The Pervasive, Pernicious Anti-Renter Hostility in Local Politics

As always, my examples are from Austin but probably apply more broadly.

A majority of Austin households rent, but Austin politics is dominated by the homeowner minority (myself included). There are tons of theories of why renters don’t participate more: renters are as a group younger and poorer than homeowners, and both of those demographics participate in politics less. Renters may move more often and therefore not have had time to develop connections to groups or candidates. But I want to suggest one more narrative: it is draining to participate in a system where people are frequently overtly hostile to you, believe your voice matters less or not at all, and far from being shamed for it, are celebrated.

The fact that renters are viewed as outsiders in politics is so plain to those who participate that it hardly seems to merit proof, but I’ll try to document a tiny sliver of it here.

I’ll start with a trivial example, something fairly easy to brush off. In a city planning session for Imagine Austin, I suggested the city needs to consider the effects of its policies on renters and not just homeowners, and the discussion leader (a city staff member) coded this as “inclusion of nontraditional residents, like renters”. I do believe his heart was in the right place, but as a renter at the time, I felt more unwelcome to know that because I was part of the renter majority, he saw me as an exotic and not just a neighbor. Similarly, from the statements of goals for the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, a private organization that nevertheless wields considerable power:

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Again, this could even come off as endearing: they know that they have an issue with renters and want to overcome it. But it also sends a clear message to renters that this is not their organization. They are to be tolerated, even though...  And this is a neighborhood association in a neighborhood where the vast majority (~80%) of residents are renters! Okay, so not so bad. Well, after some people felt unwelcome by HPNA, they formed a more open neighborhood association, and that’s when the claws came out:

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Tell us how you really feel, Betina! Okay, that’s just one person. This kind of hostility to the majority of your neighbors couldn’t be that widespread, could it? Well, widespread enough to make it into the campaign literature of a runoff candidate in renter-heavy District 4, Laura Pressley, who pointed out that her opponent had 0 “Years as a Property Tax Payer” (i.e. he is a renter, not a homeowner):

Okay, but Laura Pressley, even though she is on the Executive Committee of Austin Neighborhoods Council and earned enough votes to put her in the runoff, is completely crazy* also believes lots of stuff most people don’t and ultimately lost the election. Does this stuff matter? Well, it’s pretty much the official policy of ANC, one of Austin’s most powerful civic organizations. Here, from ANC’s official comments to the city on CodeNEXT, and why they took positions against welcoming new housing into core neighborhoods:

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As we all know, unless you have enough wealth to invest in property, you can’t have emotions regarding the place you live, nor should your opinion matter. Am I being too harsh? No, not nearly harsh enough.

Let me set this next clip up. Austin has intensely detailed rules on “residential compatibility” outlining what a house may look like, what modifications can be made to it, etc. This is footage from the Residential Design & Compatibility Committee, an official committee of the city of Austin with “sovereign power” (i.e. final say) on whether to grant waivers to these rules. The man in front of this committee has sought to enclose his carport by installing a garage door. Under the rules, a house may not occupy more than a certain percentage of his lot (known as Floor Area Ratio or FAR). Garages count toward that space; carports do not. With the carport enclosed, he’d go over the allowed space, so he needs a waiver. He has presented a petition with 52 signatures from nearby neighbors of his. After some early trepidation from President of ANC and RDCC Commissioner Mary Ingle (actual quote: “I would hate for this to start a tsunami of garage doors appearing on carports”), the commissioners get around to discussing the letters of support:


Commissioner Lucy Katz: “If we have 52 people in the neighborhood who say that they’re okay with it, then it’s their neighborhood. They’re not renters. They’re owners.”

After some discussion, they get to counting the letters in favor.

Commissioner Karen McGraw: “I found about 40 in favor in the backup and they all say ‘resident’; they don’t say ‘property owner’. Some of them are likely to be–I mean, whether it matters or not–some of them are likely to be residents but possibly not property owners.”

The fact that Commissioners could be explicitly looking to identify whether the people who have chosen to make their voices heard are homeowners and thus worthy of mattering belies the idea that the fault lies entirely with the renters for not participating, rather than with the city for choosing to stifle or ignore that participation.

In a better world, even contemplating, hedged or not, the choice to deny a voice to some of your neighbors because they don’t own a home–whether they are renters by choice or financial necessity–would earn you an immediate rebuke and put you outside the pale of politics until you apologize. Back in our world,  it apparently puts you on a committee with sovereign power. And, in Mary Ingle’s case, it puts you as one of the few citizen voices selected to brief City Council during their policy deep dives.

So what does it matter?

In the scheme of an individual person’s life, probably not that much. This is not apartheid. Renters still live in most parts of the city; there are no separate “renter” water fountains. Most people who attend a meeting like this and get a bad feeling of being unwelcomed, shrug the city committee or the civic organization off as busybodies and find something else to get interested in. It’s not so much that they’re uninterested–within a month of establishing a more inclusive neighborhood association, Friends of Hyde Park had more members than the decades-old HPNA–it’s that they’re uninterested in putting up with the nonsense and hostility that they had to put up with in order to participate.

But the net effect of all these people getting interested in politics and then cycling out is a city whose policy is seriously skewed.  Powerful neighborhood associations dominated by the homeowner minority regularly try–and succeed–in limiting the creation of rental homes in their neighborhoods. This drives costs up and ultimately drives many people out of the city altogether. The most popular policy endorsed by the most candidates in the last election was a homestead exemption–a tax cut that specifically targets homeowners and not renters, and may end up being paid for by raising taxes that renters ultimately pay.

