Election reflection: three big changes that have affected the makeup of Austin City Council

With the completion of the runoffs, Austin’s next City Council is set. Although it falls short of the densificatron the Austin Chronicle mused about, it is being widely hailed as the most urbanist-friendly council in recent memory. How did we get here? Well, I’d like to believe it’s because the world is coming to understand that building awesome, compact cities is the only way for humans to prevent catastrophic global climate change. In fact, I do believe that. But there’s also some structural, political reasons. Let’s listicle.

1) Higher turn-out elections

It’s no secret low-turnout elections favor Republicans and development skeptics. In 2016, development-friendly candidate Sheri Gallo led development-skeptic Alison Alter on election day 17,569 to 12,943, coming within just 634 votes of winning the 50% needed to avoid a runoff. But by the time the low-turnout December election came around, Alter won out 9,481 to 5,339. It’s possible there were some voters who changed their minds but more likely development-skeptic voters were just more motivated to turn out in December. Development-skeptic candidate Laura Morrison said her strategy was to force a runoff, where the smaller, more development-skeptical electorate would favor her.

But while our two-part runoff system means we have some low-turnout ballots, it used to be much worse. Prior to 2014, we elected City Council in May elections rather than November ones. The transition to higher turnout elections has brought out a broader group of voters with a broader set of issues, less animated by opposition to development. This trend could accelerate if Texas, like Maine, adopted instant runoffs, in which voters state their second (and third and fourth, etc) choices at the same time they select their first choice, allowing a runoff without forcing voters to come out twice. However, Ed Espinoza on Twitter tells me it may take a change to state law in order for this to happen:

2) 10-1 gave more representation to underrepresented populations open to development

Both before and after Austin switched from seven at-large Council Members to ten single-member districts and one at-large mayor, the vast majority of votes in Austin have come from the richer, whiter parts of town. Here, for example, are the total number of voters in each district in the 2014 city council elections, as well as the racial / ethnic group of the Council Members who have represented that district:

All districts were made to have roughly equal numbers of people living in them. But not all of those people vote! There were more than three times as many votes cast in 2014 in wealthier, whiter District ten than in poorer, more Hispanic Districts two and four. This difference is driven both by the number of eligible voters and by voter participation rates. When all Council Members were elected at large, this meant that the votes of the areas and populations that turn out at lower numbers were diluted among the votes of the areas that turn out at higher numbers. Since 10-1, these areas are represented at a proportion to their populations, not to their voting rates.

Of course, it isn’t a given that “population that votes in great numbers” or “white” are anti-development or “population that votes in lower numbers” or “non-white” are pro-development. Ora Houston of District 1 was a consistent development skeptic, while Jimmy Flannigan of District 6 and Sheri Gallo of District 10 have been more development-friendly. But generally, the electeds and the electorate in the less white districts have proven to be more open to development than the whiter, more voter-rich districts–and this is true in other places outside Austin as well. Indeed, if you look at the five districts with the fewest votes in the 2014 election (one, two, three, four, and six), these districts will be represented by some of the most development-friendly Council Members on Council in 2019.

3) 10-1 created new, geographically based sources of legitimacy

Prior to the 2014 switch to a district-based council, all Council Members were elected by an electorate from across the entire city. When we were considering the switch from at-large Council Members to geographical districts, there was something of a debate on what was likely to happen between two of my friends and fellow bloggers, Chris Bradford of Austin Contrarian, who feared that this would create a system of ward privilege, and Julio Gonzalez of Keep Austin Wonky, who was a bit more sanguine. At the time, I leaned closer to Chris’ argument but so far, Julio’s predictions have turned out to be more accurate. On issues that affect a single council district, Council Members definitely defer to the district Council Member in some ways; often, the Council member whose district is most affected will speak first and longest on a case. On cases where other Council Members don’t have developed opinions, they may choose to vote with the district Council Member. But Council Members have also shown a lot of willingness to vote their consciences.

Indeed, there’s a sense in which geographical districts have actually reduced ward privilege. When the Council was elected at large, they often gave a significant amount of deference on zoning cases to leaders of the nearest neighborhood associations. While neighborhood associations are unelected, they were still often seen as a good pulse of what voters thought in that district. Now, with single-member districts, some neighborhood associations still have a large amount of sway where voters elected a Council Member that agrees with them. But in other Council districts, anti-development forces have had to handle a diminution of their authority as they put their preferred candidates to the electoral test and lost.

Nowhere has this been clearer than District 3, where Pio Renteria has won two straight elections over his sister Susana Almanza. The siblings have been on opposite sides of neighborhood politics for decades; Council Members trying to get the pulse of East Austin sentiment sometimes used extremely imperfect proxies like how many people showed up to debate an issue at City Council. Now, with voters choosing Renteria twice, there is little reason for other Council Members to value Almanza’s voice over Renteria’s.

Where from here?

Politics has a way of going through pendulum swings. It’s possible that norms of ward privilege will emerge over the course of years. It’s possible that I’m overreading the factors above and luck has played a large role in the formation of the Council. After all, the same District 1 that elected development-friendly Natasha Harper-Madison also elected development-skeptic Ora Houston. But it’s also possible that these changes in Austin’s electoral system have led to a real structural shift in politics that could have big implications as Austin becomes closer to a big city.

