’s the largest protest movement in U.S. history focused on racial inequality. 

So far, however, I’m not seeing much evidence that local pols are seizing the opportunity. In their defense, they’ve got a lot on their plate: the city budget, potential plans to reimagine public safety and Project Connect. But land use intersects with all of those things. Restrictive zoning creates the sprawl that has undermined public transit and furthers the economic/racial segregation that produces inequality and crime. If not now, when?

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Spencer Cronk did not cut $11 million from APD

When City Manager Spencer Cronk unveiled his budget last week, he touted an $11.3 million cut to the police department, which he framed as a response to the demands from activists and City Council to “reinvent” public safety.

Media outlets, including yours truly, noted that that cut far short of the $100 million cut demanded by some, but didn’t think to question whether the $11.3 million figure was accurate. Why would it be? A source suggested I actually look at the budget. 

If you look at the lower right corner, you’ll see the difference between the budget approved last year and this year’s proposed budget. The difference is a whopping $154k. Less than the cost of two officers.

What gives? Here’s the explanation provided by a city spokesman: 

The base budget for each department is forecast each Spring. For APD it included cost drivers such as the 2% wage increase and the 30 officers called for in the 5 year Police staffing plan. The $11.3 million cut was from the FY21 base budget that existed prior to Council passing the two resolutions.

So $11 million wasn’t cut from the police budget. Rather, Cronk has proposed a police budget that is $11 million smaller than what he planned on proposing a few months ago.

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A baffling COVID claim by Austin’s top doc

Yesterday multiple media outlets reported on a claim made by Dr. Mark Escott, the interim director of Austin Public Health, in a presentation to the Travis County Commissioners Court. Escott, discussing the risk of re-opening schools, said that we should assume that 70% of the students would become infected and that that could lead to between 40 and 1,300 student deaths. 

Time out. Let’s consider some statistics. Here is the age distribution of COVID-19 deaths from the CDC about a month ago, when the U.S. had already hit over 100,000 deaths. 
That shows 24 deaths for those under age 15 nationwide. And yet we’re supposed to believe that just in the Austin school district we could have scores or hundreds or thousands of youth deaths? 

You know all of those idiots who say that the coronavirus is no worse than the flu? Well, if we were just talking about kids, they’d be right. In fact, the flu appears to present a much greater risk to minors than COVID-19. 

Check out this chart from the CDC. I’m sorry if the numbers are blurry. Notice how many more deaths there are in the two columns on the far right for the youngest age groups. 
Today, in a press conference involving a number of public health officials, Dr. Jason Pickett, who was filling in for Escott, defended the projection, saying that the sheer number of AISD students made the high death toll plausible. 

Both Escott and Pickett said that the case fatality rate for minors could range from 0.03 to over 1%. That is a range so wide as to be useless, but I cannot believe they are really suggesting the rate could be over 1%. The case fatality rate for COVID-19 is not even 1% for the general population. 

What makes this extra frustrating is that there are actually very serious concerns about re-opening schools. There could be a big risk to staff and to the families of students. I think they’re right to hold off on re-opening at this time. But raising the prospect of mass death among students is irresponsible and will make it much harder for the community to make a rational decision about when schools can be re-opened. 

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Is the Tesla deal worth it for Austin?

Tomorrow the Travis County Commissioners Court may vote to grant Tesla major tax breaks to set up a massive manufacturing facility in eastern Travis County. Tesla already secured a much bigger tax break from the Del Valle School District, but it is also seeking breaks from its county taxes. 

This is a big deal. This could be an opportunity for thousands of good-paying jobs that don’t require college degrees — something that will be particularly welcome as we try to claw our way back from a recession that has disproportionately impacted low and middle-wage service workers.

Like many (perhaps most) other corporations, Tesla is run by an entitled narcissist who gets what he wants by bullying and lying. That’s certainly a relevant factor when assessing Tesla’s stated commitment to being a good community partner, but it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. I’ll take good jobs from a bad person. 

