By Jonathan Lee
Since the pandemic began, most Austinites have felt the effects of increased rent, higher property taxes, or home prices growing increasingly out of reach. With rising costs forcing people out of their neighborhoods (or out of the city entirely), candidates hoping to become Austin’s next mayor in November agree that something has to be done – and with urgency.
Here, we’ll break down how mayoral candidates Celia Israel, Kirk Watson and Jennifer Virden say they’ll make housing more affordable.
While housing affordability has been a salient issue for many years, the problem has only recently become a top priority for candidates for local office. Watson and Israel told the Austin Monitor that affordability is the biggest challenge facing the city – in line with what respondents said in the recent Notley/Monitor Poll.
“I think affordability and cost of living in Austin right now is the number-one issue, and the biggest part of that is the expense of housing,” Watson said, calling the situation an “emergency.”
“It’s an emergency from the standpoint of pure need, and it’s an emergency from the standpoint of it’s something we can’t waste time on.” Watson released his housing platform on July 21 and a broader affordability platform early last week.
Watson stressed that his plan will “get us out of the old fights that have been an all-or-nothing, winner-take all, zero-sum-game fight for the last decade.” The plan details six strategies as well as 10 other policies that will “make it easier and cheaper to bring new housing online while protecting our existing neighborhoods and environment.”
Israel called Austin’s housing predicament a “crisis.” When she launched her six-step Home for All platform in May, she said, “This election is about who can afford to live here and who gets to decide.”
For Israel, rising housing costs are personal; her rent increased $300 this past year. “I didn’t need to do a poll to tell me that this was the number-one issue and that people are hurting,” she said.
Jennifer Virden, who works in building and real estate, told the Monitor in an email that housing affordability is “a major challenge” that is exacerbated by city policies.
In Virden’s housing platform, released in February, she wrote, “The different stakeholders must realize by now that an ‘all-or-nothing’ approach hasn’t worked, and that we must all work together to cut a path of compromise.”
All three candidates say the city’s slow and expensive permitting process needs an overhaul.
Watson suggests an immediate audit conducted by experts, with a goal of implementing the audit’s recommendations within nine months of taking office – an ambitious timeline by City Hall standards. Watson also wants to temporarily cut permitting fees in half and create a new type of site plan for “simple projects that need less oversight.”
Similarly, Israel suggested creating a “site-plan light” option to speed up approval of projects with six to 12 units. She also proposes allowing three- and four-unit projects – anything “house scale” – to participate in relatively short residential review, which currently applies to single-family homes and duplexes. Another solution to long review times is the creation of a “development ombudsman” in charge of streamlining development review.
Virden proposed similar changes. She said fees should correlate to the size of a project and that all development permits should be housed in one department instead of many separate departments with competing priorities.
The city’s permitting process has come under fire from builders for being too expensive and time consuming. A recent report shows that fees for multifamily residential development are higher in Austin than any other city in Texas. While the city has known about the flaws of the process for years – a scathing several-hundred-page audit came out in 2015 – builders say not much has improved.
In the first moment of confrontation in the mayoral race, Israel attacked a proposal by Watson to encourage zoning changes at the City Council-district scale.
Watson’s plan would allow individual Council members to propose land use changes that would just apply in their district, an approach Israel attacked as “a return to redlining” that would allow wealthier Council districts to avoid change.
Watson clarified his proposal in an email to supporters, saying no Council member would be able to unilaterally veto or adopt zoning changes in their district and that all districts should adopt some reforms.
“The criticism is all premised on the idea that somehow somebody gets a veto,” Watson said. “That’s not in there.” He explained that the approach could be a way to break the gridlock that mired the effort to rewrite the entire land development code.
“I think it’s a sign of leadership that you try out new ideas, especially when you’ve had a decade that it hadn’t worked,” Watson said.
For her part, Israel said her criticism still stands. “If you can read that walked-back explanation and see anything different, I welcome that,” she said.
While nothing is stopping current Council members from suggesting zoning changes just for their district, no member has done so.
Watson also proposes rewarding Council districts that adopt pro-housing reform. While the details still need ironing out, the basic idea is to redirect some of the increased property tax revenue from new development to fund district-level priorities like parks, displacement prevention or rental assistance.
Virden advocated for small area plans as well, though not necessarily at the Council-district scale. “Tackling zoning map changes at a smaller scale with small area plans has a better chance of being done well,” as opposed to a citywide rewrite, she said.
Israel said she hopes the opportunity will arise to finally rewrite the entire land development code. “We’re in a different political time now where we can recognize the crisis, come together and be proud of our city instead of wringing our hands over what we cannot achieve,” she said. “I refuse to accept that the status quo is part of our future.”
Both Watson and Israel support increasing density along major streets and transit corridors, as well as making accessory dwelling units easier to build.
Israel also supports allowing more “missing middle” housing. The term refers to types of buildings between single-family homes and large apartment buildings that zoning typically doesn’t allow or incentivize. Watson’s platform does not mention missing middle housing.
