Discretionary decisions drive incumbent bias

The 2024 City Council campaign season has begun! This post is about zoning but before we get there, let’s review some information about the upcoming campaigns.

There will be 6 seats on the ballot: Districts 2, 4, 6, 7, 10, and Mayor. The 9 candidates who received donations received a total of roughly $283k, or about $31k per candidate. Neither of the mayoral candidates received donations.

Vanessa Fuentes2Yes$45,767
Chito Vela4Yes$63,030
Mackenzie Kelly6Yes$41,431
Krista Laine6No$15,936
Edwin Bautista7No$240
Adam Powell 7No$12,062
Mike Siegel7No$57,219
Marc Duchen10No$12,430
Ashika Ganguly10No$35,036

There’s some obvious patterns here: incumbents ($50,076) received more than challengers ($22,153) on average. Not a surprise: incumbents are people donors know are serious about running to win, while some challengers are still proving themselves, making connections, or not campaigning very hard.

The details of the reports show a striking pattern: the three incumbents received an average of $17,725 from employees of just two firms: Armbrust & Brown ($23,575) and Endeavor Real Estate group ($29,650). The incumbents received on average $17,725 from these two firms. Armbrust & Brown is one of the most high-powered law firms working on complex developments like the Q2 soccer stadium while Endeavor works on some of the most complex Austin developments like the former Statesman site. These two firms, representing a combined 19% of all donations this quarter and 35% of donations to incumbents, are far-and-away the most generous employers. The next-highest employer is Austin Habitat for Humanity, with $1,925, all from a single individual. They also present a hurdle to all challengers: you step into each race knowing not only that voters and donors know the incumbent better, but that they get a headstart from a quick fundraiser.

Why are these two firms giving so much to every incumbent and none to challengers? It’s certainly not because of partisanship: Fuentes and Vela are Democrats, while Kelly is Republican. It’s also not ideological in a land use sense either. Fuentes and Vela are reliable votes for major land use reforms like allowing triplexes or ending parking mandates, while Kelly voted against both measures. I also don’t believe there’s any kind of shady quid pro quo going on here, where the incumbents are sitting around in a smoke-filled back room agreeing to vote for a particular project in exchange for campaign donations. My experience with Austin politics is that all players take incredible care to follow the rules and beside, City Hall doesn’t allow smoking.

For both Armbrust & Brown, and Endeavor, their business models rely on winning discretionary government approvals. While a typical building project (say, rebuilding a house) requires only that staff certify the developers followed the rules, there are no off-the-shelf rules for completing complex projects like a soccer stadium or the redevelopment of the Statesman site. For example, both projects will have transit stations on them. The amount of funds these two firms gave are large in the context of campiagn funds and small in the context of a mega-development. Being known for giving that money to every incumbent who answers the phone and negotiates with you in good faith can help assure that you will at least be able to have conversations about your project, whether or not you get the votes to achieve passage.

I don’t think there’s much to be done about the fact that mega-projects are inherently political and discretionary. But the same principle applies to projects on a much smaller scale. In addition to megaprojects, every time a project requires a rezoning, a PUD, a variance, or similar, it involves a degree of discretionary approvals that not only add time and costs to the development, but that push our political system from one where voters decide based on issues to one where applicants decide based on the need for access. It’s just one more small negative ripple effect from not allowing enough development to meet demand without discretionary approvals.

2024 Austin Policy Wishlist

I apologize for the short five-year break in posting! I’ve been keeping busy with a job that now requires me to work during the hours they pay me for, a volunteer gig at Texans for Housing, and a full-time parenting gig. But let it never be said I abandoned you for more than five years, so here goes my list of top Austin urbanist policy targets for 2024!

Unfinished business

City Council has already laid out a ton of plans for 2024. Here are some of the ones I’m most excited for.

HOME Phase 2

Leslie Pool with lightning surrounding her.
Dark Leslie gathering her powers.

Leslie Pool has evolved into the most influential and far-seeing Council Member in quite some time. Her HOME Phase 1 allowed more duplexes and triplexes, rolled back limits on roommates, and fixed a handful of other issues in code. HOME Phase 2 builds on this, allowing more small houses on small lots.

Address the lawsuits

Desk as seen through flaming hoop.
Artist’s rendering of procedures Travis County judges believe Austin should follow to allow new housing.

Recently, a Travis County judge decided Texas’ procedural rules should be interpreted differently than they ever have been before or than they are interpreted anywhere else in the country. This oddball logic threw out three city ordinances: one reducing the distance that single-family houses can interfere with other zoning districts, one allowing more apartments near shops, and another allowing more apartments near shops but in a different way.

Fortunately, all of these measures remain popular with the vast majority of Austinites and Council Members so we should be able to jump through whatever hoops the judge says we need to jump through. And, hey, we have a couple years of data on their usage, so we might even be able to improve on them. Thanks Judge!

New business

More and Better Student Housing

An apartment complex with a large bike rack in front.

AURA and the University Democrats have drafted a nifty request for City Council to bring the myriad benefits of UNO, Austin’s student housing district, to the rest of the student housing areas in Austin. UNO has been super awesome so building on something that’s already working would be super double awesome. One thing that hasn’t been super awesome in UNO, though, has been that some folks figured out they could build and market rooms without windows to students, many of whom rent their room sight unseen and then find out that windowless bedrooms suck. So let’s fix that while we’re at it.

Bigger -plexes in Central Austin

One of the brilliant pieces of HOME was that, rather than doing artisanal, parcel-by-parcel planning around small pieces of the city, it created rules for the city as a whole. Anybody who wants can build a triplex or two in a standard lot. But everywhere in the city isn’t the same, or else people wouldn’t pay more for a dirt lot in Bouldin than they do for a brand-new house in Circle C.