YIMBY is not left or right but both and neither

The YIMBY moment hasn’t exactly arrived in America but it’s on the platform and the train is coming. The framework for political arguments in many City Halls has transformed from “Neighborhood vs Developer” to “YIMBY vs NIMBY.” State Houses like California are being shaken up by YIMBY legislation, both passed and proposed.

The movement’s growth has created a scramble to define where it lies on the broader political spectrum. Various YIMBYs have staked a claim to be the true flagholders for popular local political labels, whether that be “progressive,” “free market,” or other. Opponents have been quick to identify YIMBYism with disliked groups in their local environments, whether that be United Nations Agenda 21 or the Koch brothers.

This ideological mishmash is more than rhetoric. I correspond daily with (or twitter my life away, my wife would say) folks with radically different beliefs about economic systems who nevertheless work together toward a common goal of addressing the housing shortage. It doesn’t feel like an uncomfortable alliance of convenience, but rather a group of friends with different ideas. In a world where we’re constantly reminded of evergrowing ideological divides, how does this movement maintain this hodgepodge? 

Jaap Weel gets to part of the answer here:

YIMBYs believe places should accommodate as many of the people who want to live or work there as they can. This belief is so simple and the need so basic that it can fit into nearly any ideology. Indeed, human beings have been building and designing cities since millennia before Adam Smith or Karl Marx. Rather than saying that YIMBYism is socialist or capitalist, it’s more accurate to say that socialism and capitalism can be YIMBY or not.

A free market YIMBY platform could be “abolish height limits and developers will build more housing to meet market demand.” A socialist YIMBY platform could be “raise property taxes to build public housing.” An environmentalist YIMBY platform looks like SB827 while a social justice YIMBY platforms can focus on ending practices that exclude people from the best jobs or schools. All of these policies share the fundamental assessment that there aren’t enough homes (and/or workplaces, etc) and we need to build more of them, but they accomplish that goal through different mechanisms.

Many YIMBYs are inspired to ideas based on their previous ideas about economic systems (“cut regulations”, “community land ownership”, “better planning”). But further complicating the ideological picture, policies are often judged within YIMBY circles based on their ability to address the housing shortage and not necessarily based on ideological priors. It’s not uncommon to see the same person arguing for different solutions that could be glossed as “socialist”, “planned market”, or “free market.” Some ideas defy easy classification: for example, many YIMBYs believe that transit planning should be pushed to the local government level while land use planning should be pushed to higher levels of government. If you insist on looking at their ideas through a prism of capitalist vs socialist, this would be hopelessly confusing. But if you understand all of these as potential ways to get more people access to the places that they want, it makes sense.

So here’s a challenge: try to, instead of judging whether YIMBY as a whole is more an offshoot of one ideology or another, fully understand what problems it’s trying to solve and how you think those problems would best be solved. 

Contest: What’s your Congress Ave like?

We have a contest for you! With prizes including a $25 gift certificate generously donated by Pop Bar, offering ice cream bars at 247 W 3rd Street downtown starting Friday January 26th. Read to the bottom for details on how to enter!

One of the great forces in shaping Downtown Austin is its capitol view corridors. As we speak, downtown Austin is being made over in their image, with Austin’s signature architectural feature becoming the corner-cut tower. Capitol view corridors are a relatively recent phenomenon, passed into law in 1983 on the initiative of then-Texas State Senator Lloyd Doggett. But the granddaddy capitol view of them all, the terminating vista along Congress Ave, has been baked into Austin’s DNA since 1839 when Judge Edwin Waller laid out the street grid of the Republic of Texas’ brand new capital city. Congress Ave has undergone many changes through the years. James Rambin did a fantastic rundown on those changes at sister site Towers.net, so I’ll just do a quick picture recap here.

Here is Congress Ave in the 1880s (via KUT), when Austin had no cars except mule-pulled streetcars.

Congress Avenue looking north at the state capitol in the 1880s. Image courtesy of the Austin History Center, via KUT.

By 1913, the street had been paved and the streetcar electrified, but streetcars, carriages, and pedestrians still ruled the day:

Congress Avenue and 6th Street, via the Austin History Center.

By the 1930s, the personal automobile had overtaken streetcars and carriages as the dominant use of the Avenue.

Ellison Photo Co. South Congress Avenue looking north, photograph, 1930/1939; via University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, and the Austin History Center.

A 1976 proposal that never got adopted included a vision for a Texas makeover of Congress Ave intersections. The last major shakeup to actually happen was in 2014, when Cap Metro’s bus network shifted its major downtown spine off Congress Ave to Guadalupe and Lavaca Streets. But there may be a new shakeup coming soon! The city of Austin has undertaken an initiative to redesign Congress Ave and has already begun the process of testing out ideas.

Well, recently I took a trip to Mexico City, where I stayed on Avenue Mazatlan in the Condesa neighborhood, a street the same width as Congress Avenue, but configured entirely differently, with a tree-lined pedestrian/bicycle/dog/rollerblade shared-use path running down the center of the street (top two pictures in the first tweet):

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This inspired to me to get out the Streetmix tool and put together a vision for how Congress Ave could look with an emphasis on giving people access to the terminal vista of the Capitol while walking or on their bikes:

Other twitter users have imagined alternative visions:

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So, Austin on Your Feet and Towers.net have decided to give everybody a chance to design their own version of Congress Avenue and vote for their favorites. You can remix my Streetmix or start your own. The rules are: submit a design from streetmix by tweeting with the hashtag #CongressTowers by February 8 or emailing to contest@austinonyourfeet.com. The street must be exactly 120′ wide. We will select the best entrants and give readers a chance to vote for their favorite alternative. The entrant with the most votes will receive a $25 gift certificate to Pop Bar and Towers.net sunglasses. So get out there and get designing!