How do we fix it?

The politics of the last couple years have offered great hope in this area. I was very pleased to see Councilmember Delia Garza will request that any analysis of the homestead exemption take into account what effect it would have on renters. City-wide organizations arguing for welcoming all, homeowners and renters alike, have been formed in Austin: (AURA) and San Francisco (SFBARF). On the hyperlocal level, more inclusive neighborhood associations like Friends of Hyde Park have formed. I would encourage people struggling with the frustration of feeling like they are something apart from the old politics to not waste your time trying to join organizations that don’t want you and just go straight to those who do. If you aren’t welcome in the old politics, you are welcome in the new politics.

On the broader level, we need to push for a cultural shift in which it is no longer considered acceptable to discriminate against your neighbors because of their homeownership status. In which, even if you secretly harbor an animus towards those who rent, you know to keep it to yourself or else lose your position in the policymaking apparatus. And a future in which all may participate in city politics without anybody questioning where their down payment is.

* Laura Pressley has objected to my characterization of her above and advised me that I was “potentially committing libel”. What I wrote was obviously intended as an opinion, not a statement of fact. However, it was an uncharitable opinion and I have therefore replaced it.

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.

Let’s not make a deal

If you hang around the Austin (and presumably other city’s) zoning codes long enough, you get used to deals.  I’m not talking about compromises, where one side wants a height limit of 40′, the other a height limit of 100′, and they settle for 60′.  I’m talking about requirements built into code that a landowner can get out of if they satisfy some other requirement.  This principle is built so deeply into code, in fact, that it’s almost impossible to avoid.

The Vertical Mixed Use (VMU) zoning overlay allows a landowner to choose between the “base zoning” of a district or VMU zoning.  VMU zoning significantly reduces some limitations (FAR, density, see the linked Austin Contrarian post for definitions and details), and replaces them with different requirements: detailed specifications on acceptable building designs and requirements for some units to be designated as Affordable Housing (see link for definition of Affordable Housing).  Similarly, the University Neighborhood Overlay (UNO) allows landowners to build significantly more on a single property than they would be allowed under base zoning, but only if they agree to an extraordinarily detailed specification for how their building might look like.  (I continue to be amazed that these specifications forbid developers from developing new buildings that look historical because this “results in the devaluation of the real thing.”)  Transit-Oriented Development overlays work similarly; allowing greater densities in certain locations, as long as you follow certain design specifications.  The Downtown Density Bonus allows greater heights in exchange for funding Affordable Housing.  At a smaller scale, there are deals that allow developers to opt out of minimum parking regulations in exchange for providing bike lockers or providing parking for shared car services (e.g. Car2Go, Zipcar).

In general, I find myself in favor of each of these deals. VMU, UNO, and the DDB all provide an opportunity for a development that’s more of a proper scale for the locations of the building along major thoroughfares, or near UT or downtown. I don’t always think what the buildings are required to do in exchange is for the best, but it’s worth it to have that option.  Similarly, I’m in favor of vastly lower minimum parking regulations; if buildings provide bike lockers or Car2Go spaces, more to the better.

But for the short-term upside, there’s also a long-term downside: if either side of the deal changes, the whole deal will need to be renegotiated, making it much harder to make any changes.  When Council Members Chris Riley, Bill Spelman, and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole introduced an ordinance to explore the possibility of lowering minimum parking and density requirements for microunits along VMU corridors, the major objection expressed at Council was not toward the idea of allowing greater density or less parking itself, but rather that it would gut the existing VMU deal of less parking in exchange for more Affordable Housing.  (Again, see link for definition of Affordable Housing.)  Lowering minimum parking regulations citywide would have an effect on existing deals involving VMU, TOD, bike lockers, car2go, and thousands of ad hoc deals in which landowners agree to waive some development rights in exchange for reduced parking requirements.  It would be a nightmarish negotiation.  Each deal creates an opportunity for lowering the minimum parking needed in one situation, but also creates a constituency opposed to a broad-based reduction.

I’m not sure how to handle this situation–most new deals that come up are tempting, as they offer greater flexibility to build something of a more appropriate density than base zoning allows.  Some of them (VMU, UNO, DDB) have positively transformed the city, allowing far more people to find homes.  Yet, I fear that the more layers of deals that get added, the more difficult it will be to unravel. Small decisions like lowering minimum parking regulations even 10% will be impossible to make because of the number of stakeholders involved in the negotiations.

Fortunately, I feel very excited that this was one of the primary diagnoses CodeNext made [large PDF] in their review of Austin’s current Land Development Code: base zoning districts are ineffective, leading to complicated layers of opt-in, opt-out regulations.  I hope that a good solution can come up with to unravel these deals and that any future deals are made with caution.  A well-meaning deal that advances two priorities in the short-term can lead to paralysis in the long-term.

What we talk about when we talk about affordable housing

One of the most confusing terms in Austin politics today is affordable housing. There are two very different definitions in use.

affordable housing

The first definition, which I tend to call affordable housing without using capital letters, is the plain meaning: a housing unit that doesn’t cost very much.  There are many reasons why some housing is less expensive than other housing. It might be smaller, older, lack amenities like pool access or parking or hardwood floors, be in a worse location (whether unpleasant or distant), or offer less privacy (e.g. shared rooms, shared apartments).  This doesn’t mean that these housing units are terrible by any means! But it does mean that the people who have top dollar would rather pay that top dollar to live in other units.