Tesla’s mega-douche CEO Elon Musk. Credit: Wikicommons

What we’re offering Tesla 
The original proposal was that Tesla would get an 80% property tax rebate for the first ten years and a 65% rebate for the next ten. That has since been restructured to now say: 

70% rebate for the first $1.1 billion invested
75% rebate for investment between $1.1 billion & $2 billion
80% rebate for investment beyond $2 billion

I assume Tesla plans on investing more than $2 billion and this is therefore a vastly improved deal since it will guarantee the company an 80% tax break in perpetuity. In a memo, county staff defends the new proposal: 

If Tesla invests the original amount ($1.1 billion) the restructured deal is essentially a wash with the original proposal; above that amount is a net gain for the community, both in terms of jobs and economic activity, and fiscal gains for the County.

What we get in return
County staff has estimated that the Tesla property will generate $8.8 million in tax revenue for the county over the first ten years of the deal assuming a $1.1 billion investment. However, the total could be much higher if the investment and the corresponding land value is higher.

Whatever happens is certainly a marked improvement from the $6,400 a year that the county is currently getting from the unused property. However, we shouldn’t be comparing what Tesla offers compared to what the vacant land offers. We should be comparing Tesla’s offer to what that land could offer. In other words, what is the chance that, if not for Tesla, one or more other employers would occupy the land in the near future?

It’s unlikely that another use would rival Tesla in size and jobs, but it might still be something that generates more tax revenue than the vacant land. What’s the opportunity cost to the county of putting a 70-80% property tax break on that land forever? 

Tesla has agreed to “build a road that serves as a flood evacuation route for the residents of Austin’s Colony,” the residential area to the east.

But I don’t see any discussion of what the likely impact of the factory will be on the surrounding infrastructure. In addition to the thousands of car trips that the employees will add to nearby roads, notably FM 969 and FM 973, the constant arrival and departure of trucks transporting parts and vehicles will no doubt be a burden on the roads, which are not cheap to repair. 

Workers rights
Tesla has committed to paying all workers $15/hr. But I don’t see any language that would prevent them from getting around this requirement via contract workers. Although there is language about construction worker pay, there should also be provisions to ensure that other workers who are likely to be contracted (food service, maintenance, custodial) are paid a living wage. 

Finally, you know that if it were City Council Tesla were dealing with, Greg Casar and others would be putting pressure on the company to take a “neutral” stance in response to union organizing and not try to discourage workers from unionizing. Even better, the company could agree to voluntarily recognize the union once more than half of the workers sign a union card, as opposed to forcing a secret ballot election. The concessions contractors at the airport, for instance, agreed to such a deal. 

So far there has not been a similar push from the sleepy commissioners court. Tesla’s representatives have skated around the question of labor relations by stating that it’s up to workers whether they want to unionize. No shit. That’s the law, which Tesla has a history of disregarding

The near total absence of unions in Texas is not a good thing. It’s a very bad thing that contributes to our high poverty rates and nation leading rate of worker deaths. “Progressive” local governments should do what they can to help workers get a seat at the table. 

City Council needs to get serious about Project Connect

Transitways – Envisioning Possible Center Lanes
A light rail rendering, courtesy of Cap Metro.

Even when it looked like Trump had a good shot at reelection, there was little doubt that turnout in Travis County would be through the roof. If there was ever a year to put a progressive wishlist on the ballot, it was 2020. 

Which is why leaders at both City Hall and Cap Metro were confident that Project Connect, the proposed generational investment in public transit, would easily win voters’ approval in November. Even if it meant voters had to approve a significant 11¢ property tax increase (about $360/yr for median homeowner). After all, most young people don’t (directly) pay property taxes. 

I still think voters will approve Project Connect. But it’s not clear whether City Council members believe so. In fact, it’s not clear what City Council members think. There’s no evidence that the most consequential transportation policy in a generation has crossed any of their minds in recent weeks. 