YIMBY and Placemaking are the perfect pair

This newly renovated public plaza in downtown Austin houses zero residences and few long-term jobs, yet it is one of the most highly anticipated projects downtown because of the enjoyment people will get from it. (For more on this project, visit the landscape architects behind it, dwg. landscape architecture.)

People get involved in shaping cities for different reasons. Some because they ride bikes or take trains, some because of a professional interest, and some because the rent is too damn high. As rents, land use, public space, and transportation are deeply interrelated, people who are interested in one often bleed over into another. But people talk about cities in very different terms. Placemaking urbanism is concerned with creating places people value. YIMBY urbanism is concerned with making sure all people who want access to places are able to. Let’s walk through the difference in these two languages about cities.

Placemaking urbanism

Placemaking urbanism or design urbanism includes organizations like CNU. Placemakers are more likely to be professionals involved in building cities — planners, architects, designers, developers, land use attorneys, etc. Their emphasis or focus is most strongly on:

  • issues of the public realm: how wide are streets? Are there sidewalks? Are they comfortable to walk on? What materials are the sidewalks made of? Are there street trees for shade and benches for sitting? Do people have access to parks? Is a place a destination or just a pass-through?
  • issues of where the public realm meets the private realm: Do private buildings make it easier for people to walk into them or drive into the garage? Do buildings add interactions between the inside of the building and the street or are they focused on enforcing separation? Are different kinds of buildings and building uses well-situated relative to one another? 

Where it’s at its best

Placemaking is at its best in making places great. In the one time I attended a CNU conference, I saw a dozen different presentations, workshops, or talks that gave lessons on making places better — from the minutiae of exactly what materials to use in crosswalks to how to get buy-in from business owners on improving traffic safety. There’s an attention to detail within this movement that can be truly remarkable. Great places are made of a thousand tiny design decisions, from the species of tree to the width of a travel lane to the location of utility poles. People walking down a street may not know why they prefer one place to another, but there are deliberate, planned choices going on behind the scenes.

This newly renovated public plaza in downtown Austin has created a fascinating place that people have taken to before it even opened.

While each decision may be small, placemaking overall can have dramatic effects in creating long-term value. New homes are usually more valuable compared to aging ones because things work and haven’t accumulated problems or deterioration. But forty years from now, will people still want to live in the places that we’re building today? Some places get more valuable as time goes on while others fall to pieces. Building a place that stays great requires effort.

Great placemakers remind me of great entrepreneurs. They have the vision to take a place that is not yet built — or else a place that is struggling — and through judicious use of (hopefully) small amounts of funds and large amounts of effort and knowledge, create value that didn’t previously exist. Just as a smart developer will engage a great architect to make their building somewhere people want to be, a smart city will engage great placemakers to make each part of their city a place people want to be.

While this value creation aspect is most prominent in public spaces, placemakers also have very valuable ideas about the role of private space in creating valuable public space. What is the right mixture of retail, office, and residential so that the retail has a chance to thrive? How can homes be built so that people passing by get value from being near? A very typical placemaker topic might be garage placement: where is the best place for a garage to be so that cars entering the garage interfere with pedestrians the least?

Placemakers are not focused on density qua density, but rather, density is frequently a tool within the placemaker toolkit to enable other things. It’s easier to make dense places walkable or bikeable because there are more destinations within reach. Transit also requires certain densities to work well. Residential density can make smaller retail outlets viable and give an activated, vibrant feel to public places.

YIMBY Urbanism

YIMBYism (“Yes In My Back Yard”) is a thread of urbanism aimed at opening up cities to use by more people. YIMBY urbanism has more non-development pros, renters, and young people than placemaking urbanism and way more than anti-development movements. YIMBYism is very focused on:

  • issues of density, prices, and access: how can we make it so more people can afford the costs of shelter (whether rent or purchase)? Who has access to the best urban places and how could we change them so more people do? What effects would building denser places have on prices?

Where it’s at its best

YIMBYism is best when fighting for more people to have access to live in, work in, and visit places they want access to. YIMBYs care about places but are far more focused on people and making sure that they can afford to live in places they want to. In arguing for a development, they tend to tally up the benefits in people — how many more people will this new development give access to — rather than in how much better or worse will this make the place. YIMBYs are often more comfortable with quantitative measures like dwelling units/acre, rent, mortgage cost, housing + transportation cost index, than qualitative measures like aesthetics or vibrancy. Even when going to neighboring fields like transit, YIMBYs are very at ease with quantitative metrics like subsidy per rider or capital expenditures per new rider. YIMBYs fight in City Hall, hearing by hearing, ordinance by ordinance, permit by permit, and election by election. Their main emphasis is not necessarily on how to make a development acceptable to more people, but how to organize people to engage in a political fight for more development in great places.