Affordable Housing

The second type of Affordable Housing, which I tend to spell with capitals, is legally-binding, and either mandated or subsidized. This comes in many flavors, but basic characteristics are:

  • It is mostly means-tested.  That is, they must prove that they have a low enough income to qualify.
  • It is legally bound to remain Affordable Housing for a period, often measured in decades.

There are various programs that create or require Affordable Housing in Austin.  Voters approved a bond to subsidize creation of Affordable Housing units. Some denser developments are required to set aside some of their units to be mandated, subsidized Affordable Housing, and others are allowed to buy their way out of this provision by paying taxes into a fund that subsidizes the creation of Affordable Housing units elsewhere.  There are niche housing developers who specialize in building Affordable Housing, such as the nonprofit Foundation Communities.

There are different types of Affordable Housing.  Permanent Supportive Housing is targeted at the chronically homeless, heavily subsidized (residents may pay rent of $50 per month or no rent at all), and comes paired with social services to help the residents get on their feet.  This housing feels more like a social service than a straight affordability program; it is tightly entwined with other social services and serves a population that otherwise may literally have no housing at all otherwise. On the other hand, a mandated Affordable Housing unit in a VMU development is at the opposite end of the scale. While it only serves people in the lower half of the income scale, it only serves people in a narrow band of that scale, because residents must both prove that they make little enough money to qualify for the program and enough money to pay their rent.  Rents on these units may be as high as $700 for a 1BR, well beyond what many of the neediest are able to pay.

When they conflict

There are some people who support both Affordable Housing and the broader movement towards more affordable housing through other means.  Pretty often, however, affordable housing and Affordable Housing actually come into conflict.  As mentioned above, one mechanism that pays for Affordable Housing is taxing the creation of new, dense development, like the Downtown Density Bonus (DDB) and the VMU affordability provisions. In the case of the DDB, a developer must pay fees if they want to build a taller building with more homes. In the case of VMU,  a developer must set aside units if they want to build less parking.  Parking is very expensive, whether it’s building garages or just dedicating land to surface lots, so accepting reduced rent on some units for decades may still be more profitable than being forced to build parking spaces. This sets up two different ways these programs for Affordable Housing cause conflicts between affordable housing and Affordable Housing:

Taxing Development Reduces The Number of New Homes

By focusing so much taxation on dense, new development, there are probably some projects that would get built or built larger if it weren’t for the tax. Note that this isn’t true for the Affordable Housing bond, which was funded by a broad-based property tax increase, but specifically for the development taxes like the DDB that target only new development. As I discussed before, one of the major reasons for the lack of affordable housing in Austin is that there just isn’t enough housing altogether. In a game of musical chairs, when there aren’t as many chairs as there are players, somebody ends up without a chair–or else sitting in somebody’s lap.  In a game of musical homes, players end up homeless, doubled up, or leaving the city altogether. Landlords and developers have freer rein to raise rents, knowing they will find somebody to pay, reducing the supply of affordable housing. Even if the new developments that would have been created would have been expensive housing, they help to create more slack in the rental market, removing the ability of landlords of cheaper places to raise their rents.

Giving development taxes to Affordable Housing providers creates constituency against allowing more development

There are many supporters of Affordable Housing in the city.  Providing a mechanism that allows some types of new housing to be created only if it they pay for Affordable Housing provides a strong reason for these supporters to oppose any measure that allows other types of housing unless it also creates Affordable Housing. It also provides a much stronger incentive for people to oppose lifting restrictions on building because the taxes that are raised by allowing developers to buy out of those restrictions are dedicated to a particular, organized constituency.

This has happened at City Council most recently in the discussion of a very positive development to allow the creation of more affordable housing.  The ordinance would allow developers to build more small housing units per building in some places than they previously could and also allows them to reduce one of the most expensive amenities housing can provide: a parking space for each unit. This measure encourages the creation of more affordable housing. Developers are always trying to balance the costs of building a unit against the potential rent they can charge (or price they can sell it for).  Some would opt for a high-cost, high-rent model, while others for a low-cost, low-rent model. What this ordinance does is allow some of the costs to be foregone (parking) and others spread out over more units (land), but only if the developer creates smaller, less desirable, more affordable units. This promotes affordable housing in two ways: directly, by encouraging developers to opt for a lower-cost, lower-rent model; and indirectly, by providing more homes overall for the game of musical chairs.

At Council, however, the biggest concern with the ordinance was that, by allowing developers to create affordable housing without requiring them to build parking spaces, the city would lose leverage over the developer to force them to create Affordable Housing. In other words, Affordable Housing advocates were afraid that if developers were allowed to build more affordable housing, they may not agree to build more Affordable Housing.


If that previous sentence–and this entire article–wasn’t confusing to you, you may have been involved in Austin politics too long.  I intentionally made it difficult to read, to help clarify just how crazy using the same words to refer to different concepts can be. There have been many proposals for terms that would help clarify this (e.g. “social housing” instead of “Affordable Housing”, “affordable housing” as a condition (affordability) of housing, and “Affordable Housing” as a housing product type). My plea to my readers is simply this: when talking about either, be clear which you are referring to. When listening to people talk about either, make sure they clarify which they are referring to. If somebody reports on the number of “Affordable” units in the city, make sure they are clear about whether they are counting only means-tested Affordable Housing units or all housing units that don’t cost that much.

