Austin could finally get its own congressional district, and popular Dem Lloyd Doggett is ready to run for it
Austin is the largest U.S. city without a congressional district anchored in it. But this could change when the Texas Legislature reconvenes later this year for the decennial redistricting process.
The partisan process is controlled by state Republican lawmakers. Last time around, they "cracked" the city of Austin into six districts—represented by five Republicans and one Democrat—in an effort to dilute its political influence. But they may consider a new strategy this year: "packing" Democratic voters into one Austin district, to the same effect.
During the 2011 redistricting process, the city of Austin was split up across six congressional districts.
(City of Austin)
Local political strategists and redistricting experts say consolidating Austin's overwhelmingly liberal voters into one district would help minimize their influence elsewhere. "It's a little bit of an insurance policy for Republicans," said Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.
An anchor in Austin
An Austin anchor district—one that represents a majority of the city's residents—could fall in the vanishingly thin intersection of a Venn diagram with two circles: state Republicans' interests and local Democrats' interests. "It's a coincidence, but one that works for both parties equally well," said Bill Miller, a local political fixer who has worked on both sides of the aisle.
Austin's rapid population growth and the bluing of its outlying suburbs have made it increasingly difficult for some Republican incumbents to hold onto their seats. National Democrats targeted four Republican U.S. House districts that represented Austin last November, driving up election costs and narrowing margins. "I think it's likely, to the extent that some of those (incumbents) are in conversation, they would love to hand over Central Austin to a Democratic congressman," local GOP strategist Brendan Steinhauser said.
Local Democrats would also benefit from such a district. The city would gain a dedicated representative in Washington, one who could fight for its interests, such as funding for Project Connect or the University of Texas at Austin. "(U.S. Rep. Lloyd) Doggett (D-Austin) can help his community more effectively when his interests are consolidated," Miller said. "So it helps the community immeasurably."
Six members of the U.S. House represent Austinites.
(U.S. House of Representatives)
Travis County GOP Chairperson Matt Mackowiak and former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire have also speculated that such a district would attract new progressive challengers, such as District 4 Council Member Greg Casar, in 2022.
A spokesperson for Casar said their comments seem premature since the districts have not yet been drawn.
Casar will primary Doggett and this is the evidence that it’s his plan. https://t.co/VQ0Z9QUnv0— Matt Mackowiak (@MattMackowiak) June 7, 2021
If Travis County gets its own US House seat, would @GregCasar run against @LloydDoggettTX ? Couldn’t he openly run as the Democratic Socialist he claims to be & win the Dem nomination? After all Sanders, Warren, Gabbard got 60% in 2020. 1/2https://t.co/xGUSWgvrCV— Bill Aleshire (@AleshireLaw) June 7, 2021
Others think it's unlikely the two progressives face off. Steinhauser pointed to Casar's record on homelessness. The council member led the charge to overturn the city's public camping ban in 2019; voters reinstated it in May after a campaign led by Save Austin Now, which Mackowiak co-founded. "I would be highly skeptical that Casar runs," he said.
Miller was more blunt. "No one's going to beat Doggett," he said. "Doggett's there for life, or as long as he wants to be there."
And Dogget wants to be there. "Whatever crooked lines they impose next, I am running in whichever district best reflects our progressive values and offers a realistic opportunity to seek justice both for our neighbors and our country in Washington," he said in a statement to Austonia.
A new district?
When state lawmakers return to the Capitol, they will also be tasked with adding two new districts as a result of population growth, especially among residents of color. Local political strategists expect state Republican lawmakers will add seats where it most advantages their party—so likely outside of Central Texas.
"I think the Republicans will be ruthless in gaining the maximum advantage that they can," said Matt Angle, a Democratic political strategist and founder of the Lone Star Project PAC.
The new maps will not only shape the 2022 state and federal elections but also those in 2024, 2026, 2028 and 2030. "It's high-stakes poker when it comes time to gerrymander Texas," Li said.
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By Cecilia Lenzen
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s lead over Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke narrowed to 6 points last month, according to a poll conducted by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. That’s a smaller gap than when Republican George W. Bush ousted Democrat Ann Richards in 1994 with a 7.6-point win.
Abbott’s unfavorability ratings are also the highest they’ve ever been at 44%, according to the poll, which was conducted after the deadliest school shooting in state history and almost entirely before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion.
Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project, said the mass shooting in Uvalde and scrutiny over how it was handled could have contributed to Abbott’s increased unfavorability, but it’s hard to say how much exactly.
The political poll did not include specific questions related to the shooting in Uvalde, but it did ask participants to rate Abbott’s performance on handling gun violence. About 36% of participants said they approve of how the governor has handled this issue, while 45% said they disapprove.