In their defense, they are distracted by the greatest public health crisis in a century and the largest protest movement in American history. But Austin’s desperate need for mass transit also needs immediate attention. This is not a niche issue; it is one that strikes at the heart of all of our most pressing issues: affordability, mobility, climate change and economic/racial segregation. 

Why this can’t wait until 2022
Some political and business leaders who were initially supportive of Project Connect will be tempted to say that, due to the extraordinary circumstances of the moment, we should postpone action until a future election. Maybe 2022. After all, the centerpieces of Project Connect — the 2-3 light rail lines — likely won’t be built and ready to go until 2027 if the funding is approved this November. So what if they aren’t built until 2029? 

The problem is, there is unlikely to be another election as favorable to mass transit and tax increases as 2020. In a hyperpolarized political environment, the key to success is picking an election where there are as many Democratic voters — particularly young and low-income Democrats — at the polls.

The party that holds the White House, which in 2022 will likely be the Dems, typically performs poorly in midterm elections. That is particularly true for Democrats because youth and minority turnout is VERY low in midterms. Indeed, this dynamic helps explain the GOP wave elections in 2010 and 2014, which have erroneously been interpreted by pundits as a rejection by “swing voters” of Obama but were in reality simply a result of low turnout among young and minority voters. Yes, the 2014 rail bond suffered due to sincere opposition from some transit activists, but it likely would have passed in 2016 or 2018 simply due to increased Dem turnout. 

In other words, the only way the 2022 will be a good year for a major transit bond is if Trump happens to pull off another victory this year, setting us up for another blue wave midterm. 

Don’t wait for polling. Shape the polling
It’s 36 days until City Council will decide exactly what, if anything, to put on the ballot in November. Do we go for the whole thing? Do we cut the project down a little to bring the cost down? Do we propose a less scary financing mechanism? 

Unfortunately, the powers-that-be are waiting for polling to tell them what to do. This is a recurring theme since Reagan: Democrats follow public opinion, while Republicans shape it. 

While City Council and Transit for Austin, the business-backed group founded to support Project Connect, are sitting on their hands, transit opponents are kicking into gear to shape opinion on the issue (see below in News Around Town). 

As is the case for housing, the surge in progressive activism over the last few weeks offers an amazing opportunity for public transit advocacy. Sure, there are plenty of people who turned out for Black Lives Matter protests who won’t see the connection between public transit and racial injustice, but many others will if they’re presented with the evidence. Car-based transportation systems were built with racial and economic segregation in mind. Nowhere should that be better-understood than in Austin, where only a few weeks ago protesters were tear-gassed on the same highway that has historically separated white Austin from black and brown Austin. 

Many of the powers-that-be backing Transit for Austin likely are much more comfortable making arguments and congestion and economic development than economic and racial equality, but they shouldn’t be the ones speaking anyway. The leaders on City Council and activists in the community are much better messengers. 

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Can Austin’s exclusionary zoning survive Black Lives Matter?

Over the past month, every local elected official has fallen over themselves to stress their commitment to fighting systemic racism.

So why aren’t we talking about abolishing single-family zoning? 

By many accounts, Austin is one of the most racially and economically segregated metro areas in the U.S. The most popular explanation focuses on the legacy of Austin’s very first comprehensive plan, in 1928, which created the infamous “Negro District” in East Austin.

Passage from 1928 plan. H/T David Whitworth.

Many other neighborhoods, both before and after the 1928 plan, were built with “deed restrictions” that stated that the properties could only be sold to whites. The most famous example is Hyde Park.

An advertisement for Austin’s first suburb, Hyde Park.

As court rulings and civil rights legislation gradually chipped away at explicitly racial housing restrictions, cities across the country, including Austin, found other ways to keep white neighborhoods white. 