And a special plea to the journalists and editors out there: please, please, develop a house style that brings clarity to this issue. When you use the words “affordable housing” to refer only to Affordable Housing (as, say, the Chronicle does here), you are doing your readers a grave disservice and confusing the issue.

What are the tax implications of reducing occupancy restrictions?

One of the talking points that came up repeatedly in the occupancy restriction debate in front of City Council is the fear on the part of many homeowners of being outbid.  Landlords in some neighborhoods can make more money renting to many unrelated people than to a single family.  Developers can make more money developing for landlords to rent to many unrelated people than developing for a traditional family. There is significant (property) value to a homeowner in having the right to rent a house out to unrelated people or the right to sell your home to another landlord who will, or to a developer who will remodel for renting.  Why then, would homeowners be lowering the value of their homes–for many people their most valuable asset–by collectively seeking to deny themselves this right?  Because they want to live in the homes, and, if they choose to live in them, they are not exercising that right anyway. (Put in kinder words: “We live here.  Our neighborhood isn’t just about profit.”)  They perceive that there is a positive amenity in living in a neighborhood with fewer unrelated people per home (“a family neighborhood”), so by denying their neighbors a right they weren’t going to use anyway, they are better off.

But property taxes are assessed not on the potential value of a home if it had all its development rights, but on the assessed value. By lowering the occupancy rates, the city is lowering the values on these properties, and therefore lowering the taxes assessed in these neighborhoods.  Note that this isn’t merely because new development would raise the values of the new homes, but also because the land the existing homes sit on would have greater value as a potential development site. I don’t mean to say that the reason why neighbors were up at City Council fighting against roommate houses was in order to lower their tax bill at the expense of all the other taxpayers in the city, but it certainly would be the effect if the ordinance were to pass.

But the occupancy restrictions are a relatively minor restriction compared to the simple fact of the single-family zoning prevalent throughout Central (and the rest of) Austin, the urban straightjacket, as Charlie Gardner calls it.  When the University Neighborhood Overlay (UNO) was created in West Campus allowing greater density, the property values of all properties jumped pretty much instantly, because the right to develop them was valuable, whether put in use or not.  By choosing to limit development on the interior of central city neighborhoods, residents in those neighborhoods are collectively waiving those development rights and choosing to lower their own taxes, at the expense of the rest of the city’s taxpayers.  The effect is also present in single-family zoned areas in outer Austin, but its much smaller there, because the right to develop in outer Austin is less valuable than the right to develop in central Austin.  If the whole of Austin were to upzone (i.e. allow more dense development) tomorrow, it would be central Austin that would see the most new development.

If you read the piece linked above, you know that I see the single-family zoning in the urban core as the central problem at the core of many of our problems, so my preference would be to upzone.  But in the absence of that, I believe that we should at least give neighborhoods the option of upzoning and assess taxes on the value they waive if they don’t take it up.

CodeNext and “community character” in a changing world

Austin is revamping its land development code (i.e. “zoning”) in a project known as CodeNext.  It would be difficult to overstate how important this process is.  As I have said, zoning really is the central problem in Austin, as in many other cities.  Circumstances change and when cities don’t adjust to the changing circumstances, you end up with policies that don’t match the problems that the city is facing.  In a city faced with too many people driving too far and too many people driving until they qualify because central city housing is so expensive, Austin’s tight restrictions on multifamily development in the central city are really a bad leftover from a previous century.

Community Character

CodeNext’s current round of public meetings is framed less on change, though, but more on maintaining continuity.  This is how they describe it in the email they sent:

CodeNEXT is an unprecedented opportunity for Austinites to shape the way we live now and for generations to come. To be effective in framing how land can be used throughout the city, a revised Land Development Code should consider the unique character found in different types of neighborhoods throughout Austin. That’s where you come in. [emphasis in original]

We’re inviting you to walk your own neighborhood and document the features that make it unique. What do homes in your community look like? Your streets? Businesses nearby? Anyone can do it and we’ll show you how!

Although the framing here hints at things other than maintaining physical infrastructure (types of businesses), the majority of this framing is built around the idea of the “character” of a neighborhood reflecting the physical infrastructure of buildings, and nothing more.  I believe this is a mistake.

People Change Even When Buildings Don’t

I believe the buildings-first perspective is a poor perspective from which to guide policy.  As Edward Glaeser wrote in his book Triumph of the City: “Cities aren’t strcutures; cities are people.”  In the places where central Austin’s physical infrastructure has stayed pretty much the same over the last few decades, the neighborhoods have changed in character greatly.  I have friends who bought starter homes in sketchy neighborhoods and now live in expensive homes in swanky neighborhoods, all without either moving or the buildings around them changing much. The difference is that more people want to live in that neighborhood now, driving prices up.

Supply, Demand, and Price

In any market, including the housing market, supply and demand together determine the price.  In the housing market, the supply are the homes, the demand is the number of people who want to live in those homes (and the amount those people are willing to pay).   As time goes by, more and more people want to live in Austin, through many processes: natural growth as people have children, those kids grow up and move out to places on their own; a lot of urbanization as people move from the rest of Texas to live in Austin, and some cross-country migration as people generally move from the Northeast to sunnier places in the South and Southwest.  That is to say, the demand for living in Austin has gone up dramatically, and is currently trending upward.