New central-city housing is the primary focus of the YIMBY movement in most places.

Why the two don’t always trust each other

YIMBYism is a movement born out of political conflict with development opponents. Many YIMBYs are used to sitting through public hearings in which development opponents say everything possible negative about a development and see what sticks: the building is too fancy or too plain, it will raise and/or lower property values, it’s too close or too far from the street, it will cast shadows, loom, stick out, and destroy ground squirrel habitat. To a YIMBY, a placemaker can be one more set of people throwing hoops up for a development to jump through.

But the placemaker movement was also born in conflict. Place-making urbanists have long fought for higher standards of development in reaction to the auto-centric, mass produced sterilized development characterized by sprawl. There is no interest in perpetuating bad development. Auto-centric development, density without amenity, density without proximity is not seen as any kind of tolerable solution to affordability place-makers because, in part because it perpetuates awfulness, but also in part because it fails to address the primary challenge of affordability – a scarcity of good places concentrating demand on the most attractive places.

Most developments that satisfy one movement satisfy the other. High density development often generates the profits needed to make placemaking possible; great placemaking can be the lubricant necessary to make high-density development politically viable. Nevertheless, individual developments can end up dividing people based on which thread they identify with more.

Additionally, the alliance is much stronger in practice than it is in theory. When sticking to support for individual developments or development rules, the two sides agree the vast majority of the time. But when speaking about theory, the two threads diverge sharply. For example: are high property values in a location primarily an indication of a job well-done, because they show high demand for living there? Or are they primarily an indication of a failure, because supply has failed to keep up with demand?

Why the two need each other

On a fundamental level, YIMBYs need placemakers because what’s the point of fighting for access to places if the places aren’t great? Fighting for access to existing great places can easily be complemented by fighting to improve places that are less than great today. On a political level, YIMBYs need placemakers because they can’t afford to cede any argument to development opponents. Development opponents use a vast family of arguments that new development makes places worse — more traffic, less sunlight, more noise, worse aesthetics. The more attractive each new development is, the more it has reckoned with the issues of making great places, the greater a chance it has of winning supporters from outside the NIMBY and YIMBY camps.   

On a fundamental level, placemakers need YIMBYs because what’s the point of fighting to make places great if people can’t access them? On the political level, placemakers need YIMBYs because they need allies. The placemaker movement has fought for decades to improve public space and left some wonderful legacies in places. But the broader scope of cities and policy in the United States has barely budged. YIMBYs represent one of the most energetic and promising movements to change this; if placemakers can’t land their message with this group, the message needs to change.

In Austin’s West Campus, new development has paid for improvements to the public realm, like wide sidewalks, street lighting, street furniture, and this bike lane.

Although the YIMBY movement says “yes” to development, implicit in its message is the idea that development should be placed where people actually want to be. The mainstream of the YIMBY movement doesn’t, for example, argue that there should be more housing development in, say, the middle of a desert, far from civilization or social networks. The focus of the movement is on facilitating access to places that people want to be. But a key part of accessing places people want to access is making places people want to be in the first place. While the placemaking movement says “yes” to “high-quality” development, the benefits of this development only accrue to people who have access to it. Great places aren’t an end in and of themselves. A city with great neighborhoods will only be enjoyed by those who can afford access to those neighborhoods. Great placemaking is something that can happen at any scale or density — but a great place built at half the size of the population that needs it leaves half the population shut out. Placemakers need to acknowledge that YIMBYs counting units and fretting rents have a valid — and pressing — point.

This should be easy

The alliance between people whose first thought about creating better, denser places is that they’re awesome places and the people whose first thought about creating better, denser places is that everybody deserves access should be an easy one. So easy in fact that tons of people switch casually between the two families of arguments without even realizing they’re doing so or realizing that other people are mostly focused on one side or another. Occasionally somebody will say something that reveals themselves to be in line with one group but not the other: a YIMBY will fight in favor of a development built in a style that placemakers have spent decades trying to reform; or else a placemaker will deride YIMBYs for focusing on how many people have access to a place instead of whether it will be great for those who do. These moments can be deeply unsettling not just because they’re surprising but because they make people realize they’re fighting for different values. 

But the fit here is entirely natural. In places where YIMBYs are active, they are overwhelmingly more supportive of placemaking than development oppontents are; after all, they are the ones agitating for change! Placemaking can enhance YIMBY efforts by winning Maybe in My Backyards folks over with placemaking improvements. The yes-and argument here is the true winner!

Update 9/6/2017: Added credit and link to dwg.

Austin’s Killer App: How Austin Tech Can Compete with Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley is the most important center of US technology development. Its cluster of tech workers, financiers, and services are light years ahead. There was no special natural resource that made Silicon Valley the only place for a tech boom, but once it got started, Silicon Valley built a strong First Mover Advantage–any place that wants to compete has to not only duplicate Silicon Valley’s ecosystem, but it has to do it in a world where Silicon Valley is already here. Silicon Valley also has strong network effects–each new techie that moves to Silicon Valley makes it an even more attractive place to build a company, which makes it a more attractive place for techies to move, which…

But in tech, there’s sometimes a Second Mover advantage. New companies can learn to navigate around the market leaders’ failures and steer straight for the successes. Big companies can get sclerotic and bureaucratic, unable to appreciate the problems they have or unable to fix them even if they know. Success breeds complacency–famously, Microsoft struggled after its employees became millionaires by virtue of owning stock options at the right place and the right time. Company culture becomes backward looking, focused on preserving the successes of today, rather than building toward tomorrow.