It was made all the easier by the fact that African Americans, very few of whom had any generational wealth and most of whom continued to be denied opportunity for good jobs, tended to be much poorer than whites. Therefore, they were far less likely to be able to own or rent a large piece of property. 

Hence single-family zoning, which essentially creates an income floor for a neighborhood. If you can’t afford a 3-bedroom house, you’re not welcome. 

A large swath of West Austin shows the great majority (yellow) is currently zoned single-family.

In case single-family zoning alone wouldn’t keep the poors out, the city also put in place other rules that created de facto wealth restrictions for neighborhoods. The most glaring example are minimum lot sizes. The 1928 plan recommended 5,000 square foot minimum lot sizes, although the city appeared to ignore that, instead implementing a 3,000 sq ft minimum a few years later, in 1931. Ten years later it was raised again to 3,500 sq ft and finally, in 1946, it was raised to its present level: 5,750 sq ft.

Plenty of families would be willing to accept a smaller piece of property in order to be near good schools, parks and all the other things that characterize Austin’s most expensive neighborhoods. But if you can’t afford 5,750 sq ft, you’re out of luck. The code says you belong elsewhere. Historically, “elsewhere” was the east side. Now it’s Pflugerville, Manor, Elgin and Bastrop. 

Granted, supporters of the status quo will say that they are not opposed to different forms of housing, including small and large multifamily developments. They just need to be on corridors. The loud, dangerous streets where most people with money don’t want to live anyway.

Exclusionary zoning is racist. But not all of its defenders are
Many of today’s proponents of exclusionary zoning are not motivated by racism or class snobbery. Many of them are simply attached to the current aesthetic of the neighborhood and worry that allowing more or different types of housing in their neighborhood will bring more traffic, noise etc. Many of them do not appreciate how their position leads to economic and racial segregation. Some of them are people or color or facing serious affordability pressures themselves. 

There’s also a tremendous amount of confusion about zoning because the people most often requesting changes to the zoning code are profit-motivated developers. The housing that developers are building is always more expensive than whatever already exists in the area, so many people seem to think that if we just don’t give developers what they want, the affordability problem will go away. 

In fact, most of the expensive housing that is being built is at least partially explained by our segregationist zoning code. When you’re only allowed to build one house on 5,750 sq ft, you’re going to build the biggest, most expensive house possible. If you were allowed to build four units on that lot, the resulting product would probably not be cheap, but it would be cheaper and accessible to a greater percentage of residents than the McMansion. 

We’re seeing that dynamic at play at the Grove at Shoal Creek, the massive development at 45th St and Bull Creek Rd. The neighbors who bitterly opposed the development four years ago probably feel vindicated when they look at the prices on the gigantic homes being built there. But those gigantic homes are the logical outcome of the unit cap that the neighbors demanded. If we had allowed the developer to build twice as many homes, we would have seen them drop in size and price. 

Looking at you, City Council
If we are to take the statements City Council members have made over the past month seriously, there’s no way they can defend maintaining segregationist zoning. If they all acknowledge that the zip code you’re born in hugely impacts where you go in life, how can they justify policies that keep the best zip codes out of reach for so many Austin children? 

At this point many of you are rolling your eyes and telling me that of course we shouldn’t take their statements seriously. “Equity” to them is about uncontroversial and largely toothless actions: change some street names, hire a diversity consultant etc. 

Perhaps, but then again, just a few weeks ago it would have been unfathomable to imagine every City Council member committing to cutting funding from the police department. It’s far from clear that that will amount to much either, but it at least signals a profound shift in the policy conversation. 

The momentum created by what is potentially the largest protest movement in U.S. history offers a unique opportunity for housing supporters on Council to make big strides on behalf of housing justice. Natasha Harper-Madison, Council’s only black member, also happens to the most adamant supporter of land use reform. The three other minority members of Council, all of whom represent majority-minority districts with large low-income populations, are allies. The four CMs who have blocked reform also happen to be white people from West Austin. As I stated before, opinion on this issue is hardly dictated entirely by race and class but in this instance the optics are deeply unfortunate for supporters of the status quo. 