So, the question for “community character” is: which determines a community’s character more: the price of living there, or the present form of buildings.  Preserving the character of the supply of buildings in the face of new demand means allowing all the change to come in the form of swings in price, as has happened in many places in Austin. Preserving the character of housing prices (e.g. “a good place for starter homes”, “an affordable neighborhood”) in the face of rising demand means changing the supply dramatically.

When it comes my turn to participate in the CodeNext hearings, I will express my preference for preservation through change: preserve (and restore) household affordability by changing the character of zoning constraints on supply.


On Thursday night, City Council chose to endorse Project Connect doing a detailed study of an urban rail route running from somewhere along East Riverside to somewhere near Highland mall. At the same time, it declined to request a similar study of the East Riverside to North Lamar (via West Campus) alternative. As regular readers of this blog know, my analysis of the data led me to prefer the latter. But Thursday was the last opportunity for West Campus / Lamar’s inclusion in a November bond election. Going forward, I will be focusing on some of AURA’s remaining goals. Today, however, I’m going to look backward and do a little retrospective on things that stick out to me of the previous few months.

Emergence of a new (not “New”) urbanist community

The growing community of folks centered around AURA were often glossed as being “pro-transit” and the debate at Council as representing a “divide in the transit community.”  Pro-transit was a term AURA often used ourselves.  (I say “ourselves” as I am an executive committee member of AURA.)  But I think “pro-transit” has caused a lot of confusion.

An Urbanist Perspective

A better term for this community’s common perspective is urbanist. Not just any urbanism, either, but an urbanism influenced by ideas of market urbanism. This perspective takes on a long list of issues from liberalizing zoning to pricing parking to allowing short-term rentals to improving transit to allowing urban farms. Some of the same folks discussing urban rail were involved in issues like opposing rental registration, extended parking meter hours, or specific zoning cases like TacoPUD. The (market) urbanist perspective generally believes in light-touch city regulations. While urbanists believe there’s too much space around Austin dedicated to parking, the policy tool we reach for is not city regulations against parking, but removing city regulations that require building parking. While urbanists enjoy density, we don’t strive to prevent people from choosing to live in low-density suburban areas.  We object to zoning that requires central neighborhoods to remain at low densities, as well as regulations that subsidize suburban living over urban living.  Similarly, we tend to think that even in large parcels like the Mueller development, the city should have a lighter touch: lay out a connected street and utility grid and let the neighborhood develop organically instead of master planning a giant community down to minutiae of aesthetic decisions. This is a short, bad treatment of the variety of flavors of urbanism and I have perhaps done a disservice to the majority urbanist opinion on one or more of these issues. But The point I’m making here is that the thing that unites this community is not (merely) our shared love for riding transit, but our shared vision for the future of cities.

Urbanists on Transit

This urbanists’ community’s perspective on transit, while generally far more in favor of it than the average Austin resident, is much more complicated than simply “in favor.”  Urbanists tend to fall into Avon Levy’s technical camp, seeing poor-quality,  poorly-used, or poorly-managed transit as just as strong an obstacle to good transit as the general anti-transit political climate is.  To take my perceptions: I believe MetroRapid is a decent project that found federal money to make incremental improvements to all buses in Austin, even if its badly oversold and may have played a lamentable role in preventing what would’ve been a fantastic rail line on Lamar. On the other hand, I see MetroRail as an inefficient subsidy for suburban living, because Capital Metro spends so much more per suburban MetroRail passenger than it does per urban passenger, and additionally because the vast majority of the MetroRapid MetroRail operational budget is paid for by CapMetro, thus operating in a zero-sum, fixed-pie competition with funding for urban transit. This ties into the general urbanist idea that there’s nothing wrong with choosing to live in the suburbs, but it shouldn’t be so heavily subsidized. The point I’m making isn’t the particulars of the argument on particular lines; the point is that the urbanist community focuses as strongly on the quality of transit as it does on its existence.

Other pro-transit voices feel betrayed

At the Council meeting, I saw many pro-rail folks seem to feel betrayed by, as they saw it, the spectacle of supposedly “pro-transit” people announcing opposition to a transit line (the Highland proposal).  Many of the speakers in favor of the Highland proposal emphasized that they were disappointed in the route themselves, but they were team players who believed in transit, no matter where it goes.  A statement supporting rail no matter the route was relayed from the Austin chapter of the Congress for New Urbanism, and the sentiment is well-summarized in my friend Stephanie Myers’ column for the Austin Post.  The implication was that those who opposed the Highland route were not team players.  Outside Council chambers, the discussion was considerably more heated.  The word “selfish” was relayed to me as a description of those urbanists who oppose Highland, because we are demanding transit be on our terms alone.  A debate on Twitter emerged over whether, should the bond election fail in November, the primary blame for it should fall on AURA, for prolonging the debate over route choice.