I’m not particularly fussed if City Council wants to allow, say, 8-plexes on any lot in the city. But lots of people are. So let’s target 8-plexes to the places where dense housing would have the biggest effects, where land costs are highest (and need to be split between more people) and amenities like jobs, shops, parks, and transportation options are plentiful.

Quiet Zones

When we think of zoning, the first thing in many people’s minds is along the lines of “no smokestacks next to houses.” But there’s a lot of distance between “no smokestacks” and “nothing but long-term residences.” And while living near smokestacks isn’t very nice, living near a bakery can be really nice! I would like us to move back toward first principles here, and start reintroducing less disruptive shops and offices near where we live.

Safe Routes for Children

Safe Routes to Schools is a great way of prioritizing sidewalks and bike routes. After all, kids can’t drive, so they’re a captive market for sidewalks and bike lanes. And kids walking or biking to school can fix a huge traffic problem: the school pick-up and drop-off lines. But kids need to go many more places than schools! Libraries, parks, friends’ houses, ballet classes, soccer practice, corner stores, and more! Let’s start thinking about our next steps to make Austin a place any kid can get around without Mommy or Daddy Chauffeur.

Affordability Unlocked and Its Impact (Part 2)

Today, we continue with part 2 of our guest post about Affordability Unlocked by Brian Poteet.

All of the projects we discussed in Part 1will make a dent in Austin’s ever-escalating affordability crisis, but that’s unfortunately all they’ll make – a dent. In 2017, City Council committed to building at least 135,000 housing units over the subsequent decade. Before moving on, I’m compelled to say that this goal is embarrassingly low for the core of a metropolitan area that is adding 50,000 people each year. It implies that the city is entirely indifferent about the vast majority of people moving to live in car-centric suburbs outside of Austin. It also absurdly implies that building 135,000 units before 2028 is enough to stabilize prices.

I could continue this rant for a while, but I’ll leave it at that. Anyway, here’s how we were doing at the end of 2019, before AU came into effect:

From the 2019 Strategic Housing Blueprint Scorecard
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Affordability Unlocked and Its Impact

Austin on Your Feet is lucky to have a guest column by Brian Poteet! We’re running it two parts: today an overview of some projects and tomorrow some analysis! Brian grew up in Austin and graduated from UT in 2017. Since then, he’s been living and working without a car in Central Austin all while developing an unhealthy obsession with city government. When he’s not online you can find him roaming the streets on his bike or playing tennis as if he taught himself during a pandemic.

Back in May 2019, City Council unanimously approved an affordable housing bonus program introduced by Council Member Greg Casar called Affordability Unlocked (AU). The program intended to significantly increase how far affordable housing developers could stretch each dollar. Developers who provide low- and moderate-income housing get to work with a looser ruleset when building. 

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E-bikes and Families: an interview with Mary Pustejovsky

Mary and her bike

With the ongoing pandemic, the normal fare for this blog has been shut down. So we’re branching out into a new kind of content: an interview with Mary Pustejovsky, Board Member of the Red Line Parkway Initiative, former Board Member of AURA, and Someone who Bikes for Transportation and Loves to See Other People Do It Too. This is the first interview I’ve done for the blog and I failed to get my audio equipment working, so the below is from my notes. All apologies to both Mary and my readers for anything I mess up!

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Way Too Early Ideas for Austin to Prepare for the End of Corona

For all of you reading this shortly after it’s been posted, no context is necessary. But in case anybody ever goes back and reads this months or years from now, here’s the situation as I write this. Most folks in Austin are working from home on account of the global pandemic COVID-19. Dining areas in bars and restaurants are closed. Yesterday, 18 positive tests for the virus in Austin were added to the 23 existing ones. 2020’s edition of SXSW was cancelled and a large chunk of SXSW, Inc’s workers were laid off. So many other workers are being laid off in Austin and around the country and world that people are starting to ask whether the economic collapse will look more like the Great Recession or the Great Depression. Cap Metro has reported a nearly 50% drop in ridership and has dropped service to mostly Sunday-levels. I could go on and on but suffice it to say the situation isn’t looking good.

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How Big Should Project Connect Go?

Last week I had the privilege of attending an open house for Project Connect, the planning effort to build a high-frequency, high-capacity, fast-running base for Austin’s transit system. Although the in-person open houses for the Orange and Blue lines are over, you can still review the materials and get your feedback heard at the virtual open house. CapMetro didn’t come forward with one fully-baked proposal, but presented a number of choices with tradeoffs: do we go big or go small? Below are my choices and I hope y’all let me know yours!

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West Campus Two Point Ohhhhh Yeahhhhh!

I may have written about West Campus a time or two before. But this time I come not to praise West Campus, but to bury it — in new developments! On Thursday, October 3, Austin’s City Council will consider the biggest changes to the rules that govern a good chunk of West Campus (known as UNO or the University Neighborhood Overlay) since they were initially passed in 2004. The proposed changes would:

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Checking in on CapMetro Ridership

It’s been a while since I last checked in on Cap Metro ridership. CapMetro has released a snazzy performance dashboard, but it didn’t completely visualize the data how I wanted it to so I put together a dashboard of my own using CapMetro’s data to help me understand the dynamics affecting bus riders in Austin. I’ve found some continuation of existing stories and some stories that are completely new.

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The regulations we need to #parktheplinth

Last post, I talked about physical alternatives that would let us #parktheplinth. Or in normal terms, ways to build downtown towers that don’t have giant parking plinths. Before that, I also discussed the regulatory reasons why large parking plinths are common downtown, but much less so in West Campus. So, today, let’s combine the two thoughts: what regulations could we have downtown that would encourage people building towers downtown to use some of those alternatives to parking plinths?

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