The three clear frontrunners — former state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), state Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin), and 2020 council candidate Jennifer Virden — grappled over housing policy, public safety, Project Connect, homelessness, and property taxes.
Watson, considered the pack leader due to his fundraising prowess and long tenure in elected office both as a legislator and former mayor, repeatedly touted his “proven track record” as an official. Israel made housing affordability her biggest pitch, saying, “This is about who can afford to live here and who gets to make decisions.”
Virden likened her two opponents to the current mayor whom each hopes to succeed: “We cannot take another chance on another Steve Adler, a Kirk Watson, or a Celia Israel.”
The two most galvanizing issues of the past three years in Austin — homelessness and the city’s relationship with its police department — were much discussed. The state legislature passed two bills last year in direct response to actions by the City of Austin.
Texas approved a statewide public camping ban countering the city’s year-plus experiment in unregulated public camping, as well as a law punishing cities that make cuts to their police departments; Austin cut and redirected $150 million from its police budget in 2020.
Austin officials have made it a dye marker goal to house 3,000 homeless Austinites in three years and planned $500 million in spending to accomplish it, a target the city is $93 million short of.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been thrown at the homelessness problem over the last few years, with large chunks going toward purchasing and renovating abandoned hotels and motels. Every candidate on stage said that endeavor should be abandoned except for Watson, who said it could be a part of the response but not the feature.
“The City of Austin has proven itself inept to deal with anything regarding homelessness,” Virden said. “We need to audit all of our homeless expenditures, find the disconnect and then start from there. We need to hit pause until we figure out how we’re going to address mental health and substance abuse facilities. That is the most important thing we can do for our homeless population.”
She then said the camping ban must be fully enforced “without exceptions” and that the city must end all incentives attracting individuals to live on the streets.
Watson concurred that the approach needs a reevaluation.
“We’ve been given an all-or-nothing [option]: either you can camp anywhere you want, or hotels and other permanent housing,” he said. Watson seconded the camping ban enforcement call, adding that intermediate housing options along with mental health services need to be expanded.
Israel said it could be revisited but should move forward. “Housing is a human right, and we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” she added. Israel also objected to describing the city and its policies as a “magnet” for homelessness.
On the other big issue, Virden was just as pointed, saying “It’s the mayor and city council’s responsibility [for the current relationship with APD].”
“If we do not have good morale at APD then it’s going to make it very difficult to attract officers.”
The Austin Police Department (APD) is in a staffing crisis, hemorrhaging tenured officers over the last few years and struggling to replace them. As of July, APD had 259 patrol vacancies, and to fill those gaps the department has reassigned specialty units, including in the homicide division, to patrol shifts. On top of that, the 911 call center is also suffering from staffing issues leading to drawn-out wait times.
Voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposition last November to establish a minimum staffing threshold of two officers per 1,000 residents — a figure the city has not reached in years.
“Everybody in Austin has a right to be safe and to feel safe,” Watson said. “And that’s whether it’s 2:00 in the morning and somebody’s breaking into your house or if you’re a person of color and your car is stopped and you’re being approached.”
Watson called for a fully staffed department along with continuing the internal reforms to change the way APD polices the community.
Israel said that officers should not have to be “acting like social workers,” and if they must, need training to cope with that.
One of the second-tier candidates, Gary Spellman, took aim at the mayor in his response to the question about police staffing.
“First off, let me apologize to every single Austin police officer for the mayor falling asleep at a funeral,” he said, referring to the image of Mayor Steve Adler asleep earlier this month at a memorial service for Austin police officer Tony Martin, who died in a car wreck last month. Adler later apologized.
“If you look at why we’re in the situation we are right now, it’s because the city council and our mayor do not like their police. And that’s made obvious to everyone.”
Another significant portion of the debate focused on Project Connect, the $7.1 billion light rail expansion project that has now ballooned to at least $10.3 billion. In 2020, voters approved partial funding for the project through a 20 percent city property tax hike to be spread out over decades.
Not a single shovel has yet broken ground on the mass transit project, and the moderators asked the candidates if its approval should be revisited.
Israel rejected the suggestion: “The voters spoke loud and clear.” Watson said the project should be “scrubbed” and ensure the project becomes what was promised, while Virden called for a re-vote now that the project’s realities are clearer.
Project Connect goes hand in hand with the central theme of Austin politics at the moment: the city’s vast population growth.
It’s causing longer commutes and more congested roads, driving costs of living upward, and making it increasingly difficult to purchase a home.
Many places in Texas are facing growth problems, but Austin’s facing it on steroids with over nearly 200 people moving here per day and a rigid zoning code that some abhor, and others safeguard.
The current council has moved forward with items such as a $350 million housing subsidy bond on November’s ballot — for which each top-tier candidate except Virden expressed support — and a $1,000 per month Universal Basic Income pilot program.
But both of those address the output of Austin’s housing issue, not the input driving it. For years, the city has tried to reform its strict zoning code to no avail. Back in March, a court ruled that the CodeNext changes approved by the city council a few years ago circumvented public notice requirements — which generated 14,000 protests by citizens.
Asked for one change they’d make to the zoning code, Watson said he hopes to facilitate more conversions of office buildings into housing units. Israel wants to enable the construction of more multi-family units, especially in typically zoned-off single-family unit neighborhoods. Virden said that the minimum lot size should be reduced.
Each of these suggestions is aimed at creating more supply to assuage the surging housing demand. Read more about the candidates’ housing policy proposals here.
The rezoning issue is so contentious because it bears out the city’s inherent clash of interests, as Austin is simultaneously very progressive and very affluent. Those living in single-family neighborhoods are often loath to see multi-family units built in their communities; apartment buildings are associated with higher chances of crime, a claim at least somewhat backed up by a University of Arkansas at Little Rock study.
And zoning restrictions, especially among progressives, are seen as unfair, unjust, or even racist. One of the second-tier candidates, college student Phil Brual, even said, “I-35 itself is a racist highway and it was used to segregate this city.” Watson criticized past practices, long done away with, of allowing industrial construction in or near housing zones, which he called “a racist vestige of the past.”
Virden turned to another issue, property taxes, as a cost of living contributor she hopes to reduce or eliminate.
As currently constituted, Austin’s code limits the potential for new housing supply, which contributes to the high and rising cost of living in the Texas capital.
The winner of this race will serve for two years and will be back on the ballot in 2024 due to last year’s decennial redistricting. If no candidate eclipses 50 percent on November 8, there will be a runoff one month later.
Early voting begins on Monday, October 24.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and 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.