Both sides need more communication on urbanists’ goals

But, to me at least, the criticism doesn’t sting very much. When somebody is playing a dangerous game of chicken, in which they pretend to oppose a route they actually support in order to force others to get behind the route they support even more, it’s possible to shame that person into backing down and agreeing to compromise on the first option.  But it’s much more difficult to shame somebody about signalling their true opposition to a plan they really do oppose.  That, I believe, is the case with the anti-Highland activists.  They (we) simply believe the Highland route is a negative for the city*, so we will oppose it. We don’t oppose the Highland route out of vindictiveness or disappointment, but simply because we believe its bad policy. No amount of telling people that they’re selfish or “hurting rail” will get people back on board for what they believe is bad policy.  Nobody is ashamed to be the reason a bad project failed.

I do feel bad, though, that AURA’s messaging seemed to have failed to get our position across, leading many people to feel misled.  When AURA said, for example, that it stood for a successful urban rail project, I always took that to mean that our goal was to see an urban rail project with high ridership at the center of a walkable, urban central Austin.  Although I still think that’s possible if we start on Riverside first, for many of those who spoke at Council, the possibility for a successful urban rail project died on Thursday.  Although it’s always dangerous to assume what others think, my impression is that others read AURA’s goal of having a “successful urban rail project” as meaning “passing a bond with money for rail.” Understandably, they feel misled when AURA supporters threaten to vote against a bond, as that would clearly violate what they believed we said we wanted.  I believe many would have been able to better anticipate AURA opposition to Highland if they had believed AURA to be a fiscal responsibility watchdog who would only support an urban rail project with anticipated subsidy / ride below $X.

AURA is not a “pro-Lamar group”

Similarly, I believe that many of the people in the Council chambers on Thursday believed AURA to be a “pro-Lamar” group in the same way that the speakers who lived in Mueller were “pro-Mueller” or that two of the other “anti” speakers (Scott Morris and Lyndon Henry) are.  While its true that many of AURA’s supporters came to the conclusion that Lamar would be a fantastic location for an urban rail route–some before and some after the release of public numbers–few of us live and work along that route.  Zero of AURA’s four executive committee members would take an East-Riverside-to-Lamar route as a commuter.  I am the only one who lives near the route, but I live downtown so I’m near all routes under consideration and I work to the west, not north.  I struggle to think of more than one non-student member who would be personally served by the route. We supported Lamar because of our belief in its success, rather than because that’s the neighborhood we represent. Despite the fact that inclusion of Lamar was one of AURA’s prime goals for this last Council meeting, we have other goals. I believe I actually heard more support for East Riverside from those signed up “against” the item than from those signed up for! AURA’s goals, stated plainly in the resolution linked above, include a lot of goals that have nothing to do with Lamar and instead focus on trying to make the route as successful (by our use of the term) as possible. I do hope that others who are working with us see those goals and work with us to accomplish them.

Urbanists need a new Organization

For urbanists, I think the real lesson to be learned here is that the time for building an urbanist advocacy organization in Austin is now, if not sooner. There may be far less confusion about the position of the Transit subgroup of #ATXUrbanists than there was about Austinites for Urban Rail Action.

What does “Data-Driven” mean?

The other big area of confusion in the last few days for me has been the issue of a “data-driven process”.  There is clearly a large gap between what I took this to mean and what many others involved in the process mean by the same words.  Neither AURA nor others fully defined what it means, but I’ll do my best to parse what I see the differences are.  My overall impression is that for AURA, data-driven was shorthand for “give enough data and analysis to let the public and decisionmakers make their own, informed conclusions.” For many others, I believe data-driven was shorthand for “make a decision in an unbiased way.

AURA, for example, from before the process even started, requested an iterative process from Project Connect, in which data and analysis were released at checkpoints in formats that the public could play with and draw their own conclusions.  This did not happen, at least not as I see it. An extensive dataset with West Campus and no-highway alternatives was in fact released in a format that allowed manipulation, but three weeks after Project Connect’s final recommendation was made and just one week before CCAG was to make its decision.  Even then, it took me hours to figure out how to bypass the copy locks on it and I never did manage to figure out how to copy their formulas, though they were not difficult to reverse-engineer and reproduce. Project Connect’s public website, in which they asked people to weight criteria indices themselves, did more to frustrate than inform. Rather than giving the public information about the data driving the decision and then letting them decide, Project Connect sought information from the public and then told them what outcome they should want.

I received some negative feedback for doing an independent analysis of the data. This is a criticism that makes perfect sense in the “data-driven = fair” mindset: the decision had already been made by the time I started my analysis.  As there was no evidence (in their mind) the decision was unfair, my decision to do independent analysis was evidence that I in fact was biased, and merely trying to come to my own pre-determined conclusion as sour grapes because my preferred route wasn’t chosen. In the “data-driven = let the public decide” mindset, this criticism is bizarre.  The whole point of having a data-driven process was to enable exactly this type of independent analysis. I was merely making good on the promise of being data-driven in the first place.

Similarly, I was surprised to hear many members of CCAG praise Project Connect heavily for the strength of their analysis immediately on receipt of the final recommendation. Not because I thought the analysis was poor, simply because I was still waiting for analysis to be presented. In the “data-driven = unbiased” mindset, the burden on the project team was to show that they really did take all routes seriously, and that their methodology wasn’t intentionally tilted toward a predetermined outcome. The sheer volume of numbers used showed that they really did apply their methodology to many different routes.