Silicon Valley’s Achilles Heel is Terrible public policy

To many residents of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, the dangers of being First Mover are very familiar–not from their workplaces, but their local politics.

  • The bureaucratic ordeal in getting a new software development project started at a large company is legendary, but pales in comparison to getting a land development project off the ground in Silicon Valley.
  • Silicon Valley and San Francisco have their own versions of Microsoft Millionaires: Housing Millionaires. Folks who had the good fortune to own a house in San Francisco years ago and became lucky as their asset skyrocketed in value. Many of these folks have, understandably, become less concerned with making San Francisco a place where a new generation can make their fortune and more interested in protecting what they have.
  • Despite (or perhaps because of) its reputation for innovation, San Francisco’s local politics is dominated more by discussions of the past than the future. Like a company that refuses to release new products out of fear of harming their current cash cow, the city has become extraordinarily conservative in its approach to new development. New developments must first prove that they will harm no existing residents in any way, rather than merely proving they will provide a benefit to new residents.

The results are catastrophic: San Francisco and Silicon Valley are failing at one of the core competencies of any city: providing housing. Tech workers spend enormous fractions of their income to live in poorly maintained homes in the Mission, while those outside tech frequently live far outside the city and commute long distances on congested roads. New housing for tech workers is protested as are buses to transport workers from homes in San Francisco to jobs in Silicon Valley. The city and the region understand that they are in an intractable mess of antagonistic politics, but still cannot do anything to extricate itself. San Francisco and the Silicon Valley are ripe for disruption.

Housing could be Austin’s Killer App

Building the best product isn’t enough to compete with a network effect. If it were, a few more of us might be using Google Plus or Google Wave today. The new product or platform has to be close to comparable in the current feature set and, crucially, it has to have a Killer App that makes people not just like it, but want it and need it. For Austin and our platform of functional public policy, the Killer App can be walkable, bikable, transit-accessible, relatively affordable housing.

While the construction technology for building housing at low-cost is not something new, the political technology of a functioning municipal governance platform that facilitates its creation through times of poverty and times of prosperity is something that the United States as a whole lacks. In addition, improving on current governance and providing housing to meet demand would be a difficult act to match. There are few cities outside Silicon Valley that have the right ingredients of a startup economy as well established as Austin does. All of them have had housing cost problems for far longer than Austin has had, yet none of them have adequately addressed the issue.

Tech needs long-term, Quality Public Policy Engagement

How can the technology community in Austin help with local governance? For starters, the community needs to engage with public policy at a much deeper level than it has to date. Politics is not a company to buy or a video game to win. Sometimes throwing money into politics without understanding things hurts your position more than helps. The companies and communities that have a lasting impact on politics don’t just show up when there’s an issue that directly affects them. They develop deep relationships so that when issues affect them, they understand how their proposals will affect others in the community and vice versa.

Technology companies need a supportive environment around them to succeed–angel and venture for funding, consultants to help navigate situations other companies have seen before, IP lawyers, board members, complementary companies. A good company takes advantage of all the resources they have available to them. The same is true of a smart participant in public policy. The most effective ones don’t go it alone; they have an ecosystem of allies and advocates, consultants and collaborators whose advice they listen to and cherish.

This is important for anybody who wants to participate in politics, but it’s especially important for tech. Tech, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, does not share a background with everybody in the community. The common experiences that bring tech people together can divide us from everybody else. A company that lets its programmers do design will end up with an interface designed for programmers but clunky for everybody else. When the tech community designs its own political messaging, we end up with arguments, imagery, and optics that look good in the board room and clunky–or even offensive–to everybody else.

Learn to Listen and Not Just Lecture

When Uber and Lyft decided on putting their case to the Austin voters, they did not lack for a voice. They brought more money to the campaign than the city has ever seen spent in a race. In a campaign that will be studied for years, voters received dozens of pieces of direct mail, text messages, app alerts, and in-person messaging. Uber and Lyft did not have trouble getting heard. Indeed, many people reported having heard so much from Uber and Lyft that it got in the way of their ordinary life, soured them on Uber and Lyft’s message, and fed into the narrative Uber’s opponents campaigned on (Uber as corporate bully).

While Uber’s money succeeded perhaps too well at getting its voice heard, Uber failed at some of the basics of campaigning. Despite a large number of people and organizations that supported their cause in general, they failed to build a coalition working for them. Many of their allies dropped out of official events and organizations while others failed to rally an effort. For those familiar with the campaign, this wasn’t a surprise; Uber as a company didn’t come to this campaign with any willingness to listen to allies and understand what they wanted and needed out of a campaign.

For those who have been involved in tech, the listening deficit shouldn’t be surprising. The mythos of technology startups says that visionary founders and young startups are a special breed of people able to see what the broader society cannot. But building effective political coalitions is very different from building technology startups. If the technology community wants to participate effectively in local politics, it must bring the skills appropriate to the problem.

Not Every Problem can be solved by tech

Technology can be applied to any problem. Sometimes in the technology world, this gets combined with a frustration about the difficulty of involvement in public policy, and comes out as “every problem can be solved by technology.”

