Austin mayoral candidates clash over housing policy

Austin’s booming population is at odds with its chic island heritage. And as one gradually drowns out the other, the question of where to house these new transplants is a priority for city politicians.

This month, the housing issue rose to the forefront of Austin’s mayoral race, leading one candidate to invoke the historically controversial practice of “redlining.”

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

“I fear that if we don’t act urgently, we risk seeing our beloved city transform from a diverse and inclusive place of opportunity into a homogenous playground for the very wealthy,” he said. -he writes.

Housing is no small issue for mayoral candidates. Watsonstate representative. Celia Israel (D-Austin), and former City Council candidate Jennifer Virden each highlighted the cost of living as a matter of great importance when announcing their candidacy. But the race is now at the point where detailed plans fuel debate, rather than mere critiques of the status quo.

Watson describe six overarching proposals to alleviate the city’s developing housing problem:

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

Upon his release, Israel castigated 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 said. wrote in a letter to the editor published in The Austin Chronicle.

“Kirk’s response to community backlash is to say ‘something’ is better than nothing, but in reality his plan bows to the old guard and doubles down on the same willful ignorance that excludes families from workers in our city.”

Watson responded by clarifying his original language, stating that the plans of individual council members would be presented to the whole body, not handed down at the whim of any 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 prevent unilaterally enacting city-wide reforms in their district (i.e., having a ‘veto’, as some have suggested),” he added.

He further stated that it was not his intention to suggest that a neighborhood be allowed to “insulate” itself from zoning changes, but simply that “each district should adopt a basis for reform that increases options of accommodation”.

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

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 encountered obstacle after obstacle. The last roadblock is a decision by an appeals court that Austin broke procedural rules by revising its land use planning code.

The decision is a setback for the city’s attempt to inject more multi-family housing into neighborhoods dominated by single-family homes.

Watson’s plan is an effort to reduce the barriers that limit Austin’s ability to expand.

Israel’s plan, published in june, holds some similarities with Watson:

  • Reform the development review process to facilitate the process of building smaller multi-family dwellings, different from 300-unit apartment towers;
  • Using public land to build “workforce housing”;
  • Enable more transit-oriented housing, using planned Project Connect trails as a blueprint;
  • Encourage the construction of “accessory housing”, intended to facilitate the housing of the elderly on the properties of their children;
  • Offer housing subsidies to tenants since “rent control and other stabilization tools are prohibited by the state legislature;
  • Hire a “development ombudsman” who reports to the city manager.

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

The third candidate, Virden, also wants to reduce the bureaucracy of the authorization process. She Goals at:

  • Truncate review times closer to preferred industry standards;
  • Create a “one-stop shop” for exams rather than forcing Austinites through more than a dozen city departments;
  • Simplify fees by setting them according to the size of the development;
  • Isolate the different stages of the revision of the Spatial Planning Code, rather than passing the whole plan into a single element;
  • Set a goal of adding at least 145,000 new homes;
  • Reduce the average size of plots and houses for single-family units;
  • Allow the construction of more “townhouses, duplexes and secondary suites”;
  • Reduce the minimum parking requirement to one space per dwelling.

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

But something Virden has addressed that his opponents haven’t is lowering property taxes. Property taxes in Texas have long driven the costs of building, buying, and maintaining homes. While cities account for a smaller portion of total property tax bills, eclipsed by school districts which account for more than half, the city of Austin has frequently raised property taxes.

“I’m the only mayoral candidate who will address other factors contributing to the rising cost of living in Austin,” Virden said. Told KXAN, “like people’s rising property tax bills they’ve been getting amid high inflation for 40 years.”

“Austin’s housing problem is complicated by many driving factors – growth, supply and demand, labor and material costs, regulatory bureaucracy and property taxes.”

Its planned 2022-2023 budget raises property taxes by 3.5%, the largest increase possible without voter approval. However, these caps did not prevent the council from placing bonds on the ballot of its constituents, many of whom were overwhelmingly supported by those voters.

The most significant of these recent bonds was Project Connect 2020, a citywide light rail expansion. Voters approved partial funding for a roughly $7 billion project in 2020, but the projected total cost has since outmoded $10 billion before it even launched.

On the November ballot with the mayoral race is a $350 million housing subsidy bondapproved by the board this week.

Austin officials are desperate to solve the city’s housing dilemma. Although the main factor is the number of people moving into the city, many problems predate the influx.

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