Earlier this year Council voted 7-4 in favor of a new code that didn’t go nearly far enough but at least made some progress on new housing. The code is now tied up in court after a judge ruled that, essentially, Council needs nine votes to approve it. 

If they’re seriously committed to building a more equitable city, Ann Kitchen, Leslie Pool, Kathie Tovo and Alison Alter need to rethink their position on land use. More importantly, the other seven need to put pressure on them to do so. 

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What did Austin City Council do to the police dept?

After hours of public testimony Thursday night, City Council took a series of unanimous votes on resolutions calling for a reimagining of public safety in Austin. Among other things, they called for the elimination of certain police tactics and weapons, the shifting of funds from APD to other public safety strategies and changes to police training. 

But as Delia Garza said towards the end of the meeting, “These are easy votes compared to the ones coming.”

It’s far from clear what the outcome of these resolutions will be. Don’t be distracted by the headlines around town claiming that Council voted to “divest” from the police. In terms of funding, the only rock-solid direction to the city manager is that he should not prepare a 2020-21 budget that adds police positions. But considering how awful the fiscal situation is due to COVID, he probably wasn’t going to do this anyway. 

There is another line telling the city not to fill any vacant police positions that can’t be “reasonably” filled in the next year. The department reports it currently has 142 vacancies just in sworn positions (people with badges and guns) but there are also vacancies in civilian roles. If all of those positions are actually taken away from APD, and it’s not clear that they will be, that would be a nice chunk of money. I’d guess the average per-year cost of a cop position (salary + benefits) is near $100,000, so maybe $12-16 million. 

Otherwise, the language leaves a lot of wiggle-room for city staff and Council to leave things largely the way that they are. It tells the city manager to “explore options” for reallocating APD roles to other departments. It’s not hard to imagine this direction being ignored entirely by staff, especially if Council doesn’t continue to apply pressure in the coming weeks as staff begins to craft the budget. 

The problem is, despite the unanimous votes, the message from Council actually isn’t that clear. There is a wide range of appetites of reform on the dais. Casar, Garza, Harper-Madison and Flannigan appear willing to support a dramatic reallocation of funding to other programs. Alison Alter, who has been a critic of APD spending long before this, may even be up for more radical change than one might guess. But for the other Council members, it’s hardly clear what kind of change they’re willing to support. 

What is Cronk thinking?
Last night both Alter and Garza expressed disappointment in City Manager Spencer Cronk for his aloofness over the past two weeks. 

“Your silence has been deafening to me,” said Alter. “You are the leader of 13,000 employees and we do expect you to take initiative for critical issues, especially when the lives of citizens are in jeopardy. We provide you direction but nothing precludes you from taking action.” 

True to form, when pressed by Alter about what changes he has discussed with the chief or what changes will be made, Cronk responded in substance-free bureaucratese.

I also have been frustrated by Cronk’s principled refusal to never answer a question, but some City Hall insiders suggest that the fault for his indecision lies with Council. While a number of CMs have called for Manley to go, a majority have not made a clear statement. The mayor, for instance, has not spoken to the issue. So what is Cronk supposed to do with that? 

Moreover, Cronk’s job is harder than Council’s. If he fires the chief, he needs to find a new one. In the midst of a pandemic that will likely make it much harder to do the typical national search that typically precedes these high-level appointments.

Sure, he could appoint an interim chief, but is that person will likely be another APD veteran cut from the same cloth as Manley. A loyal soldier who will not be an agent of change. This is a problem.

For what it’s worth, I still think that Manley’s position is untenable. It’s simply not respectable to the community to let the repeated errors go unpunished. That’s a terrible message to send. 

Remember who put Manley in the position? 
After Chief Art Acevedo left at the end of 2016, Manley took over as interim chief. He was in the interim position all throughout 2017 and the first months of 2018.