In the “data-driven = inform the public” mindset, though, the important thing is for the staff to prepare enough information that, even if they included no final score or recommendation, the decision-makers would be able to decide for themselves.  What route would be best for ridership?  What route would relieve the most congestion?  How much would they cost to build? These are factors that the project team did consider internally, but I do believe that my cursory 20-hour analysis of the data may have presented far more digestable information about how each route scores on the different metrics than Project Connect did in any report.  Project Connect did present alternative weighting scenarios. This fits with the idea of attempting to prove that their weightings were done in an unbiased way. However, I was less interested in divining a final score than in looking at each of the metrics to understand what the numbers meant for how the different subcorridors would differ on the ground.

Again, I think that this is an area AURA needs to be far clearer on. I’m not entirely clear what “data-driven” means in my own head beyond “I know it when I see it” and we have, for the most part, failed to articulate what the advantages of our flavor of the policy would be.

Going forward

I’m very excited for the future of this emerging urbanist community.  I have met many fantastic people both in, around, and completely outside the community through this process. The process has uncovered many of this community’s strengths: analytical skills (if I do say so myself), social media presence, and, most importantly, we struck a nerve with a large corps of folks who feel unserved by the current political process.  But it has also uncovered many of our weaknesses: we did a much better job of communicating to our supporters than to others in the process, let alone the general public. We lack a solid organization and all the perquisites that come with that. We lack much in the way of support in City Hall. Many of our supporters feel jaded or angry, something that I think comes from being both interested in city politics and feeling unrepresented. These are all things a new urbanist organization can improve on.

* I believe that I find myself more in favor of the Highland route than many of my fellow activists.  I share the opinion that it would simply be a terrible project as a first leg.  But I do believe that, for similar reasons as Levy discusses here, it could be cost-effective as an extension to a successful Riverside-UT line.

The Austin Precedent: Bus improvements block rail

The discussion on where Austin’s first urban rail route should run has switched tracks.  The Friday meeting of the mayor’s advisory group did not open with a discussion of the questions which have occupied this blog lately: which area of central Austin would best support an urban rail route (or vice-versa).  Instead, many advisory group members addressed emails from the public supporting studying a Lamar route by discussing what has been an elephant on the tracks: FTA funding for bus improvements.

Starting in January, Austin’s #1 bus route will see various improvements paid for by the FTA: longer buses, real-time information on bus location, wifi, longer spacing between stops.  Another bus route will see many of the same improvements a few months later.   As a frequent bus rider, I’m happy to see buses improve!  It’s a modest improvement–the buses will still get stuck in traffic through much of their routes.  But its benefits will not be limited to the #1 and #3 routes: the restricted-car lanes through downtown will eventually be used by most routes.  The heaviest costs of the real-time bus information system is setting up the system itself;  once the grant has paid for the upfront IT costs, Cap Metro will be able to expand it relatively inexpensively to the rest of the fleet.   Even the most expensive part of the system–the buses themselves–will save Cap Metro the cost of replacing the existing buses.  FTA is not funding *additional* buses along the #1 route, merely the routine cost of replacing buses, although the buses it’s replacing them with are nicer and more expensive than the buses Cap Metro would otherwise have bought.  Viewed this way, the FTA grant is less a massive upgrade to a couple of bus routes and more a clever way for the federal government to help pay for incremental improvements in Austin’s bus system, to be first deployed on Austin’s most popular bus route, the #1.

But was it too clever?  The argument at the mayor’s advisory group made was that FTA’s funding for these improvements would need to be paid back and reapplied for on a different route before the FTA would agree to upgrade a portion of the #1 bus to rail.  Furthermore, the FTA would not look kindly on Austin for applying for a larger, better rail project in an area they have already received funding and probably refuse to fund the rail.  Friend-of-the-blog Niran Babalola offers an interesting comment (via e-mail):

This example will be used around the country to demonstrate that investments in better buses push off rail for decades. This is counter to both the city of Austin’s interests (where MetroRapid in other corridors will probably be a good idea, but won’t be supported) and the FTA’s interests (who want cities to make bus investments until the money for rail appears, but will face more reluctance with this example).

So is it FTA policy that using FTA grants to improve your bus service endangers your ability to get funding for rail?  I don’t know; the most definitive piece of evidence on this question at the meeting was a sidebar conversation at a conference.  Julio believes this couldn’t possibly be right.   I hope an enterprising reporter can get the FTA to answer the question for us.  It’s a question with importance beyond Austin.

(In case it sounds like this is a novel worry; it’s not.  The furthest back I could find comment on this issue was Mike Dahmus’ blog posts from 2004, when the system was first proposed.)

How to measure “shaping”

Summary: To measure how much “shaping” a rail plan does, don’t look just at static 2030 projections.

In the latest Central Corridor Advisory Group meeting (video here), there was an interesting question of whether the most important numbers that Project Connect should use when evaluating potential rail routes are the data from 2010 or the CAMPO projections for 2030.  Kyle Keahey, Urban Rail Lead for Project Connect, framed this decision as “serving” existing populations or “shaping” land use patterns and future growth.

Serving and shaping are both valid but aims of a new rail plan, and each goal might be achieved to a different amount by different plans.  However, the way to measure them is not the 2010 data vs. the 2030 projections.  The 2030 projections are based on the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) model, which I do not believe included any provisions for rail.  Therefore the growth it projects, according to the model, is coming even if we don’t build rail.  Building toward that growth is still a mode of serving, just serving a future population, projected to exist even in a no-build scenario.

