Local NewsAustin Mayoral Candidates Spar Over Housing Policy

With its booming population, housing will be at the center of the next Austin mayor's policy focus.
July 29, 2022
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Austin’s booming population is at odds with its insular chic heritage. And as one gradually drowns out the other, the question of where to house those new transplants is top of mind for the city’s politicians.

This month, the housing issue advanced to the front of the City of Austin’s mayoral race, leading to one candidate invoking the historically controversial practice of “redlining.”

Former State Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), and mayor of Austin from 1997 to 2001, unveiled his housing plan.

“I worry that if we fail to act with urgency, we risk watching our beloved city transform from a diverse and inclusive place of opportunity into a homogenous playground for only the very wealthy,” he wrote.

Housing is no small issue for the mayoral contenders. Watson, state Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin), and former city council candidate Jennifer Virden each highlighted cost of living as an issue of high importance when they announced their candidacy. But the race is now to the point that detailed plans are driving the debate, rather than mere critiques of the status quo.

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Watson outlined six overarching proposals aimed at alleviating the city’s developing housing issue:

  • Start the city’s development review process over from scratch;
  • Temporarily reduce the city’s exorbitant development fees;
  • Allow council districts to adopt different building code policies, starting with council members bringing forward their own district-specific rezoning plans;
  • Create a financial incentive for neighborhoods that adopt code reforms that facilitate more housing development;
  • Form a Central Texas Housing Partnership, a collaborative of the city’s local governments and quasi-governmental entities;
  • Construct a housing development around Walter E. Long Lake, an undeveloped reservoir in Northeast Austin.

Upon release, Israel lambasted Watson’s plan as “a return to redlining.”

“The most troubling part of Kirk’s proposal is his plan to give each council district the right to veto changes they deem undesirable, from apartments to duplexes,” she wrote in a letter to the editor published in The Austin Chronicle.

“Kirk’s response to community blowback is to argue ‘something’ is better than nothing, but, in reality, his plan bows to the old guard and doubles down on the same willful ignorance that’s pricing working families out of our city.”

Watson responded by clarifying his original language, specifying that individual council members’ plans would be brought before the whole body, not passed on the whims of one member.

“Most importantly, I did not say or mean that under our proposal Council members would or could ever have the ability to unilaterally impose code or zoning changes on their district, or to unilaterally prevent citywide reforms from being adopted in their district (i.e., have a “veto,” as some suggested),” he added.

He further said that it’s not his intention to suggest any neighborhood be allowed to “wall itself off” from zoning changes, just that “every district should have to adopt some baseline of reform that increases housing options.”

“Redlining” was a practice, first enabled by the federal government in the early 20th century, in which mortgage lenders or similar companies withheld their services from communities highly concentrated with racial minorities.

Austin has a strict zoning code protected by a fortress of bureaucratic red tape among other barriers. A now decade-long project to reform the city’s zoning code — dubbed “CodeNext” — has hit obstacle after obstacle. The latest roadblock is a ruling by an appeals court that Austin broke procedural rules in revising its Land Development Code.

The ruling is a setback for the city’s attempt to inject more multi-family dwellings into single-family-home predominant neighborhoods.

Watson’s blueprint is an effort to pare back those obstacles that are stretching thin Austin’s ability to expand.

Israel’s plan, released back in June, holds some similarities to Watson’s:

  • Reform the development review process to ease the process of constructing smaller multi-family dwellings, different that 300-unit apartment towers;
  • Use publicly held land to build “workforce housing”;
  • Enable more public transit-focused housing, using Project Connect’s planned pathways as a blueprint;
  • Incentivize the construction of “accessory dwelling units,” aimed at facilitating elderly housing on the properties of their children;
  • Provide housing subsidies to renters since “rent control and other stabilization tools are banned by the state legislature;
  • Hire a “Development Ombudsman” that reports to the city manager.

“Housing and affordability remains our biggest challenge as a city and we cannot delay on moving forward given the urgency of the moment,” reads Israel’s website. “In doing so, we must acknowledge the powerful interests who have embedded a culture in city government that protects the status quo.”

The third candidate, Virden, also wants to cut into the bureaucratic red tape of the permitting process. She aims to:

  • Truncate review timelines closer to preferred industry standards;
  • Create a “one-stop shop” for reviews rather than forcing Austinites to traverse over a dozen city departments;
  • Simplify fees, setting them based on size of the development;
  • Isolate different steps of the Land Development Code revision, rather than passing the entire plan as one bulk item;
  • Set a goal of adding at least 145,000 new housing units;
  • Reduce the average size of plots and houses for single family units;
  • Enable the construction of more “townhomes, duplexes, and accessory dwelling units”;
  • Reduce the minimum parking requirement to one space per unit.

Virden has spent much of her life and career in the housing industry and currently owns a real estate and construction business.

But something Virden touched on that her opponents did not is reducing property taxes. Property taxes in Texas have long driven costs for building, purchasing, and maintaining homes. While cities account for a smaller portion of total property tax bills, dwarfed by school districts which account for over half, the City of Austin has frequently increased property taxes.

“I am the only mayoral candidate who will address other factors contributing to the rising cost of living in Austin,” Virden told KXAN, “like people’s rising property tax bills they are getting amidst 40-year high inflation.”

“The housing issue in Austin is complicated with many driving factors — growth, supply and demand, labor and material costs, regulatory red tape, and property taxes.”

Its planned 2022-2023 budget increases property taxes by 3.5 percent, the highest increase possible without voter approval. However, those caps have not stopped the council from placing bonds on the ballot for its voters, many of which those voters have overwhelmingly supported.

The largest of those recent bonds was the 2020 Project Connect, an expansion of light rail throughout the city. Voters approved partial funding for a roughly $7 billion project in 2020, but the total projected cost has since exceeded $10 billion before it even breaks ground.

On the November ballot along with the mayoral race is a $350 million housing subsidy bond, approved by the council this week.

Austin officials are desperate to solve the city’s housing dilemma. While the foremost factor is the sheer number of people moving to the city, there are multiple issues that long predate the influx.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.

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