The mass shooting in Uvalde and the overturning of Roe v. Wade have laid the groundwork for a contentious final four months in the race to lead the state. While O’Rourke works to harness the anti-incumbent energy spurred by the seismic events of the past few months, Abbott is banking on a general election centered on stronger issues for him: the economy and the border.
Mounting expectations over how the Supreme Court would rule on abortion access could be another factor that contributed to Abbott’s weakened ratings, Henson said. Although the poll ended the same day Roe v. Wade was overturned, it included questions about abortion access that show how voters feel regarding the issue. About 36% of participants said they approve of how Abbott has handled policies related to abortion access, and 46% said they disapprove.
Now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned and Texas is poised to completely outlaw abortion access, it will likely be a pivotal topic in the upcoming months, Henson said.
“If we look back at the half dozen times we’ve asked the standard abortion questions since 2014, no more than a quarter of Republicans have ever said that by law abortion should never be permitted,” he said.
Voters will see that reality reflected in how Abbott and O’Rourke discuss abortion access in the upcoming months, he said.
“In terms of that affecting the election, we can expect Democratic candidates to talk about this a lot, and we can expect Republican candidates to not want to talk about it very much,” Henson said.
Despite the ratings, Abbott carries most of the advantages in the race: His campaign is well funded for a midterm election that is expected to favor Republicans across the country. The governor’s allies argue that voters are more worried about skyrocketing inflation and illegal immigration — and that O’Rourke cannot separate himself from President Joe Biden, who is very unpopular in Texas.
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Add drastically higher development fees onto your list of things that make buying a house in Austin so expensive.
A Texas A&M University Real Estate Research Center study found that Austin’s per-unit fees on new development were 187% higher than Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth and San Antonio. The suburbs aren’t much cheaper as per-unit development fees in Austin are still 127% higher.
According to ABoR CEO Emily Chenevert, high development fees charged by the city are cause for concern around solving the city’s ongoing housing crisis.
“This report confirms what those in the real estate community have known for a long time,” Chenevert said. “Development fees are drastically higher in Austin than most other cities in Central Texas and major metro areas in Texas. This is a huge barrier to building homes and a significant concern considering we are in a housing supply crisis across the region.”
A closer look
The report found that in the Austin-Round Rock metro a suburban unit was charged 80.4% or about $8,000 more than the other five largest metros in Texas. Similarly, infill units—new housing in already developed areas—cost 186.8% more in Austin than on average for Texas.
Those numbers make up 3.4% of the 2021 median housing price of $536,331 per suburban unit, or 7.7% per infill development unit.
What does that mean for buyers?
Steep fees drive up the cost for residents and can have a big impact on first-time buyers. The average Austinite earning the median household income in 2019—$54,871—would be able to afford a $204,556 home loan, of which development fees would make up about 20%, according to the study.
The Austin-Round Rock median house price hasn’t been $205,000 since February 2013, which is less than half of the median price in 2021. Austin-area housing has increased 22%, about $100,000, since the study was conducted.
“These findings, although disconcerting, are unsurprising,” Home Builders Association of Greater Austin CEO Taylor Jackson said. “We need to course correct on how the city of Austin handles home building and time is of the essence.”
Should renters be concerned?
Managing editor for Rent.com Brian Carberry said the renter market tends to follow the housing market, albeit on a few months' delay. Carberry said not only did Austin have less apartment inventory in May 2022 than it did in May 2021, but most new complexes are being built in high-demand areas, meaning people are still being priced out.
“A lot of that is just due to there's just so much demand for apartments and the housing market does play into that a little bit because people are being priced out,” Carberry said. “Your younger millennials, older Gen Z looking for their first homes are in a position where they're unable to afford something because the price has gone up so high and now mortgage rates are so high, it's just not a sustainable option for them right now.”
Is there a solution?
In the study, the Austin Board of Realtors and the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin included joint recommendations for local policymakers:
- Increase transparency in development fees, as a lack of information limits the ability to understand the full impact of the fees.
- Implement development process improvements, including reviewing fee structure, setting goals for housing approval and adopting successful models from similarly-sized cities.
- Right-size development fees, which will become critical as Austin’s urban population grows and infill development increases.
“The National Association of Home Builders 2022 Priced Out Index reports that for every $1,000 increase in the price of a home, whether it be from market forces or development fees, 791 households are priced out of the Austin-Round Rock MSA,” Jackson said. “We urge Austin’s leadership to act and act now or we risk becoming a wholly unaffordable city to build or buy a home in.”