There are numerous housing technologies today being developed to improve construction techniques, from cross-laminated timber to prefabricated apartment blocks. But the technologies to resolve San Francisco’s housing crisis were developed in the early 20th century and before. The reasons that San Francisco and the Bay Area lack the housing supply to accommodate the people who want to work there is definitely not because the area lacks the technical know-how to construct housing. Developing new technologies can reduce costs, but it cannot create new housing when the purpose of the regulations that prevent new housing is precisely to prevent housing. There is no technology short-circuit to public policy engagement.

How to get involved

Where to? The biggest effort to reform Austin’s public policy right now is CodeNEXT, a rewrite of the extensive set of rules governing everything from the height of buildings to which streets can be used for offices and which streets for homes–a reform with the potential to shape Austin’s competitiveness for decades to come.

The author has worked in technology for 15 years and engaged with Austin politics for a few.

Council Member Greg Casar discusses Springdale Farms and larger issues of gentrification

I like to pick out videos from city proceedings which people explain the philosophies behind their actions. District 4 Council Member Greg Casar took the occasion of an appeal of a Conditional Use Permit denial for the use of Springdale Farms as an event space to discuss what he sees as the broader causes and cures for gentrification in Austin. The video is from ATXN, clipped by friend-of-the-blog Tyler Markham. The transcript is from the City of Austin. I have added formatting and light editing for readability.

Mayor, briefly, I think that you lay out very well the conditional use permit issue. Let me take a step back. In my mind there’s two very glaring facts about this situation in this case. The first is what you described very well: there is the issue at hand about one specific property, one specific conditional use permit and parking requirements needed, the noise mitigation, what is a compatible use on this piece of commercial property in this one narrowly tailored case. If it was just about that, then I think it would very simply be just another one of the many cases we see in a rapidly urbanizing city where uses start knocking against one another as we grow both residentially and as our businesses grow.

But what’s also glaring to me is that there’s a second obvious fact that clearly many people in the community, whether they’re nearby neighbors or people concerned about what’s happening in our city. This case is about something much more than that to many in this room for many different reasons, but especially some of the folks that came and spoke today in opposition. It means something about the racial and class divides in our city, about displacement occurring in our city, the change that is bringing some benefits to our city, but causing other detrimental effects as well. And that is a serious part of this conversation and the feeling that some folks think this would not be approved were it in another part of town.

My vote will be based on the first obvious fact, will be based on the merits of the conditional use permit, which is why I will vote for this. But I feel like it’s incumbent on us to acknowledge the second piece of this and to understand. I believe a lot of the folks that came and spoke before us have very legitimate concerns about whether or not this is a space that they feel is truly for that community. I’ve spoken with lots of people on both sides of the issue that live in the nearby neighborhood but I think it’s important for supporters of the farm and the owners to acknowledge and take seriously the concern that folks have brought up about whether they really feel like this space is for them and a community asset. I recognize that there have been attempts to do so but it seems clear to me that there’s still work on that front to be done.

People have brought this up as a cause of gentrification. I don’t see it as much of a cause compared to the ruthless global real estate market and our failed urban planning principles and racist institutions that we still deal with every single day, but I think the folks that have brought this up as a symbol or as a symptom of that kind of gentrification do need to be listened to and should be listened to. I ask every single one of you whether you’re on one side of this issue or another to participate in the broader policy debate about investing in affordable housing, even if it’s going to cost all of us a little bit of money. About rewriting and redoing the way we do our planning so that it’s not just up to some neighborhoods to absorb change, that there should be no such thing as a gated community that does not change. To talk about smaller living spaces because whether you like it or not and whether you agree with me on this or not, I see a city with rising land prices and I say the only way we can get people to be able to stick around in the central city is to find ways for us to live smaller and to use more transit and to invest in different kinds of housing

Stick around for the budget session right after this because we have temporary employees here at the city that don’t have healthcare and aren’t protected by our living wage standards and it’s that kind of a conversation that we need to engage in and it is the kind of conversation that when we’re talking about mixes of uses and different kinds of spaces in other parts of town that you hold us accountable to being able to support those when the noise is contained and when the parking is required and all of the sorts of things that I think was hammered out in the hard-fought compromise that makes probably no one happy. So I call on my colleagues to take that issue seriously and I appreciate the conversation this has begun but it’s got to be about way more than one small zoning case.

If San Francisco is Austin’s future, most of us will live in Oakland

I had the honor and pleasure of traveling to the city that never builds, San Francisco, to speak to people from a truly wonderful organization, the San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation. San Francisco is like a larger, older, more extreme version of Austin. Both cities have gorgeous natural environments and pleasant, mostly snow-free climates. Both have managed to catch economic lightning in a bottle and create a special environment in which businesses grow and create well-paying jobs, as well as large ecosystems of middle-class jobs that surround them. And both cities have become places that people move to from around their respective states, the country, and the world to start their careers, start families, and settle down.

Sadly, both have also failed completely to build housing needed in the central city to accommodate both their existing residents and those who want to move there. I got to see in person the frankly dystopian future that awaits for Austin if we continue down this path. My lessons learned:

It can get worse. Much worse.