I can’t remember exactly what was taking the city so long to search for a new chief, but I do recall the Public Safety Commission instructing City Council to do a full national search and not to simply elevate Manley to the position. I remember one member of the commission, Preston Tyree, suggesting that that might be a waste of time and money and to just stick with Manley. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said. 

Chris Harris, the criminal justice reform advocate who was not a member of the commission at that point, replied that there were many in the community, particularly black and brown people, who didn’t agree that the status quo wasn’t broken. 

City Council, however, showed very little patience in doing a national search. At least two CMs — Delia Garza and Leslie Pool — called on the city manager to forgo the process, citing his conduct during the Austin bombings. That demand got no pushback from anyone else on the dais. Cronk obliged and Council unanimously approved him as chief. 

Garza, to her credit, acknowledged last night that she was a big supporter of Manley’s at the beginning. She also conceded that her views on public safety policy have evolved over the years. 

Indeed, the fact that Council’s posture on public safety has changed so radically in the last couple weeks is another reason why staff may still feel reluctant to implement dramatic change. It’s hard to know how sincerely committed Council members are to change considering that few of them pushed back on increase to the police budget in recent years. Some of them may have had a genuine change of heart as a result of the protests, but some may just be posturing in the short-term. Time will tell which one it is. 

This is just a small sample of what you get every weekday if you subscribe to the Austin Politics Newsletter

What good are Street Impact Fees?

A lot more people are out and about than a few weeks ago, but this was Congress Ave just north of Ben White at 8:30 a.m. That certainly doesn’t look like pre-COVID rush hour. 

COVID cases surge in Austin
Travis County experienced its two highest one-day totals for new COVID cases on Monday and Tuesday, with 118 and 164 new cases, respectively. The previous one-day high was 88 on June 1. 

The good news is that this has not been accompanied by a surge in hospitalizations so far. There are currently 91 hospitalized, 36 of whom are in the ICU and 26 are on ventilators in the five-county metro area. 

Could this be due to a surge in people getting tested after attending protests? Austin Public Health director Mark Escott says that’s probably not the big reason because it often takes a week for people to get test results. 

Unanimous support on Council for police reform resolutions
City Council’s discussion yesterday on police reform showed no signs of disagreements between Council members. At the very least, it appears that the resolutions scheduled for Thursday that call for reforms to use-of-force policies and shifting funds from APD to other public safety strategies will encounter no resistance. 

Alter says APD needs new leadership
Council members have used different words to make the point, but by my count Alison Alter became the fifth Council member to call for APD Chief Brian Manley’s resignation or demotion. She came to the conclusion, she said, after re-watching the chief’s responses to questions from last week’s meeting over the weekend. 

“We need to breathe new air into a department that time and time again has come short,” she said, highlighting the mishandling of sexual assault cases, APD’s response to the protests, use-of-force incidents, and the Tatum Report, which alleged that officers were afraid to report misconduct within the department. 

She added: “This is really difficult for me to say, but I feel that at this point in time, we need different leadership of our public safety department.”

She suggested that a resistance to “cultural change” at the department was an issue not just for Manley, but for Rey Arrellano, the assistant city manager who oversees APD, and for Troy Gay, the #2 at the department. 

Nobody on Council responded to Alter’s comments, which came at the end of the meeting. The mayor’s office declined to comment when asked whether he believed Manley should resign. 

What good are Street Impact Fees? 
Over the last four years City Council has been exploring the idea of implementing Street Impact Fees. SIFs are a fee that is levied on new development to pay for the road improvements made necessary by the project. Specifically, they are calculated based on the number of car trips that the project is anticipated to add to the existing infrastructure. 

The city already forces developers to pay for the impact their projects have on infrastructure through a convoluted “pro rata” system. However, the money the city collects from those payments can only be used for streets that are directly impacted by the project. 