Following court rulings affirming the right of property owners to petition large-scale zoning changes, both Israel and Watson say they support passing land use changes with less than a supermajority – unless a valid petition is present. City Council has been wary of passing such zoning changes without a supermajority for fear of legal action. Virden said she respects the court rulings.
Compatibility and parking requirements
Minimum parking requirements and compatibility, a rule that limits the height of buildings within 540 feet of single-family homes, have been top of mind recently. In June, Council resolved to relax the rules for properties along transit corridors. Compatibility in effect prevents multifamily housing on many properties along major streets, where Council agrees dense housing should go. Housing advocates and developers say parking requirements are another barrier to making housing cheaper and easier to build.
Virden, Watson and Israel all support reducing parking and compatibility requirements. Watson suggests “reducing compatibility and reducing or eliminating parking requirements in targeted areas,” though he did not say exactly where and by how much.
Virden proposes a compatibility compromise similar to what Council has discussed. She also supports reducing parking requirements for single-family homes and buildings within an eighth of a mile of public transit.
Israel supports reducing parking requirements everywhere, which she said would allow for “improved response to the market” and “more housing space on certain lots.” Israel said she has publicly backed compatibility reforms sponsored by Council Member Chito Vela.
Housing on publicly owned land
Israel’s and Watson’s platforms emphasize another idea that has been kicked around for years though not quite acted upon in earnest: building affordable housing on publicly owned land.
Watson proposes creating a Central Texas Housing Partnership in which public entities would plan for housing on the land they own, as well as finding other solutions to a housing crisis that extends beyond Austin’s city limits. Watson also proposes turning part of Walter E. Long Park into a dense, mixed-use community similar to Mueller.
Israel said “we should be doing public good with public land” – but without Council’s penchant for delay. “(Council) will study and analyze something to death,” she said, pointing to the proposed affordable housing project on former Austin Energy property at 6909 Ryan Drive. “The city has been thinking about housing there for over 12 damn years. I think that’s a sin. It’s especially a sin now that people are hurting.”
Watson agrees it shouldn’t take years to decide what to do with city-owned property. “We can’t let the fact that we have thought about some of these things for 10 years create the impression we can’t get this done,” he said.
Whether you’re making the switch out of a gas-powered car or thinking of adding another EV into the mix, tax credits could go away for your desired car.
The climate-health-tax package could become law soon. And while Democrats had aimed to expand consumer tax credits for battery-powered vehicles Sen. Joe Manchin called for some supply chain requirements in order to go along with the broader bill.
The Alliance for Automotive Innovation estimates that’ll cut vehicles eligible for the credits from 72 to 25. Brands eligible for a tax credit include BMW, Ford and Rivian. As Electrek reports, sales can push manufacturers over the predetermined threshold of qualified sales, and Tesla is part of that group.
For some EV owners, however, this incentive wasn’t an influence on their decision anyway.
Anuarbek Imanbaev, VP of the Tesla Owners Club Austin, said the credit played very little role in his decision to get a Tesla.
He views his first Tesla as a more luxurious type of purchase that’s a different approach than what other car shoppers have.
“That's a different segment,” Imanbaev said. “I think in that segment, it was nice to have, but it wasn't anything that affected whether I would buy the vehicle or not.”
Still, Imanbaev thinks for those shopping for vehicles up to about $65,000, the tax credit could increase demand.
Reginald Collins, a sales professional at Onion Creek Volkswagen, has talked to the clients who weigh cost more when buying a vehicle and he said the tax credit is a “huge deal.”
“On top of the fact that you're not paying for any gas. And you're saving Earth, it's not a combustion vehicle,” Collins said, referring to Volkswagen’s ID.4 that people can buy with a $7,500 tax credit.
What’s its appeal over a Tesla or other electric vehicles?
“Just the flexibility of it, it's much less expensive,” Collins said.
And while EVs require some wait—Collins estimates the ID.4 taking about 8 to 10 months— he also said that the plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee is making for faster production.
“If you need parts, you can order them from the states instead of ordering them in Germany,” Collins said. “So if you have customer issues they can get parts quicker.”
So if you’re trying to get a deal on an EV, you may need to act quickly. The Senate sent the plan, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, to the House earlier this week meaning it could be headed to President Biden’s desk soon.
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A chain of plant-based restaurants and wellness centers is getting its start in Austin.
Following time in executive-level positions with Austin-started Whole Foods Market, Betsy Foster, former senior vice president, retiring co-founder and CEO John Mackey and former Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb are onto their next project: a startup called Healthy America LLC.
The venture raised $31 million from investors earlier this year to create a national network of wellness centers and vegetarian restaurants.
Bloomberg reported on a now-closed job posting for Healthy America, which described it as “an evidence-based lifestyle company, leading the convergence of culinary, healthcare, and wellness.”
The posting mentions an aim to “meaningfully transform the health and wellbeing of individuals.” Aside from food, educational, fitness and spa services may also be offered.Incorporated in 2020, Healthy America seems to be at an office near 38th Street and Lamar Boulevard, the Austin Business Journal reports.
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