But these projections aren’t set in stone.  Areas might grow faster or slower than assumed or even lose population.  Sometimes, changes in projected growth can be for reasons that nobody anticipated: Seattle’s Eastside suburbs would probably never have grown so fast if it weren’t for the explosive growth companies like Microsoft experienced.  But often, the changes in growth are due to policy decisions.  West Campus, for example, experienced explosive growth when the UNO zoning plan came into existence, allowing growth to occur.  The East Riverside Corridor plan that City Council passed is similarly all about shaping the nature of future growth along that corridor.  The “CAMPO model” (PDF) doesn’t actually consist of one projection, but two: one based on a no-build scenario and one based on a “financially constrained” scenario.  By comparing projections based on each transportation plan, CAMPO is analyzing how each plan shapes the future.

If the Central Corridor Advisory Group is being asked to shape the future and not merely serve, it will need similar alternative projections.  There may not be time to perform as sophisticated an analysis as CAMPO does, but it at least needs to be aware what sorts of questions it’s trying to answer.  Questions like: if we put rail here, will that result in more people living there?  Working there?  Living there without cars?  The answers to these questions are difficult, but shying away from them or assuming answers because the questions are difficult is not a good way to make decisions.

After all, if we don’t believe that spending $500m on a rail system will change the projected future land use and transportation patterns of our city, we might as well save that money and not build it at all.  I think rail is one foundation for shaping the city and that’s why we’re pursuing this process.  But that means that, instead of merely chasing one static, no-rail projection of 2030, CCAG should be planning what 2030 will look like.

Rail alone can’t achieve that plan.  If a neighborhood is as built out as zoning allows it to be, then frequent, high quality rail service will not draw new residents, merely raise property values and make the area less affordable.  That is why I think it should be clear to residents that, if we are planning on building a rail line to your area, that will have to go hand-in-hand with reshaping your area to be amenable to rail, by including high-density zoning, high grid connectivity, and all the other elements that are necessary to make a rail line successful.

Edit: After I posted this, Jace Deloney took to twitter to make some excellent points about this post.  Read the storified version here.  One point he made was that we should look to serve places “that already have the sort of density & zoning that can support high transit service.”  I agree!  Sending rail to places where it is needed and that will make the best use of it is the right move!  I just want to point out that if you are going to try to shape a place with rail, you should use at least use measurements of shaping that make sense, and not static projections.

The point I was trying to, but failed to make in the final paragraph was not that sending rail to already-built places is wrong–indeed sending rail to already-built places is the best guarantee that by the time you build it, there will be people there–but rather, that your future growth projections should be in line with land use law.  If the law doesn’t allow for the kind of growth you are projecting, you are making projections not only about future consumer demand for living spaces, but also about what future City councils will pass.  Perhaps that makes sense for a private-sector forecaster, but for the City Council itself to pass the plan, the Council should either go ahead and pass the law that allows for that growth or it should not use that growth in its projections.

Participation versus Engagement: What could SpeakUp Austin be good for?

Tonight, some folks and I have a meeting with Matthew Hall, community manager at Granicus, the company that develops the software behind SpeakUpAustin, as well as Larry Schooler, the man who manages Austin’s installation.  I have earlier had some rather scathing comments about the role this software plays in preventing effective discussion, both on this blog and in a focus group led by a grad student at UNM investigating the site’s effectiveness.  I’m not the only one; the entirety of the focus group had rather sharply negative opinions about it.  I’m gathering my opinions here for the discussion tonight; I apologize if they’re a little scattered and I didn’t have time to organize them.

The basic criticism of the site at the focus group was that we didn’t know what it was for, or what happened, if anything, after an idea was submitted.  The model of participation seemed to be effectively a one-way street leading into a giant cloud of government, where the ideas would get lost along its way toward anybody who could do anything about it.

For better or worse, governance in Austin is complicated.  There are 61 Boards and Commissions listed on Austin’s webpage and that doesn’t seem to include (at least some) subcommittees like the Bicycle Advisory Committee.  Any given idea might need to be vetted by multiple Boards.  Some ideas can be implemented by staff, some require City Council action, many should be vetted by Boards and Commissions prior to reaching City Council.  Many ideas require intergovernmental cooperation with Capital Metro, Travis County, ACC, AISD, or other local government structures.  Trying to set up a single webpage to do an endrun around this governance is worse than doing nothing, because it leaves users with the false belief that all it takes to make change is leave an idea on a website.  It would be a fantastic goal for government to become responsive to give ideas, but pretending that it is so doesn’t make it so.

Instead, Speak Up Austin should position itself not as an alternative to the complications of government, but as a navigator.   It should partner with the existing governance structures–and importantly, not just staff agencies–to feed them ideas.  If the idea is something that 311 already handles, alert the person leaving the idea to that, mark it as handled, and stop letting users vote on it.  If the idea should be put before a board, tell the user when the next board meeting is and to bring it there.  If the quantity of ideas is too great for a given board, commission, agency, or other structure, limit the number of ideas to the top 2 (or 3, or 10, etc.) vote-getters per month and mark the rest as expired.  Importantly, if an idea doesn’t have a partner structure to which it can be fed: alert the idea-leaver and tell them they have to make their own way in figuring out how it’s implemented.

A placebo change site will not only fail to get people involved, it will prevent getting people involved and sour them from the whole process.