A universal SIF would be different. The city could use the fee revenue on any projects that boost vehicle capacity within a six mile radius. Thus, the idea is that the city would be split into 17 districts, and the fees levied on a project could be used for a project in its district. 

The problem is, state law requires that SIFs only be used to expand car-carrying capacity by building new roads, expanding existing roads, improving access management or improving intersections. 

You can’t use a SIF to build an urban trail, a bus stop or a standalone bike lane. You can, however, use SIFs to build new sidewalks and bike lanes that are part of a project to boost roadway capacity. And at least according to an ATD spokesperson, that could include upgrading an existing bike lane from unprotected to protected. 

Could they incentivize good things? 
Driving up the cost of housing to build more car lanes is definitely not my idea of good policy for Austin. So my inclination is to view this potential change as worse than the status quo. 

There are some ways the outcomes could be less bad than expected, though. The SIF policy proposed by a task force envisions a number of ways that developers could cut their fees, including by offering some affordable housing or things that discourage car use, such as bike racks, bike lanes, on-site showers (for employers). Mixed-use developments could also be eligible for a discount.

Fees could vary dramatically by area
The fees would differ between the 17 districts based on the roadway capacity needs. Below is the anticipated median fee that would be levied for a single-family home by district. You can see it would be nearly 7x higher in Southwest District K than in Central District I. 
The good thing is that the fees go down as the units go up. Below, for instance, are the estimated median fees that would be levied per unit for duplexes and other “missing middle” multifamily. 
For larger multifamily projects, the per-unit fee would be even lower. See below. 
What’s important to remember is that the fee is only supposed to be levied based on the cost of the demand that will be generated in the next 10 years. The fee is not supposed to account for the current unmet demand or demand that is generated more than 10 years from now. 

If the city really wanted to, it could levy fees that would generate up to $1.8 billion over the next decade, staff estimates. However, the proposal that is being floated does not imagine charging the maximum allowed by state law, but about 35% of the max for residential projects and 50% of the max for commercial projects. And then there are the discounts that developers can qualify for. Taking all of that into account, staff estimates the fees will generate $285 million over a decade, only a sliver of the estimated $1.2 billion of current demand for new road capacity. 

It doesn’t seem like this is getting any pushback on Council but a lot of developers, particularly infill builders, are worried about the costs and say this will drive up the cost of housing. 

Below is another set of hypothetical projects and how they would be impacted by the new fees compared to the status quo. The IFAC Recommendation is what Council will likely be considering. 

Lax behavior, lack of masks tied to surge in COVID cases say officials: Escott said the reopening of businesses alone is not the reason for the increase in positive tests. Also, because of it can take a week or more to receive results after getting tested, Escott said the recent spike in new cases can’t be tied to the social justice protests that began in the final days of May. Any infections that arose from the protests would be reported later this week and into next week, Escott said.“Quite frankly we also have an increase in risk-taking behavior,” he said. “People are less cautious, they’re not wearing masks as much, they’e not social distancing as much, and there not paying as close attention to personal hygiene messages like washing your hands frequently and not touching your face.”

We’ll see what things look like a week from now, after protesters start getting their results back. Q&A with Austin’s largest apartment builder: Journeyman Group President Sam Kumar said his company will probably build at least 600 fewer apartment units in Austin this year than it had initially planned.Despite that, the company is still projected to have 2,100 apartment units under construction this year, he said. That’s about the same or slightly more than Journeyman built last year.


Fires under I-35 left homeless with nothing. Volunteers stepped up: “During the riots, all my stuff got burnt up. My mattress, my tent – all that stuff got burnt up,” he said. “So, [I’m] starting all over – again.”Howard said he’s been living under I-35 for four months. When the protests outside APD headquarters got heated May 30, he decided to leave.

What’s interesting is that everybody seems to agree there is nothing lower than burning a homeless man’s mattress and yet many of us believe that person should be ticketed/arrested and have his belongings confiscate