A lot of people think Austin has seen an incomparable rise in prices and that prices can’t go much higher. This is wrong on both accounts. San Francisco’s prices are both much higher and rising much faster than Austin’s. When I told people in San Francisco how much a condo in my downtown complex recently sold for, their mouths were agape at how inexpensive it was and I’m fairly certain a few of them started searching “Austin jobs” on their phones before my talk was over. Most of my friends in the Bay Area have jobs in San Francisco and live in Oakland; living in San Francisco itself is out of reach.

Preventing Luxury-style Housing Doesn’t Prevent Luxury-style Prices

It is, to say the least, difficult to build in San Francisco. This proposed Transit-Oriented Development at a major BART station in the overwhelmingly popular and expensive Mission District, has been met with a list of demands from a large coalition of organizations that includes not only stopping all work on the project, but simply handing the land over to the protesters. Projects that make their way through most of the planning process are still often killed by the Board of Supervisors.

I stayed at a spare bedroom Airbnb near the project above. The place I stayed in was not only “not luxury” by Austin standards, it was frankly somewhat rundown. This is not atypical for the area. By Austin standards, San Francisco housing is simply not very up-to-date. Many units have split bathrooms, no central AC (or any heating at all), and flaking paint on the exteriors. And yet these flats cost not only more than anything in Austin, they cost almost as much as luxury housing in San Francisco does.

In an attempt to avoid San Francisco being “invaded” by wealthy tech workers, many have fought tooth-and-nail against the trappings of wealth: new housing, “Google buses” from SF to Silicon Valley worksites, etc. But doing so has completely failed to stem the tide of actual tech workers, who are perfectly willing to occupy formerly affordable housing at luxury housing prices.

Opposition to development is a tendency unsolved by particular improvements

Many Austin policy fights regarding creating more housing revolve around minimum parking regulations (e.g. ADUs/granny flats/back houses, microunits). Those opposed to reducing them argue that, given that this is Austin, there’s not enough good public transportation for people to live without cars, and thus new housing must be accompanied by new parking. San Francisco’s transit mode share is an order of magnitude higher than Austin’s, minimum parking regulations are much lower and there are even maximum parking regulations. And yet, as you can see above, new housing near transit is still fought against vigorously. So to the people who argue that in order to get new housing, we need transit or grocery stores or new sewer pipes or whatever first, I see no evidence that, absent any of those problems, opposition to new housing lessens. The way to get new housing is to get new housing. This doesn’t devalue the work for good transit: it’s just that creating good transit doesn’t magically transmute anti-development voices into pro-development ones, even those claiming lack of transit as the reason for opposing development.

opposition to development is a tendency that happens at all scales

The Mission District consists largely of attached buildings (that is, buildings whose side walls touch). This is not only on major streets, but in a full 2-dimensional grid. The density this achieves is frankly unimaginable in Austin. West Campus, Austin’s secret midrise district, is pretty low-density by Mission standards. And yet the exact same disagreements play out in the Mission as in low-density Austin neighborhoods, using almost the exact same words.

The same issues are happening in many places

San Francisco and Austin differ in particulars. San Francisco is more built out, more expensive, has better transit, worse development procedures, and different zoning rules. The Bay Area has to deal with problems arising from multiple jurisdictions in a way that Austin doesn’t. But even though the particulars of the disagreement differ, the parameters of the discussion are still largely the same. I am so heartened to see good folks working to improve their city in the Bay Area, because their ideas can carry over to us and our ideas can carry over to them.

Neighborhood Associations are member organizations, not elected representatives

This post is based on my experience with Austin; I don’t know how neighborhood groups in other cities work.

The fact of the title of this post is so glaringly obvious that it feels too insubstantial for a post. Yet it is one of the most overlooked and fundamentally misunderstood facts about local politics.

Neighborhood associations are independent organizations formed for social, political, and educational purposes. Many of them are affiliated with a larger political organization, the Austin Neighborhoods Council, which also engages in social, political, and educational activities. They endorse candidates. They pass resolutions endorsing and opposing initiatives at City Council. They organize members to speak at Boards, Commissions, and Council. They find members and like-minded folks to serve on Commissions and run for Council. They organize volunteers to help with political campaigns. As somebody who is both a member of a NA and intimately involved in the founding of another organization that engages in many of the same activities, I hardly fault them for that. Neither NAs nor AURA are chartered by state government to be municipal governments. They have no requirement to hold secret ballot elections, to allow anybody to participate in their organization without charge, or to represent the residents of the city generally. Nor do they. They are free to advocate for the goals of their organization, no matter how popular those goals are with the people of Austin. And they do. They are free to set rules to limit participation in their organizations so as to ensure that the organization can maintain its vision and goals. And they do. And again, there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of that.

The facts above are, again, so glaringly obvious as to seem too silly to reiterate. And yet, there is a myth about NAs that casts them in an entirely different light–not as membership-based political organizations, with limited membership and representation, but as quasi-political units smaller than the city itself. In this myth, the NA is the sole legitimate representative of the residents of a neighborhood, in much the same way that the city of Austin is the legitimate representative of the people of Austin. This myth manifests itself in many ways. At City Council, if a developer is encouraged to negotiate with “the neighborhood,” this usually means negotiating with the politically-active NA. In news reports, when residents of a neighborhood show up to speak on both sides of an issue, those speaking on behalf of NA are given the title “the neighborhood” or, for example, “Hyde Park,” similarly to how individual residents of Austin do not speak for Austin, but the City Council does.

I think this myth is wrong, and that all parties–politicians, members of NAs, members of other political groups, and most especially news media–should strive to remember the true facts, the title of this post. Why does it matter?

  1. It’s the truth and people should be able to understand the truth about city politics and not selectively chosen myths.
  2. There is a strong constituency that agrees with policies of the ANC. They should be free to advocate for their preferred policies without interference.
  3. There is a strong constituency that disagrees with policies of the ANC. They should be free to have their voice heard without having to join an organization they disagree with.

So, if you are a Councilmember or, especially, a member of the news media, look forward to a lot of hectoring from me in the next couple years if you use the words “the neighborhood” and “the neighborhood association” interchangeably. In fact, given the confusing myriad of uses for the phrase “the neighborhood” (place, residents of that place, members of that place’s “community”, NA, neighborhood contact team), it would probably be better to just drop the vague phrase and be more specific.

A new slogan: abundant housing

AURA, the urbanist group in Austin I’ve been so excited about, has adopted the language of “abundant housing.” The concept is simple: build enough housing for everybody who needs a home. Although abundance and affordability are intimately linked, the call for enough homes for everyone doesn’t require invoking affordability. It’s a strong statement of inclusivity and social justice on its own.

Abundant housing makes all housing more affordable

Even if you don’t buy my argument (and overwhelming consensus among economists, real estate people, etc.) that abundant housing leads to affordable housing, you should stand up for abundant housing because everybody deserves a home.  But I’ll flesh out the link anyway. I’ve compared the housing market to a game of musical chairs. If you don’t have enough chairs to go around, the competition is going to be intense not just for the last few chairs, but for every chair. Similarly, if there aren’t enough homes to go around, the competition for homes will be intense up and down the market. This is the situation today in Austin and in cities throughout the country: rising prices, cash-only sales, homes selling sight-unseen. The competition for homes is intense at all levels; even those who can definitely afford some housing are forced to contend with rising rents. Abundant housing aims both to make sure those at the bottom have a place to live and everybody else isn’t subjected to the intense competition that makes our current housing markets so hard.

Targeted affordability isn’t enough

Affordable housing can refer to mandated Affordability or housing that’s just affordable. Whether the specifics of the affordable housing strategy are bond-driven Affordable Housing, Affordable Housing setasides in new development, or targeted relaxation of laws that only allow new housing that will likely be affordable (e.g. very small units), these strategies are all based around the idea that the best way to improve affordability is to create new housing that will enter the market at the lowest end. In its worst form, you see not only a preference for housing targeted at the cheapest end of the housing market, but opposition to the creation of net new housing because that new housing is at the higher end.

But in a game of musical chairs, the intense competition for chairs doesn’t come from the fact that there are too many thrones and not enough folding chairs; it comes from the fact that there aren’t enough chairs, period. If there are ten fewer chairs than there are contestants, whether you add ten thrones or ten folding chairs, everybody will now have a seat. In this view, discouraging people from adding seats because they aren’t targeted at the particular folks who lost last round is perverse; you are hurting those folks’ chances of finding a seat, not helping them. Abundant housing is built around the same idea: policy that allows new housing to be created easily will allow more homes to enter the market, enough that everybody can find a place to live. With the competition between buyers/renters being less intense, rents won’t rise as much across the market. Whether that’s done through small new units cheap enough to hit the middle-to-bottom of the market, bond-supported Affordable Housing units, or new luxury condos absorbing the demand from the richest, there will be housing for all.

Lack of abundant housing overwhelms Affordable Housing

Affordable Housing policy is necessary to help those who need it, even when there’s enough housing to go around. For the musical chairs analogy, in a game with as many chairs as contestants, an adult might find themselves next to vacant chairs designed for children; a contestant with a mobility impairment might not be able to reach a vacant chair because the path is blocked. This is analogous to a well-functioning housing market in which there are still some folks who need a hand, perhaps temporarily because some bad thing happened or they simply lack funds; perhaps permanently if they have a reason they will never be able to make rent. But these intervention strategies are overwhelmed when there are simply too few chairs to accommodate all contestants. If there are fewer chairs than contestants, no amount of targeted interventions will help. They merely result in a different set of folks going without a chair. But fixing the abundance problem, the Affordable Housing efforts can go back to serving specifically those who need it even when there are enough chairs to go around.

It’s Happening!

For months, years maybe, I’ve been hinting that what Austin really needs is a broad urbanist organization.  Well, it’s happening!  AURA, founded to focus on the Urban Rail issue, will be expanding into an organization with a broad range of urbanist and housing affordability issues at its focus.  It’s been a long journey to get to where we are, with a large and growing connected community of activists, advocates, and fellow riders who care passionately about making Austin a fantastic place for everybody.

And that journey begins anew at our first organizing meeting of this new incarnation. It will be taking place on 2:00 PM, Sunday March 30, upstairs at Royal Blue Grocery at 609 Congress Avenue.  This will be an opportunity to sign up as a member, approve a platform and bylaws, and meet and talk with like-minded people from your district and/or your subject area.  So, RSVP on Facebook and see you there!